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Levy soon returned, and with good news for Sharon: A Canadian golfer, one of the top competitors, was injured and had withdrawn from the tournament.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.”
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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