CAESAREA, Israel — The distinctive thwack of a golf club hitting a ball is all Zohar Sharon needs to hear to know whether it’s a good shot. It’s an important skill for any golfer, but especially for Sharon, a legally blind player who is something of a legend around the globe.
“Sounds like you are very good at sweeping the floor,” he mocked as my ball struggled to make it even halfway down the fairway.
We are playing a round in the affluent coastal town of Caesarea, which has one of just two 18-hole courses in all of Israel.
Sharon, 64, who is from a family of Yemeni immigrants, is mostly unknown in Israel’s modest sporting world. But he and his trusted caddie, Shimshon Levy, have won the International Blind Golf Association’s world tournament six times in 10 years, most recently last year in Japan.
Sharon lost his eyesight in his early 20s during compulsory service for the Israel Defense Forces. He prefers not to talk about the training accident that left him blind but eagerly shares the story of what brought him to the world of golf.
“It was after I divorced my first wife,” said Sharon, clearly enjoying a chance to retell the tale. “I went to her lawyer to sign the papers, and we immediately hit it off.”
When the lawyer asked Sharon whether he knew anything about golfing, Sharon quipped: “I saw it in a movie once.”
The lawyer then took a shoe box off a shelf, cut a hole in the middle and propped it up using a transistor radio. He then placed a putter in Sharon’s hand and told him to swing. Sharon was hooked.
With assistance from coaches and guides, blind golfers not only compete against one another but often play “sighted players using the handicapping schemes,” the International Blind Golf Association says on its website.
The association says the first record of a blind man playing golf is from the 1920s in Duluth, Minn. “Clint Russell lost his eyesight in an accident but continued to play golf. In 1930 it is recorded he shot a brilliant 84 for 18 holes,” it says.
Today, there are more than 400 registered blind golfers from about 16 national associations around the world, according to the international group.
Sharon is the only one from Israel, but he is one of the best known in the industry, winning titles in tournaments in Japan, Australia, Canada and Scotland. He won his first title in 2004.
For fun, and to support charities for people with disabilities, Sharon plays against millionaires and celebrities who vie to beat him but rarely do.
Over the years, he has played against well-known names, including basketball great Michael Jordan and former president Gerald R. Ford (he said he let Ford win), and against some of the most influential Jewish American philanthropists.
Now, he said, he’d love to tee off against President-elect Donald Trump.
“I know I would have to work hard to beat him, but if he’s a real man, he will play against me,” Sharon said jokingly.
Of course, Sharon’s game would not be complete without help from Levy, his caddie, who places the club in his protege’s hand while whispering a codelike series of instructions: which direction he should hit the ball, his distance from the green, how hard or soft to hit the ball to get it closer to or in the hole.
And he is encouraging. Whenever Sharon asks about a shot, Levy replies: “It was a great ball.”
Sharon, in turn, appreciates Levy’s commitment.
“Not everyone can be number two,” he said, recalling that when they were in Japan, Levy was awarded a towel for his efforts, while Sharon received the trophy.
“If it had been me, I would have thrown the towel back at them,” he said. “I hate losing.”
He rarely does.
But what is the secret to his success?
“There are a lot of mistakes in golf, but I try not to take them with me to [the] next hole. Each hole is like starting all over again,” he said.