A Feel for the Game

Suleiman Rifai, a 45-year-old who started losing his sight at 10 and has been totally blind since 27, is taking on golf. GOLF.COM is documenting his introduction to the game.

Before getting into golf, I was always lamenting my lack of free time. Between my job, running, dancing and working out at the gym, it seemed like I hardly had time to sleep. Now that I'm addicted to golf, I still do all those other activities, but I can't take my mind off golf. It consumes me.

My friends laugh at my addiction, but they also feed it. A few weeks ago, my friend Bernie read me an article from the New York Times about an auction at Sotheby's of the world's largest collection of antique golf memorabilia. I immediately called and asked if I could view the collection. A woman at Sotheby's arranged for someone to show me around. A couple of days before the appointment, she called to say that Jeffery B. Ellis, the owner of the collection, wanted to be my tour guide. Wow.

Being blind is definitely tough, but it has its benefits, including the great generosity so many people share with me. This offer was an example. On a Sunday afternoon in September, Ellis spent three hours leading me around the second and third floor showrooms at Sotheby's. The clubs and balls were displayed in cases, some of them open and some behind glass. As we walked around, Ellis took out pieces of his collection and let me hold them while he told me the history.

I was very impressed with his own story. He was a very good golfer who has something in common with Tiger Woods: he won the Pacific Northwest Amateur in 1984, and Tiger took the title in 1994. Ellis, the father of three boys and one girl, had started his working life as an insurance salesman, but he wasn't satisfied. He began dabbling in golf memorabilia, and within a few years his side business was so big that he quit selling insurance. "My wife thought I was a bit crazy," he said.

As Ellis showed me different clubs, I was amazed at the variety of shapes, weights, textures and materials. One club had the horns from a ram in it, another had a grip made of sheep's leather, and another had a grip with little pimples.

"It's all about feel," he said.

"Yes, I can relate," I replied.

Some clubs felt like kitchen utensils (a spatula), while others reminded me of tools (axes and hammers). There was a roller club - the head had a steel roller on the bottom, shaped just like a paint roller - and several clubs had removable parts. I wondered how people could have golfed with such things.

"Not very well," Ellis said. "Many of these clubs didn't work, which is why they are so rare. The maker built one or two, found they didn't play so well and thus didn't make any more. My collection is kind of like a collection of misfits or failures, but that's what makes the things so unique and valuable"

When it was time to leave, I felt as if I'd just arrived, even though I'd been there a few hours. Riding home in a taxi, I wondered what motivated people to create such cockamamie designs for golf equipment. Then a friend who'd toured the collection with me provided the answer: "The people who made those clubs were just like you: obsessed with golf."

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