Out of Sight!
by Judd Handler
After being blinded in a chemical accident in the Israeli
army, Zohar Sharon’s life fell apart. But picking up a golf club
changed his life. He is now one of the best blind golfers in the world.
Find out how Zohar mastered the world’s most difficult game –
without ever seeing a course.
Did you hear the one about the blind Israeli golfer who walks
into a bar? This may sound like the beginning of a bad joke, but it’s
reality. Zohar Sharon, winner of the 2003 World Invitational blind golf
tournament in Scotland, takes a window seat at a restaurant and pub inside
Morgan Run, a posh golf club and resort in North County’s Fairbanks
Sharon sits by the window of the clubhouse sipping coffee with
a huge grin on his face, even though he’s just finished playing
one of the most grueling rounds of golf a player could experience, with
sight or without.
It’s the end of a dreary mid-winter Tuesday. Only on a handful
of days a year does San Diego experience weather more mindful of Oregon
than SoCal. This is one of those days. For the last three hours, Sharon
and his entourage braved bone-chilling dampness and stinging frequent
Flash back 25 years. While on an army demolitions detail,
Sharon lost sight in his right eye after a chemical substance was accidentally
sprayed in his face. Three years later, he lost his remaining sight forever
while driving with his first wife, who had to take the wheel when Sharon’s
left eye rapidly filled with blood. Severe depression, and eventually
divorce from his wife, followed.
But now he’s a successful golfer and an accomplished
painter and sculptor who has exhibited his works in galleries and exhibitions.
After he went blind, he also became a trained physiotherapist. He never
golfed before going blind. He’s only been serious about the game
for three years. Now, he wins golf tournaments playing against people
He claims to regularly hit 100, but that’s a bit of
an exaggeration – his handicap at the Scottish World Invitational
was 37, good for an average round of 109. He won his category (B1, for
completely blind) at the Tournament by 20 strokes; he would have been
first even without his handicap. Next up? The World Blind Golf Championships
in Melbourne, Australia, in April.
Sharon lives near downtown Tel Aviv and is 51. If he could
see, he’d take in the view of Morgan Run’s first few holes,
darkening at dusk under ominous looking cumulonimbus clouds. Benign puffy
white clouds retreat northwestward, running away from a jagged squall
line, signaling the arrival of a cold front that sends San Diegans seeking
shelter and causing rush-hour traffic to come to a hyper-defensive stand-still.
Sharon’s golden-brown skin tone reveals his Yemeni
ethnicity. With his receding hairline, athletic figure and barking intensity,
Sharon possesses the type A personality of an Israeli colonel (he actually
served five years as an officer in the army, after his compulsory three-year
stint.). You can’t tell he’s blind. He’s not wearing
dark sunglasses and his eyes aren’t an eerie void of translucent
glassiness; they are a solid brown that often have an uncanny ability
to pierce deeply through the eyes of the person he’s talking to,
as if he could see their soul.
Sharon, who is one of an estimated 100 competitive blind
golfers worldwide, doesn’t speak English well, not since he went
blind. He says he sometimes experiences flashes where he’ll recall
some English words.
Sitting at the table to Sharon’s left at the clubhouse
are a father and son tandem, Rafael and Jorge Mareyna, both Mexican Jews
who until the last decade lived in Mexico City. They are Sharon’s
friendly competition for the day. Also seated is a Canadian Jew, Nitsan
Watkin, who for the next week will serve as Sharon’s interpreter
and caddy, even though he doesn’t know much about golf.
Seated at the foot of Sharon’s right leg is Dylan, a 3 1/2-year-old
Israeli-born golden retriever. Dylan is Sharon’s guide dog. He basically
has had the day off running around wild at Morgan Run. Trained at the
Israeli Guide Dog Center for the Blind, Dylan loyally sprints after and
chomps up Sharon’s infrequent errant and short drives.
This is Sharon’s first golf outing in the U.S., where he’s
come to help raise money for the Israel Guide Dog Center. He’s also
practicing for a charity event in Palm Springs (held February 9) that
raised an estimated $125,000 for the Center and other charities.
Sharon’s first introduction to golf came when the divorce
lawyer of his first wife presented him with a putter and some balls. In
the mid-1980s, a golf rehabilitation program was developed for disabled
Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) veterans. According to the Israeli daily
Ha’aretz, Sharon is one of 20 or so veterans who have participated
in this project.
