Israel’s Blind Golf Star
After losing his eyesight serving in the Israeli Army, Zohar Sharon won the world championship for blind golf
Every two years, Zohar Sharon shows up to his own, private battlefield: the
world championship for blind golfers. He can’t see his opponents. He can’t see the neatly manicured greens. All he knows is that there’s a club, there’s a ball, there’s a hole, and, most important, there’s Shimshon Levy, his caddie. And Zohar Sharon knows one more thing: He needs to win. There’s no other option. There never was.
Sharon first won the world championship for blind men’s golf six years ago. Then he won it again, and again—four times to be exact. This past year, he spent hours training on Israel’s two golf courses, determined to defend his 2010 title in this year’s championship at Nova Scotia, Canada. But on the first day of the July tournament, he delivered the worst game of his career, shooting a 118. By the late afternoon, he had convinced himself it was all over.
“Take me away from here,” he told Levy, his caddie and longtime friend. “I can’t stay on this course any longer.” But Levy wasn’t there; he’d gone to shake the hands of the other players. Sharon had no way of knowing it. He stood on the green, waving his arms, eager to leave. “With a score like this,” he told me, “I should be sent to bed without supper.”
But Levy soon returned, and with good news for Sharon: A Canadian golfer, one of the top competitors, was injured and had withdrawn from the tournament. The Italian, his other competition, was only four points ahead of Sharon, the lone Israeli at the tournament.
“Then everything is still in play!” Sharon shouted. “Tomorrow, I’m going to kick his ass. Shimshon, go get me 50 balls. We’re going to practice. I’m going to make spaghetti out of [him] and eat him up alive.”
Early on in his military service in the IDF, in the early 1970s, Sharon was assigned as a security guard protecting Israel’s nuclear reactor in the southern Negev desert. He says that he was accidentally exposed to a poisonous chemical, which slowly ate away at his eyesight. Sharon did his best to resist, training hard and becoming an officer, but his ailment did not abate. By the time the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, Sharon could only see out of one eye.
When he was finally discharged from service after the war, in his mid-20s, Sharon’s world was constricted to the surroundings he could grope with his hands. Dismayed and depressed, he had to find a way to live with his condition.
“You won’t believe how convenient it is to dive into your own depression,” he said, “to get high off your own stench. But I decided not to give my enemies the satisfaction of watching me break. I decided I can do everything except for drive a car and fly a plane.”
True to his new-found conviction, Sharon became a painter. He started running 12 miles every day. He eventually joined Israel’s goalball team and played in the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta. He got married, had two kids, got a divorce, got married again, got another divorce, and married for a third time. But he was perpetually restless. He kept looking for that one big thing, his true calling—and he found it in the least expected place.
“Golf was my divorce gift,” Sharon said while we sat at Subway after the tournament. “Usually, you get a wedding gift. But my reward came after my second divorce. I stopped by the office of my ex-wife’s lawyer to sign some papers. Rather than yell at each other, we became buddies. At some point, he asked me if I’ve ever played golf. I never had. He took a shoe box he had lying around, punched a hole in it, and got a club and a ball from the trunk of his car. It was the first time I’ve ever held a golf club, but every shot I took got in. I said to myself, ‘I should give this sport a try.’ ”
Levy, the caddie, remembers Sharon’s early days as a golfer. The two trained on the course in Caesarea, which is impeccably well-kept. “The gardeners there spent all day with lawnmowers making everything smooth,” Levy said, “and we would show up every morning and ruin it for them by mainly hitting the grass. If Zohar finally did hit the ball, he hit it so hard it flew out of bounds. I spent entire days just walking around looking for balls. I told him to give it up and look for a different sport, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Every evening he was totally bummed out, and every morning he came right back, determined … and then he started getting better.”
“People thought we were aliens,” Sharon remembers. “We were two Yemenites playing on the rich people’s course, one telling the other how to hit the ball even though he didn’t even know what golf was until two minutes ago, and the other listening closely and then picking up a club and hitting the lawn hard. It sounds like a dumb joke, and we really were a dumb joke, until we got better. When we first met, I told Shimshon, ‘give me 10 years of practice, and I’ll be the champion of the world.’ It ended up happening in half that time.”
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