Back on course

An ex-commando who lost his sight operating in a foreign country, has become a champion golfer.

Zohar Sharon 88 224 (photo credit: Johanna Menzel)
Zohar Sharon 88 224
(photo credit: Johanna Menzel)
Zohar Sharon, a then-24-year-old officer in an elite IDF anti-terror unit, was on a military mission somewhere in North Africa. He can't say where exactly, it was a clandestine operation kept far from the media. A bomb exploded and two officers were immediately killed. Chemicals from the explosion flew into Sharon's eyes and he eventually lost his sight. "I didn't die, but I felt like I was dead, like my two buddies," he remembers. "Sometimes I even think it would have been better to have died." Wounded soldiers suffer many traumas, both physical and emotional, but blindness is different. "When I lost my eyes, it was like I lost my world," Sharon tells Metro. "When you lose your sight, the lights go out and you're in a dark, strange and frightening world." "Everything changes," Sharon explains, "even sleeping isn't the same." When Sharon dreams, he sees in color like anyone with perfect vision, because he was able to see for 24 years before the accident. So when he sleeps, he sees, but when he wakes - it's dark again. "I'm still not used to that," Sharon says, "even after 28 years." Every morning, Sharon wakes up to the impenetrable blackness. "I reach out because I don't know where I am. Then it dawns on me, I'm in my bed, alive, breathing, but still in darkness." He says it's like living behind prison walls. "I'm inside, but everybody else is outside. It gets lonely." Just walking to the bathroom or looking for a toothbrush or shampoo in the shower is a major journey for Sharon, every day of his life. "Sometimes the kids would move things or leave toys on the floor. How can I be sure of anything when I live in this darkness?" he asks. For years after the accident, Sharon struggled with depression. "When you face something like this you realize what's really important in life," he says. "Money, status, ego, nothing really matters anymore, only God. It's like death was crouching behind the door waiting for me, but never came to take me." The Defense Ministry offered to help Sharon learn a new profession as part of his rehabilitation. He tried law school at Bar-Ilan University for a year, but it didn't work out. He even tried to study art at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. "I used to love to paint and sculpt," says Sharon, "but it didn't make sense anymore, trying to paint things I couldn't see." For Lt.-Gen. Sharon, nothing made sense anymore. Sharon's family life began falling apart, as well. He eventually left his first wife and their two kids and moved into a one-room apartment in Hadera to live by himself. But by the time he turned 40, he so missed seeing his son and daughter that he moved into a larger apartment in Caesarea, where they could come visit him. Then, one day, about 12 years ago, when he was feeling really down, a friend from the Caesarea Golf Club came by for a visit. "He showed me how to hit a ball with a golf club into a shoe box," Sharon recalls. "We put a radio on top of the box so I could aim and hit the ball towards the sound." Sharon smiles as he recalls that two weeks later, he was beating all his friends from the club. "They all started coming over to the house just to watch me knock the ball into the box." People told him he has a natural talent for the game, but Sharon just laughs. "I enjoyed making people happy watching me beat them with my eyes closed." Sharon and Shimshon Levi, his caddy and constant companion, set themselves a goal to teach Sharon to play golf well enough to enter a tournament for the blind. "We'd never seen a golf course in our lives, much less watched a golfer hit a ball," he says. "Shimshon recorded some PGA tournaments from the TV on video and replayed them, in slow motion, until he figured out how to swing. Then he explained it to me and told me to move this way or that." The duo got up at 5 a.m. every day, "except Yom Kippur," to practice hitting balls until sunset. After two years they felt ready and Sharon entered his first tournament in Scotland in 1996. "We made a lot of mistakes at first," Sharon recalls. "We didn't know that you have to take the flag out of the hole before you putt, so we got penalized for that. One time Shimshon got confused and accidentally had me hit an opponent's ball. That was Shimshon's fault, he's the one who is supposed to see!" Sharon grins. "But I got penalized and we lost the hole anyway." Even with all their novice blundering, Sharon managed to win tournaments and people were amazed. The well-known golf journalist Lawrence Rubenstein came to see him play in Mapleton, Canada. On the third hole Sharon knocked his second shot into the hole from 150 meters away for a rare eagle. "Rubenstein was so shocked that a blind guy with no golf experience could make that kind of a shot that he gave me his clubs," Sharon laughs. "He walked off the course and said he would never play golf again as long as he lived!" A sports reporter from Star magazine once said that it was more fun playing with Sharon than with Tiger Woods. Another time, Sharon hit a ball so deep into the woods that it took him 20 strokes just to hack his way out and back onto the fairway. Little did he know that the rules say a golfer can take just one penalty stroke and shoot another ball. He settled for a ridiculous score of 30 on the hole, but still managed to win the three-day tournament. Sharon remembers the time he played at Palm Springs with a former US president. "It was an easy course to play, but [he] kept cheating," Sharon confides. "Shimshon whispered to me that he saw [him] move his ball out of the sand trap. The president thought no one was looking. Then on another hole he hit his ball into the water, pulled out another ball, and pretended nobody saw," Sharon laughs. "Politicians play politics even on the golf course!" Sharon has become somewhat of a phenomenon around the world. He has played tournaments in Scotland, Ireland, England, Canada, Australia, USA and Argentina. On August 7-8 he will be representing Israel in the World Championship and English Open. Since he is the only blind golfer in Israel, whenever he wins a tournament Sharon and Levi stand alone with the Israeli flag, among dozens of players from other countries, as the national anthem is played. "The only problem," says Sharon, "is that in most places I play they think 'Hava Nagila' is the national anthem!" Sharon has been ranked the No. 1 blind golfer in the world for many years, and even competes in tournaments for the seeing. Last year he won a pairs competition at the local Gaash Golf Club, where he is a member. Last month he reached the finals at Gaash, but never got to compete as he was off to yet another international tournament. Sharon and Levi are also working for local charities. Golf clubs around the world invite him to play in their tournaments to raise money for needy causes. Recently, Solly Almagor, president of Friends of Beit Halohem, Australia, was in Israel to meet with Sharon about a fundraising campaign to support Beit Halohem's work with wounded IDF soldiers. He wants to bring Sharon to Australia to help raise money. Beit Halohem was established to help the 53,000 disabled soldiers who have fought for Israel since 1948. There are four centers in Israel - in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and a convalescent center in Nahariya. A new one is now being built in Beersheba. "Our centers are like a second home for these wounded heroes," says Almagor. "We provide facilities and services for them to play sports, learn arts and music and enjoy social activities in an atmosphere that respects their special needs." "These guys have given their ultimate for Israel - their bodies and their health," says Almagor. "For them, the war is never over. Every day they need to fight to get their lives back." Almagor believes that Sharon's story will draw a lot of attention to the work of Beit Halohem and serves as a great example of how sports can aid rehabilitation. "Golf gave me my life back," says Sharon. "It was like pouring cool water over my body when I was burning up on the inside. It made me want to live again." The 53-year-old Sharon remarried recently and his face lights up when he talks about his new six-month-old son. "We have a new baby at home, and when he sees me walk into a room he makes gurgling sounds so that I'll come over and pick him up," Sharon says. "The baby understands that I can't see him, so he sits in my lap and grabs my nose and it makes him laugh. He likes making me jump." Sharon almost always has a broad, winning smile on his face. Perhaps it's because he's discovered one of the secrets to a happy life. "I love what I do," he says, "and I make other people happy doing it."