The Superman-strength of Sharon’s spirit and the encouragement
and help from his San Diego hosts made this a memorable day on an otherwise
miserable afternoon that kept all but a couple hardcore golfers off the
greens. Nobody kvetched once about the cold or the rain, not even 73-year-old
Rafael, who had a stroke three months ago and was wearing a meager short-sleeved
windbreaker, no proper dress for his exposed lean and pale frame. Rafael,
who is a member of Morgan Run, doesn’t speak Hebrew and therefore
can’t directly communicate with Sharon.
Rafael’s son Jorge learned Hebrew after living in Israel
for five years (he also speaks fluent Spanish and English). He has been
living in San Diego for a year and a half and plays surprisingly well
for having only six months of golfing experience. The physical antithesis
of his father, Jorge, 52 and a CPA/financial advisor, stands several inches
shorter and has a pudgy frame.
“San Diego is a special place,” Sharon tells
the Journal. “It’s made a good first impression on me, even
with the weather we’ve had today.” But how can Sharon appreciate
the aesthetic qualities of the beach and the sea cliffs, or the rolling
hills and giant palm trees that are the backdrop of Morgan Run? “My
friends describe the scenery to me whenever I go to a new place. I can
imagine it in my mind,” says Sharon.
“The people here are very courteous,” Sharon
continues, “and the greens behave much differently here than in
Israel. They are faster and have a much better quality of grass to them.”
Sharon says in Israel, where he recently won a golf tournament at his
country club in Caesarea, the greens are much tougher and coarse.
Sharon says he plays golf six times a week, often 10 hours
a day. The only day he takes off from the game is on Saturday. He’s
religiously observant. He’s not wearing a yarmulke on this day,
but always does so when he’s in a tournament or playing with non-Jewish
golfers. “I want people to know I’m Jewish,” he says.
“I want them to know what Jewish perseverance and courage is all
Backtrack three hours ago. The skies are beginning to clear from
a stubborn rain shower. Sharon is eager to play after waiting 45 minutes
for the rain to ease.
“Nu, boy nesachek gvar!” (“Come on, let’s
play already!”) Sharon says. Sharon travels in one golf cart with
Watkin, a Toronto resident and family friend of Sharon’s.
Throughout the afternoon, Sharon and Watkin will be intermittently
arguing with each other and laughing hysterically.
In the cart ahead of Sharon and Watkin are the Mareynas, soft-spoken,
well-mannered gentleman who speak Spanish to each other and on more than
a few occasions yell words of encouragement to Sharon.
Approaching the first hole, the elder Mareyna gives the scouting
report to Sharon’s interpreter. “Zohar, the first hole is
180 yards away. It’s a par 3. If you hit it too low, you’ll
get it stuck in the dry grass.
Hit it high and straight. There are two sandtraps 50 yards
from the hole on both sides of the flag.” Sharon approaches the
tee and has Watkin help him lean over to feel the ball.
Watkin painstakingly tries to line up Sharon. Sharon constantly
questions Watkin about positioning. Watkin’s lack of golf knowledge
immediately frustrates Sharon, who possesses a fierce competitive intensity.
“Am I lined up straight? Should I swing open or closed?” Sharon
Sharon takes a couple of practice swings and again asks Watkin
if he’s properly aligned. Watkins tells him he’s ready to go.
Sharon looks up in the direction of the flag
as if he could see. It’s easy to forget he’s blind.
His first drive is solid. Jorge yells to Sharon, “Maka tova!”
“Ze haya yamina,
nachon?” (“That went wide right, correct?”) Sharon asks.
He not only knows the direction of his shots, he can tell the fate of the
other golfer’s swings by the sound of their drives.
On his next approach, Sharon is informed that he’s about 20 meters
away from the hole. He doubts Watkin’s estimate. “Really, 20
meters?” he asks, looking Watkins right in the eye. Watkins answers
him while looking down at the ground.
Watkin has the toughest assignment of the day. He is Sharon’s
surrogate caddy for the first five holes; he later gladly relinquishes the
role to Jorge. Sharon’s full-time salaried caddy is named Shimshon
Levy, who doesn’t speak English very well either and couldn’t
attend Sharon’s first U.S. golf visit.
Now on the green, Sharon instructs Watkin to stand next to
the flag and clap so he can judge by the sound how far away he is. On other
holes, one of the other golfers taps the flag with their putters.
Golf is a frustrating game for people who can see. Imagine
how it must be for a blind golfer. When Sharon sinks a putt as he does on
the first hole, it’s nothing short of miraculous.
According to Ha’aretz, soon after starting to play, Sharon
began working with Dr. Ricardo Cordova, a sports psychologist in Israel.
