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JewishJournal.com

December 12, 2013

Guide dog helps champion blind golfer stay the course

http://www.jewishjournal.com/50_Plus/article/guide_dog_helps_champion_blind_golfer_stay_the_course

Zohar Sharon

Zohar Sharon

Zohar Sharon can count on having the company of two others when he takes to the golf course — his caddy and his guide dog.

“She is always there for me,” he said of Venus, a yellow Labrador/golden retriever cross. “She comes with me to play golf every day. She’s simply great.”

That’s important because Sharon, 60, is the world’s reigning champion in blind golf.

A veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, Sharon lost his sight over time following an incident more than 30 years ago that occurred while he was protecting Israel’s nuclear reactor in the Negev. 

Today, Sharon holds four world championships, dating back to 2003, when he entered his first professional tournament, and is considered a celebrity in Israel. (He’s been asked for his autograph in the United States as well, but that was a case of mistaken identity. His “fans” thought he was singer Harry Belafonte; Sharon signed anyway.)

But things didn’t always look like they would end up this way. Sharon sustained more injuries fighting in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and was completely blind by the time he turned 28. He took up painting at one point, but the resident of Moshav Aviel, who has been married three times, said he owes his current career as a golfer to his second divorce. 

 “I went to meet with my ex-wife’s attorney. Her attorney and I became great buddies. He asked me if I’ve ever played golf. I told him I didn’t, and he took a shoe box and punched a hole in it, got a club and a ball and showed me how to golf right there,” Sharon recalled as he sat on the balcony of his Beverly Hilton Hotel room during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “Later, at home, I started practicing by placing an empty cup on the floor and a radio next to it, so I’d know which direction to hit the ball, and I got the hang of it.”

Still, he almost gave up golf altogether before he met Shimshon Levy, who became his loyal caddie and close friend. 

“With Shimshon, I have a special connection. We spend 16 hours a day together, 10 of them on the golf field,” Sharon said. “Two years after I started practicing with him, I took my first championship, in [2003].” 

Together, the two have traveled the world, going from one tournament to the next. His first win was at the World Invitational blind golf tournament in Scotland.

“We are like a married couple but without the sex,” joked Sharon, who is the father of three and grandfather of two. “Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

Levy directs Sharon to the position of the ball and its distance from the hole; he also gives a sense of whether the ball needs to be hit strongly or softly, according to the specially designed golf club he selects.

Caddy Shimshon Levy, blind golfer Zohar Sharon and guide dog Venus hit the links.

The two arrived in Los Angeles in October for several events on behalf of the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind (israelguidedog.org). That’s where Sharon’s 5-year-old dog was trained. 

The center was founded in January 1991 to help blind people in Israel get a guide dog that would not only help them get around, but would also serve as their companion and connection to the world around them. 

“By having a dog with them, they are more approachable. People come over to them to pat their dog, instead of moving out of the way when they walk down the street with a stick,” said executive director Michael J. Leventhal of Warrington, Pa., who accompanied Sharon during his L.A. visit.

The center, which is located 20 minutes south of Tel Aviv, spends $40,000 on training and facilities for each of its guide dogs. It receives 8 percent of its funds from the Israeli government, but most of its funds come from donations, Leventhal said.

“Since 1991, we have partnered 468 dogs with blind people, both civilians and soldiers,” he said. “The blind don’t have to pay a dime. We train the dogs for two years; when [the dogs] are ready, the blind people move in with us at the center for three weeks, where we work with them and the dog. We continue working with them at their hometown for an additional week, teaching them how to go to the grocery store, get on the bus with their dog and so on.”

The dogs work with their blind partners for eight years, at which point they retire and are replaced by a new guide dog. 

After retiring, the guide dog can stay at the home as a pet, go to a family member of the blind person or go back to the original puppy raiser. Or a suitable home can be found by the center, which has a long list of potential adopters, Leventhal said.

Lisa Korbatov of Beverly Hills hosted a Shabbat dinner and meet-and-greet for Sharon during his October visit. She said that she came away impressed by the guide dog organization and the golfer.

“To live in darkness is a huge, huge trauma and burden to not only the blind person but the whole family,” she said. “Zohar was inspiring. When he talked about Venus, his whole face changed … huge smiles ear to ear.”

Sharon, who calls Venus his best friend, said it could have been easy for him to get depressed — or rather, stay depressed — about his disability. He still remembers the day when his then-6-year-old daughter came home crying about how her classmates were walking around like blind people, mocking her father.

“I decided right there and then that I’ll never give her any reason to be ashamed of me just because I’m blind. I’ll go to the extreme in anything I’ll do and be the best I can so she’ll be proud,” he said.

“I’m a fighter, and I never run away from anything. I don’t believe that God has to help me, but that I need to help God help me,” Sharon said. “I never give up. When people ask me what’s the secret of my success, that’s what I tell them — you can’t make excuses, nobody cares why you lost, why you were not able to accomplish something. The results speak for themselves. If you set your mind to do something, do it, without any excuses. It’s true for golf, and it’s true for anything else in life, whatever it may be.”

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