It’s hard for any 45-year-old to learn to play golf. But imagine how hard it is for somebody who was born in Tanzania, immigrated to the U.S. at age 18 and is a social worker who lives in New York City. Somebody who has never been to a golf course, touched a club, or seen anybody hit a shot on TV or in person. Somebody who doesn’t even know what a tee is or that a golf ball has dimples. Somebody who is as green to golf as a Himalayan yak herder would be to surfing. One more thing: the person started losing his sight at age 10 and has been totally blind since age 27.
That’s the situation Suleiman Rifai was in when we asked him to get into golf this summer and let GOLF.COM document the experience. Michael Breed, a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher and the head professional at Sunningdale Country Club in Scarsdale, N.Y., generously offered to join the project and give Rifai lessons.
“It was the chance of a lifetime, so how could I say no?” says Rifai.
Golf is just the latest sport that Rifai has taken up. Three years ago, he’d never run a mile in his life. Then he met SI/Golf Plus writer-reporter Rick Lipsey on a New York subway, and Lipsey asked him to join Achilles, a track club for disabled people. Last November, Rifai, with Lipsey as one of his guides, completed the ING New York Marathon. Also last year, Rifai started swimming, a sport he hadn’t tried since he was a child, before he lost his sight. He has also been taking dance classes at the Alvin Ailey School since 1986.
Over the next few months, Rifai and Breed will write regular columns for GOLF.COM about their experiences together. The columns will include insights and details about Rifai’s golf activities — lessons, trips to the practice range at Chelsea Piers, watching golf on TV, attending a tour event, even playing a round. There will also be tips from Breed.
On the following pages, Breed and Rafai describe their first lesson together, and Breed offers two tips that will be useful for all golfers.
I’m real excited about the opportunity to work with Suleiman. I once taught somebody who had mild vision loss, but I’ve never worked with anybody who’s totally blind. I think I’ll learn as much from Suleiman as he’ll learn from me. I’m going to have to be so much more thorough in my explanations because I can’t assume anything. I have to describe every little thing, including what a club looks and feels like, because what Suleiman senses might not be the way things really are.
I’m also excited about the spiritual aspect of the experience. I have the opportunity to totally change somebody’s life, to open him up not just to golf, but to everything the game has to offer: nature, life lessons, new friends, even the tasty grilled hot dogs at our club’s halfway house.
For first lessons, I normally start raw beginners on the putting green. I want people to first learn the look and feel of the energy it takes to move the ball, beginning with the smallest shot. I then move to chipping and finally to the range for full swings. But I didn’t do that with Suleiman because he can’t see the ball roll and wouldn’t totally understand the relationship between the energy of a swing and how far the ball goes.
So I took him to the range for his first lesson. My first “Oh gosh” moment came almost as soon as we met. I noticed him walking with his cane, holding it with his left hand to touch the ground in front of him as he walked. It dawned on me that the black rubber grip on his collapsible walking cane was the same as the grip on a putter. Also, I noticed that he held the cane with a good golf grip, although it was just with his left hand. So in a weird way, Suleiman has been practicing his golf grip for decades because he’s been walking around with that cane everywhere he goes.
The similarity between the putter and walking cane grips was thrilling because I knew I could use the cane as a teaching aid. All I had to do was have Suleiman add his right hand to his grip on the cane, and then I had him practice swinging the cane.
We spent much of the hour-long first lesson learning what the club felt like. I had Suleiman use a pitching wedge for the lesson. He rubbed it and twirled it in his hands so he could learn how to recognize the direction the clubhead was facing. This was a challenge, but Suleiman was able to use his other senses to learn what a sighted person would learn through seeing. Suleiman may even have some advantages over sighted people. For example, I think he will be much more in tune with the feel of the clubhead than players who can see.
The biggest surprise of our first lesson? Suleiman learned the basics of holding the club and the address position, and he started swinging and hitting some balls. Granted, he hit only pitches, but I didn’t expect him to hit balls until at least the second lesson. I expected a blind man to be much more cautious.
But Suleiman is a quick learner who has no fear. He has a childlike quality of great expectation and innocence. Oh, those first shots: most of them were dribblers, but a couple of them were airborne and flew about 10 yards.
