Suleiman Rifai, a 45-year-old who started losing his sight at 10 and has been totally blind since 27, is taking golf lessons this summer from Michael Breed, a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher and the head professional at Sunningdale Country Club in Scarsdale, N.Y. GOLF.COM is documenting his introduction to the game.
I have been able to hit the ball well a few times, and it is a truly magnificent feeling. It requires tremendous concentration placing my arms, torso, legs and head in the proper address position; aligning my body the right distance from the ball; and then making a correct swing. I need to feel a particular motion, commit that feeling to memory and then replicate it. This is a fantastic challenge, but it's not new.
I have been doing the same thing with dancing for decades. When I learn a new step, I rigorously go through the components of the step and how to position and move my body. That also takes intense concentration.
Golf seems like a science. There are so many elements that have to work as a unit. But when it works, it is sweet. It is easy to hear the difference between a good shot and a bad shot. A good shot is so smooth that I can hardly feel the contact as the ball gently whistles away. On a bad shot, the ball rattles off the clubhead and then bumps on the turf.
Michael took me to a green so I could feel the hole for the first time. It was not what I expected. I was imagining a larger hole, more like a small soup bowl. Michael guided my hand around the hole, and it was more like a coffee mug. I am happy to know my target. It is a wonder that I will be able to hit a ball into this little hole.
Suleiman is blind, but he's not exempt from the frustrations that sighted golfers experience. During the first lesson, Suleiman had no expectations. He'd never touched a club, and everything was totally new. But now that he's had a few lessons and been to the driving range a bit on his own, his mind is in the same place as a sighted golfer's would be: he expects success on every shot.
Suleiman is very competitive. (On June 24, in a five-mile run in Central Park, he finished second in the visually impaired division with a time of 38:20.) So, he has trouble accepting the fact that every shot isn't going to be good, or even pretty good. Welcome to golf, Suleiman. One surprise for me is how conscious of the ball Suleiman has become. I never thought that would happen because he can't see it.
But like most golfers, Suleiman is now letting the ball affect him and his thoughts. He should simply swing the club and let his mind and body affect the ball. That's why I often put a ball on the mat during his swing without telling him. I want him to concentrate on the correct technique. If he does that, he'll hit the ball well.
This whole experience continues to be eye-opening for me (forgive the pun). Suleiman's hearing and sense of touch give him the same visceral reaction to the game that vision gives to sighted golfers. He can hear and feel when he's hit a good or bad shot, and he has the same emotional reactions we all do. People who are able to see just don't realize how powerful and useful our other senses can be.
He's become a golfing perfectionist, like most players, even though impossible is perfect.
TIPS FROM MICHAEL BREED
FERRIS WHEEL OR MERRY-GO-ROUND?
There's no ideal swing plane, which is the angle of the shaft during the backswing and follow-through. But all golfers have a plane that's best suited for their swings. I like to explain swing plane as a marriage of a Ferris wheel and a merry-go-round, because those are things everybody even Suleiiman can picture. (Suleiman could see until his early teens.)
If a golfer's swing is too upright, I'll tell him the club needs to travel more like a merry-go-round. If the swing is too flat, the club needs to travel more like a Ferris wheel. Again, there's no single correct swing plane. Scott Hoch's swing is closer to a Ferris wheel, and Allen Doyle's swing is closer to a merry-go-round. But both pros have won lots of tournaments and millions of dollars. Right now, Suleiman's swing is too flat, or close to a merry-go-round swing. But I think that's a time issue. His swing will adjust once he gets more experience.
If your clubhead isn't precisely where it should be at address and impact, it's almost impossible to hit a decent shot. Getting the clubhead in position is a challenge with Suleiman because he can't see. So I've been using a teaching tool called The Golfer's Footprint.
The Footprint is a small plastic board that sits on the ground. You can put a ball on the board, or you can tee one up through a hole in the middle. The board has three colored lines (blue, green and red) to show the correct and incorrect clubhead paths.
Suleiman can't see the lines, but he can hear and feel the clubhead hitting the board, which helps him learn what a good shot feels like.
The first time we used the board, I put Suleiman in the correct address position. I asked him how far he thought the clubhead was from his feet. He said "3 feet." It was more like 18 inches, but that didn't matter. I decided to use 3 feet as the name for the correct distance. Now, whenever he addresses the ball, I tell him "3 feet" if he's in the correct position. If the clubhead is too far past the ball or too close to his body, I'll tell him the correct distance relative to "3 feet."
The goal is for Suleiman to learn what "3 feet" feels like at address, and then to have him return the clubhead there at impact.