Cordova, who was the psychologist for the Bolivian national soccer team
before migrating to Israel, instilled in Sharon the ability to imagine each
“Without Ricardo, I wouldn’t be here right now,”
says Sharon. “I’d be completely lost.”
Here’s what Cordova did with Sharon: For several weeks, Sharon didn’t
even swing with his clubs. The two worked solely on visualization and biomechanics.
Towels were placed under Sharon’s arms to restrict his arm movement
and keep them within close proximity to his trunk. Cordova made sure Sharon’s
motion didn’t involve unnecessary muscle groups.
Next, Cordova had Sharon practicing his swinging motion – still without
the use of his clubs. Sharon would take imaginary swings and relay to Cordova
how far the ball flew in the air and how far it rolled in his mind. The
third stage of Sharon’s training involved pain. Cordova lined up the
ball next to a pole. If Sharon’s head and torso excessively protruded
during his backswing, his skull would receive an uncomfortable reminder
from the pole.
By the time Cordova allowed
Sharon to swing at a ball approximately two years ago, Sharon found it quite
easy to drive the ball far distances. His blindness allows him to enter
a trance-like state where he imagines every shot and considers all inclines,
declines and other hazards that lay on the course.
“Sharon considers golf to be a highly spiritual game,” says
Watkin, walking back to the cart in route to the second hole. “He
feels absolute peace and tranquility when he’s playing, even if he’s
frustrated by an inexperienced caddy.” Watkin continues, “Zohar’s
concentration is tremendous. He forgets everything when he’s on the
Sharon puts his putter back in his golf
bag, which is attached to the back of the cart. He puts the covers back
on his clubs and readjusts the tightness of the bag’s straps. This
reporter knocked his head twice getting into the cart, while Sharon enters
the cart and moves around the golf bag with ease.
A friendly argument ensues between Sharon and Watkin, evidently about Watkin’s
lack of golf knowledge. Dylan the guide dog is tied to the golf cart. He
has his rear left leg lifted, relieving himself on the golf cart’s
tire. Suddenly, Watkin steps on the cart’s accelerator. Dylan manages
to turn around on a dime and sprint, keeping up with the cart.
Before playing the second hole, Sharon is asked if Dylan is
forbidden to run around the course without a leash.
“Ata tishmor al lo?” (“Are you going to watch him?”)
Sharon asks, undoing Dylan’s leash. And with that, Dylan is free to
roam around Morgan Run. While Sharon is mentally picturing his approach
for the second hole, Dylan is digging a hole in a sandtrap.
Sharon’s second drive goes beyond the flag, only 20 yards away.
“Keemat be degel,” (“It’s near
the flag”) says Jorge, who has a thicker Mexican accent than his father.
The rain picks up once again. On the way to the second
green in the cart, Sharon has his left arm around Watkin. Sharon’s
head rests on Watkin’s right shoulder.
love you,” Sharon tells Watkin (in Hebrew). “I joke with you
and I’ve been hard on you but understand I love you.
Caddying is a thankless job. I could never be one.” Sharon repeatedly
refers to Watkin as “Ach-ee” Hebrew slang for “my brother.”]
It’s a surreal image: three Jewish golfers of different
ethnicities, one blind with a free-roaming guide dog. Sharon’s golf
bag says “Caesarea Golf Club Israel.” This scene would never
have transpired on this course a few decades ago, not at a blue-blooded
resort like this. Before he started playing golf, Sharon’s only opinion
of golf was that it was for wealthy elitists. Now he realizes golfers can
be normal people.
“Maybe their kids are spoiled,
but overall, the people I have met have been fantastic,” he says.
Meanwhile, the sky darkens around the hilltops surrounding
the course. After the seventh hole, Sharon acknowledges that the rain on
this very unusual day will not let up. When asked if he’s pleased
with his performance, he jokes, “I feel like crying.”
Sharon tries to persuade Jorge to be his caddy for another
round of golf at the Bridges Country Club in Rancho Santa Fe.
would love to, but I have a business to run,” laments Jorge. “You
are an extraordinary man Zohar.”
Perhaps Sam Silverstein best summarized the experience
of witnessing Sharon golf. Silverstein, who organizes numerous golf tournaments
around Palm Springs, played with Sharon at the Canyon Country Club Tournament
in Palm Springs two days after the Morgan Run tune-up.
Silverstein told the Journal:
“He swings better than I do, and I can see.”
For feedback, contact email@example.com.