This is going to be really fun.
Thoughts before the first lesson: When I told a friend about my upcoming foray into golf, she told me, “It is too difficult, you will not be able to manage.” That only made me more determined to succeed.
I am always having visions of open fields of green with a symphony of birds chirping, but I am very unsure what I will find at Sunningdale. I’ve never been to a country club. But this anxiousness reminds me of how I felt before going to Alvin Ailey’s studios for the first time. That experience changed my life. It took me out of a dark and depressing closeted life, so I have big expectations for golf too.
First lesson impressions: The drive with Rick to Sunningdale was fraught with nervous energy. Some people had told me that black people have not always been very welcome at some clubs. I was also worried if my outfit (khaki pants with a polo shirt) would be appropriate. Then we walked to the lesson area. Wow, so many birds. I could hear the robins, even some blue jays. I know their sounds from my bird walks in Central Park. This place was like Eden.
Michael’s explanations were clear, and I liked how I could hold the club like I hold my cane. When Michael first placed a golf club in my hands, the rubbery handle felt like my walking cane. The shaft also felt familiar and reminded me of my cane. When Michael asked me to hold the club parallel to the ground and in front of my chest, I was quite comfortable. I could clearly feel where the clubhead was pointing, and the heaviness of the clubhead felt a bit like a hammer, which I vividly remember using as a child when I used to make things with wood and pound nails.
To hit that first shot, wow, it was so gratifying. I could feel the ball banging against the club. But I felt a little empty because Michael tried to explain the arc in which the ball flew, but I had trouble grasping how that looks. I am eager to figure this out.
It is a big challenge to be so precise with everything: the body, the hands, the head, the club, and how they are all positioned in relation to each other. It was especially helpful when Michael placed the two bags (he called them pillows) on the ground and put a rubber tee between them. The bags were supposed to guide my swing path. I could swing so the club went between the bags, but I could not hit the tee, and that was very frustrating. Gosh, I wanted to hit it.
One of the best parts of the first day was the end, when Rick took me to the locker room. It is so quiet. Where were the golfers? We were all alone and it was so luxurious, which is so different from the hustle and bustle of the city, especially the subway, where I must always be on super-sensitive alert. Here I can sit on the cushy benches and enjoy the wood-panelled lockers, which have exquisite lines and contours. I could get used to this golf thing.
Tips from Breed
TIP 1: FEEL THE CLUBHEAD
Few golfers are as in tune as they should be with the feel of the clubhead. I’m not talking about the feel of contacting the ball. Rather, I’m talking about how the clubhead feels in different positions while you’re holding the club and also when you’re swinging.
To learn to feel the clubhead, try this drill. Hold an iron in your left hand (for righthanders) so the shaft is parallel to the ground and waist high. You should have a moderately firm grip on the club. Put your right hand under the shaft to hold up the club while you slightly loosen the left-handed grip. Then begin slowly twisting the club in circles. Close your eyes and try to stop the club at four different points: so the toe of the clubhead points up to the sky, to the right, to the left and down at the ground. The balance, or weight, of the clubhead will feel very different at each position. In the correct position for hitting a shot, the clubface is square with your grip and the toe points up to the sky.
Doing this drill will make your sense of feel for the clubhead much more acute, and you’ll learn to really understand what the clubhead does during the swing.
TIP 2: SWING FREELY USING A WALKING STICK
A blind person’s walking cane is an outstanding practice aid for sighted golfers.
Hardly any golfer has any fear or problem when swinging a shaft that doesn’t have a clubhead. They swing freely and smoothly. But once I give a student a shaft with a clubhead, the swing often goes downhill because the student’s mindset changes and he begins making a huge effort to hit the ball and loft it into the air.
I’d love to get some walking canes for my students to swing. The students would feel uninhibited and free, which is how you should feel when you’re swinging a regular golf club.
Suleiman is doing so well in part because he thinks of the golf club like it’s a walking stick. He has no burning desire for liftoff, my term for getting the ball into the air. When I transition Suleiman from his walking stick to a club, there’s no problem. He doesn’t make contorted motions or waste energy to get the ball up. He just takes a pure, natural and free-flowing swing. His mind is free of much of the clutter that hurts sighted players.