What does a PGA Tour event look like to a blind person? To find out, we asked Suleiman Rifai to go to Westchester Country Club for the final round of the Barclays, the first event in the FedEx Cup playoffs, and work as a credentialed reporter. Suleiman brought two friends to assist him; one photographed Suleiman and the other took notes during his interviews. While following the golf and speaking with players, Suleiman made a little history: he was the first blind person to cover a Tour event as a reporter. Here’s his report.
I was anxious, to say the least, riding the train to the tournament. My biggest worry was that the security guards would say my friends couldn’t enter, even though they also had credentials. Sometimes security guards don’t believe me when I say I’m blind. I know of a blind runner who was registering for the New York Marathon when the marathon official looked at him and said, “You’re not blind.”
Thankfully, we didn’t have any problems at Westchester. Denise Taylor, a media coordinator at the PGA Tour, organized everything perfectly. My first impression of the tournament was how pure and sharp the pros’ shots sounded. My shots often sound weak and make rattling noises, but the pros’ whooshes sounded so clean that I could imagine the balls flying through the sky. I was disappointed that Tiger Woods did not play. I wonder, is his whoosh different from the whoosh of the other pros?
I spent a couple of hours on the first hole, walking back and forth between the tee and the green. My friends told me what the players were doing. It’s amazing how many things they do before hitting a shot: they look at the sky, the trees, the total environment. They clean their hands, wipe their feet, fiddle with the club. On the green, they bend down and study the direction they want to hit.
Maria, one of my friends, was shocked that I could differentiate not only between the sounds of woods and irons, but also between different types of irons. The sound of a long-iron shot is over quickly. A wedge or short iron has a longer, more drawn out whoosh.
Tour officials had arranged for me to begin interviewing players at 2 p.m., and I grew more nervous as the time drew closer. I was shaking a bit and had trouble concentrating on the tournament. I wondered if the players would listen to me and whether I’d have to interrupt them to get their attention.
Nelson Silverio, a Tour media official, led me to an area by the clubhouse to meet players. He left, and my friends and I stood quietly for 20 minutes. Nothing. Suddenly, a pro walked up and introduced himself. He shook hands and said his name was John Mallinger. I asked him if he used all of his senses while golfing.
“Yes, yes,” he replied. “I especially do a lot of internal visualization. Also, I can easily feel the sensation when my ball goes right and left. I don’t have to watch the ball. I can just sense how my body feels to know which way the ball went.”
The next player I met was Bob Estes. He also emphasized that he uses all of his senses. He said that he doesn’t just look at trees to judge the wind.
“I like to hear the sounds of the wind and feel in my body what the breezes are doing,” he said. “I also like to feel how a green is contoured to understand the break. It’s not just a visual thing, to read the green.”
Estes said that during training he puts on blinders so he can’t see where the ball flies. He hits a shot and tells his coach where he thinks the ball went. He often guesses correctly, and he said the drill increases his sense of feel.
“I don’t need to wear blinders,” I said. “I have natural blinders.”
Estes laughed. “But you must really feel the ball,” he said.
“Sometimes,” I replied. “I wish I could feel it better.”
My last interview was with Brett Quigley. I told him that my teacher was Michael Breed. “I’m a good friend, too,” he said, “and I’m actually staying at Michael’s house this week.” Wow. Small world.
After that first question, a pack of reporters and TV cameras from the Golf Channel pushed around me to speak to Quigley. I figured my interview was over, but Maria urged me to push back to the front of the group. I’m usually not pushy, but I didn’t want to let my opportunity pass. When I started to ask Quigley how he uses his senses in golf, the other reporters became very quiet. I knew the silence very well. It always happens in a big group when people suddenly realize they’re near a blind person.
Quigley wasn’t fazed, however. “I always force myself to slow down,” he said. “I have to be soft to have good feel and rhythm. The softness has to come from inside. I see rhythm in my head.”
As Quigley walked into the locker room, I was uneasy. He was my last interview and I wondered whether I’d asked good questions. Did the pros think I was silly?
On the train home, I felt validated. Hearing the pros talk about the importance of feel made me confident that I’m on the right track with my game. I am really beginning to learn how to feel the ball in my own swing. I instantly know a good shot from a bad shot, and I know what to do, even if I don’t always do it correctly.
The only real disappointment was that I didn’t get to talk to Phil Mickelson, who wasn’t doing interviews because he played poorly. But this little disappointment makes my resolve even stronger. Being blind, I’ve tried to delete the word “never” from my vocabulary. I’ll meet Mr. Mickelson at my next tournament.