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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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Blind Israeli golfer wins fourth world championship

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Zohar Sharon, left, and Shimshon Levi

Shimshon Levi likes to joke that he’s known Zohar Sharon since he was eight days old and Sharon attended his bris back in Israel.

That was 51 years ago, and today the two remain the closest of friends. Sharon jokes they’re practically married, although the 16 hours a day they spend together is probably more than most married couples.

Their friendship is cemented by a mutual devotion to the game of golf.

Sharon is the golfer, but Levi wears multiple hats: he’s Sharon’s caddy, course manager, swing coach and, most importantly, his eyes. Together, they have elevated Sharon’s game to the elite level. Sharon recently captured the 2012 World Blind Golf Championship at the Truro Golf Club in Nova Scotia. The win marked the fourth time he’s been the world’s number 1 blind golfer.

Last week, the two were in Toronto to take part in the 15th fundraising golf tournament sponsored by Beit Halochem Canada, Aid to Disabled Veterans of Israel. The organization raises money on behalf of 51,000 disabled Israel Defence Forces veterans, which includes Sharon, who was blinded while serving in the IDF.

He credits his success in golf to the support he’s received from Beit Halochem. Not only was it instrumental in his rehabilitation, it helped him discover his passion, golf, and gave him the resources to train. Even today, it flies him out to tournaments well in advance so he and Levi can familiarize themselves with the courses, he said.

Sharon, 59, captured the World Blind Golf Championship with rounds of 118 and 98, for a total score of 216, six strokes better than the second-place finisher from Italy. The week before, he won the Canadian Blind Open at the Mountain Golf and Country Club in Truro.

Sharon was under the weather for the first round of the world championship, but felt better on the second day. A 17 handicapper, Sharon shaved 10 strokes off his score on Day 2.

Playing for Israel and acting as a de facto goodwill ambassador is a weighty responsibility, Sharon said through an interpreter. “If I didn’t have to carry Israel on my back, I would have a lot less pressure.”

“He feels he’d do better if he was just Zohar Sharon,” the interpreter explained.

“I’m not afraid to not win,” Sharon continued, “but I don’t want to disappoint Beit Halochem. They put so much effort into what I do. Without Beit Halochem, I would not be a champion.”

Sharon said he’s generally well accepted at international tournaments, but  “you always feel the negativity from somewhere.”

He recounted the story of a tournament player who told him “he doesn’t understand why he doesn’t like Israelis. He said he must have gotten it in his mother’s milk.

“But he [now] finds Israelis are fine people, and then he bought [me] a beer,” Sharon said.

He remains a proud Jew at tournaments, and if he’s asked to remove his hat, he’s got a kippah handy to keep his head covered.

His practice regime is gruelling – he plays every day, except Shabbat.

When he’s asked what parts of his game he’d like to improve, he smiles and mentions putting.

“There are two people and one ball,” he said. “It’s up to Shimshon to direct me.”

Sharon’s reliance on Levi is pretty much total. On every shot, Levi lines up Sharon’s club behind the ball, describes the hole, the yardage, the obstacles. On putts, which require touch and the ability to read greens, Levi’s input is crucial.

“The more we learn to work together, the more there’s improvement,” Sharon said.

As Levi puts it, “You feel him every day. Every day I see what he does. You feel what he thinks. We play a lot. I know him.”

Remarkably, Levi never took golf lessons and Sharon does not have a pro instructing him. But Levi’s been in the game so long that he recognizes when Sharon is off his game. “In the warm-up, I see what he’s doing, right or wrong,” he said.

Becoming an elite golfer took a lot of hard work, but Sharon was determined right from the start, Levi said. “He wanted to be a champion” and he worked at it from morning to night.

“He said, ‘Maybe it will take five years, but I’ll be a champion,’” Levi recalled.

In fact, he won his first tournament, in Scotland, about a year and a half after he took up the sport.

“When he started, it was very hard. But if it’s easy, it’s not so sweet,” Levi said.

Not only has Sharon excelled on the world stage, he’s also served as an inspiration to a new generation of disabled golfers in Israel. Around 20 veterans have taken up the sport at Beit Halochem. Some have missing limbs, some play seated and some require special carts.

But they’re all following the lead staked out by Sharon many years ago.

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