Israel’s Blind Golf Star
After losing his eyesight serving in the Israeli Army, Zohar Sharon won the world championship for blind golf
Sharon was 52 years old when he first won the world championship in 2004. The key to Sharon’s success is the system he’d developed with Levy. The two hold hands and walk slowly towards the hole, which allows Sharon to gauge the distance. Levy, who is not allowed to touch the golf ball, directs Sharon as he tees up. Then Sharon swings and hits the ball, and Levy tells him where it landed and what to do next. Levy selects the right club, describes the course, hands it over to Sharon, and Sharon strikes.
“My neurologist says it’s like a computer with an external hard drive,” Sharon said. “We have an absolute connection, it’s like two brains coming together as one. It’s the wildest kind of relationship two men can have. We’re just like a married couple, only without the sex.” He paused for a few seconds, and then added, smiling mischievously, “Shimshon wants it, but I don’t.”
Sharon receives a generous stipend from an organization that supports wounded IDF soldiers, but competing internationally is an increasingly daunting proposition. He’s 60 years old, blind, hearing impaired, with a host of neurological problems that make long flights a serious health risk. When Sharon told his doctors that he wanted to fly and compete at Nova Scotia, they tried to dissuade him. Sharon insisted, and was finally allowed to fly—along with a large bag full of painkillers.
But his health wasn’t the only hurdle Sharon faced. Since he had won his first tournament in 2004, a handful of new members joined the International Blind Golf Association, the body that governs professional blind golf. Many of these newcomers were former golf pros who went blind as they got older. With more formidable competition, and his own health declining, Sharon was seriously concerned about his chances of winning another championship.
None of his anxiety, however, showed when he finally arrived in Canada on July 7. The tournament was preceded by a host of gala dinners; Sharon didn’t bother showing up to most of them. When he did show up, he sat at his table with headphones on, listening to music. This behavior has a lot to do with his terrible hearing, which makes conversations difficult, and a lot to do with his personality, which turns most interactions into confrontations. It also has to do with his very poor English.
“Are you married?” asked one of the event’s organizers, stopping by Sharon’s table for a chat.
“Yes,” he said. “Third time, ice cream.”
It was a poorly translated bit of Israeli slang, and it left his conversationalist without much to say. She asked Sharon a few more questions, and he launched into an extensive joke, trying to convince the organizer that he had bought his wife for two chickens and a lamb. The organizer smiled politely and quickly moved on to another table.
Sharon was no more respectful of etiquette on the golf course. It is customary for players to shake hands before a match, as well as after, and congratulate each other on their finer shots during the round. When his Italian and Canadian competitors came by to shake Sharon’s hand, he answered them in Hebrew. The only time he said “nice shot” was when the Italian struck his ball into the lake.
Needless to say, this behavior didn’t make Sharon popular. His competitors complained about unsportsmanlike conduct. If that wasn’t enough, Sharon fainted in the heat of the first day. When he came back to his senses, he stood up, poured water on himself, and insisted that he was fine to play on. He played horribly, his worst round in five years. That night, at the hotel, Levy read a few verses of Psalms out loud for good luck.
The next morning was rough. Sharon, feeling weak, doubled over and vomited on the fairway on the 11th hole. Like the day before, he got up, doused himself with water, and played on. He was focused, and his game was vastly improved: He shot a 98, an impressive 20 strokes less than the previous day. But he still had to wait until the other players had finished to know who had won. “Today, you played like a champion,” Levy told him before they received the final results, fairly confident that the Italian golfer wouldn’t have a better score.
Finally, the good news arrived: Sharon had won the championship.
Someone suggested that he shake the Italian player’s hand, and Sharon, surprisingly, agreed. Approaching his rival, he tried to place his arm around the Italian’s shoulder, but, instead, hit him in the face. The Italian started shouting and demanded that Sharon not touch him.
“OK,” Sharon said. “We’re done here. Now we can go and celebrate in the real place.” The real place, in this case, was Subway, Sharon’s favorite restaurant chain. As he ate his chicken teriyaki sandwich, the champion had one last confession.
“The truth is, I’m a very lonely guy. Golf is a remedy for loneliness,” he said in between bites. “I just won this championship, I’ve had a few moments of fun and congratulatory phone calls from home, but now I’m already feeling the pressure to win the next tournament. I’m going back home, getting a few necessary medical treatments, and then it’s back to training. It’s survival. Winning isn’t the point. It’s just five minutes of orgasm separating one darkness from another. But it’s the only way I know.”
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