I decided that Suleiman would never improve unless he could practice alone, which meant he'd have to be able to go to a driving range alone. Impossible?
I didn't think so, so I started working on a routine that would enable Suleiman to hit balls alone. He had told me that he could get to Chelsea Piers, a sports facility in Manhattan with a driving range that has mats like Sunningdale's.
The lesson was one of the most successful and exciting of my career. We started by getting down on our hands and knees, and I helped Suleiman feel around the hitting mat. Once he knew the different parts of the mat the edges, the section of turf to stand on, the section of turf to hit off, the tray holding the balls we figured out a way for him to align the clubhead and his body to the ball.
The address routine is simple:
1. Suleiman bends down on his right knee while holding the club with his left hand.
2. He reaches for a ball with his right hand and puts the ball onto the rubber tee.
3. He aligns the clubhead behind the ball with his right hand while holding the end of the grip with his left hand.
4. He slides his right hand up the shaft to the grip.
5. He slowly stands up and slides his feet apart. He is then ready to hit.
At first, I talked him through the routine. But after a few balls, Suleiman had learned to do everything himself, with no verbal or physical guidance.
He hit a dozen balls. The first few were dribblers, but then his contact dramatically improved and the ball began flying in short little arcs.
His final shot of the day was a crisp wedge that flew about 40 yards. Suleiman was ecstatic. He raised his arms, smiled wide and yelled, "Yes, I did it!" We hugged like a caddie and tour player celebrating a victory on the 18th green.
BREED'S TIP: Preshot routine
Helping Suleiman become independent on the practice tee reinforced the fact that everybody needs a preshot routine. The routine can vary, but each golfer needs to create one and stick to it. Each golfer has a body posture, distance from the ball and club alignment that are necessary to make solid contact. Even a tiny variation in the preshot routine is likely to cause a poor shot.
I'm always nervous before my golf lessons with Michael. I want to excel, but I worry whether I'll achieve my goal of improving enough to compete in the national blind championship next year. That would be as fulfilling as completing my first New York Marathon, which I did last November.
As a teenager, I was sad and lonely because of my deteriorating sight, so I never played sports. But now I swim, run and golf, and the games give me confidence and joy. When Michael asked if I thought I could learn to practice alone, he had some doubt in his voice, but I had no reservations. By the end of the lesson, I was confident and joyous. It felt like the finish line of the marathon.
Cobra gave me a new set of clubs, which were shipped to Rick Lipsey's house. (Rick is the reporter at Sports Illustrated who set up this project.) It was very exciting to visit Rick and pick up my clubs. Growing up in Tanzania, I never could have imagined such a gift.
We met in the lobby of his apartment building, and Rick showed me the bag and clubs. We walked to the subway, and it felt good to carry the clubs. Rick tried to stop me before going through the turnstile, saying he'd carry them, but I slid through by myself. I may be blind, but I can get around. I have no choice.
I'm sure people were staring at me on the platform and the train. It must be strange to see a blind man with a golf bag. Just before arriving at my stop, I knelt down to feel the floor to check if any clubs had fallen out. None had. Then I exited the train and walked down the platform to the elevator. When I got on, the elevator operator said: "Golf? How the hell do you do it?"
He was genuinely shocked.
I politely explained that I play by feel and that he could read about my experience on the Internet. I'm not sure he believed me.
I never go anyplace new without learning the route first what subways and buses to take, where to sit so I can exit at the right spot, where the potholes are, what the building is like, etc. Then I need time to mentally review the trip and imprint the information in my mind.
So, Rick drove me to Chelsea Piers one morning for my initial visit. The place was so loud. I was very distracted by the clacking balls, the balls piping through tubes, helicopters flying overhead, boats honking their horns. This was definitely not Sunningdale. I hit a few good shots and used the address routine Michael gave me. But many shots were quite poor, and I missed some altogether.
Because of the noise, I couldn't easily hear where my ball landed. That made it less fun and harder to tell how I was doing. Nothing is easy for blind people, I guess, so I'll have to learn to deal with obstacles like this.
A few days later, I set out alone for Chelsea Piers. On the way, my cane got caught in the subway doors. When the doors opened, another passenger told me my cane had broken. I am in big trouble without a cane, almost helpless, but other passengers helped me onto the platform and went upstairs to get the police.
I filled out a report and the police drove me to The Lighthouse, a center for visually impaired people on East 59th Street that sells walking canes. (It was a strange ride; police cars do not have much legroom.) By the time the police drove me back to the subway, it was late afternoon, so I went home. My golfing independence would have to wait.
A few days later, I tried again. This time was a success. The subway ride was smooth. I took the bus across 23rd Street and walked down the sidewalk along the West Side Highway to the range at Chelsea Piers.
The receptionist was a bit surprised to see me alone, but she found somebody to guide me to the automated hitting bays. Then I was alone. I had paid for 80 balls at the front desk. I inserted my card in the reader, and my first ball popped up on a rubber tee from below the mat. I took the ball off the tee, positioned it on the mat, addressed it and swung away.
I was very comfortable and hit some good shots. The more I do this, the better I will get. There is hope.