Sunday, October 26, 2008

Deaf golfer forging impressive career

From the intro to a multi-part profile of golfer Kevin Hall in the The Examiner:

Kevin Hall isn’t a guy you'd be comfortable following in heavy traffic. He’s a serial text-messager, with one hand on the wheel and the other on his Blackberry. He’s equally adept at steering with his knees when a conversation requires the use of both thumbs.

“I also take occasional glances at the newspaper, if the road isn’t busy,” Hall admits.

Although he won’t get much sympathy from his parents or from highway patrolmen, Hall’s “crackberry” addiction can be forgiven. Not only is he deaf, but Hall also lives
the nomadic life of a mini-tour golfer.

How else could he be expected to maintain his sanity during hours on the road, en route to his next engagement with the most confounding of sports? In Hall’s world, there’s no satellite radio or iPod to distract him from the mile markers.

“I day dream a lot, mostly about how I’m going to play the golf course in the
upcoming tournament,” Hall says (via text message, of course). “I try to keep my
mind busy by doing a lot of things.”

Last January, Hall posted rounds of 70-66-66 to win an NGA Hooters Tour Winter Series event at Lake Forest Golf Club in Ocoee, Fla. As near as anyone can tell, Hall is the only deaf person ever to have won a professional golf tournament.

Hall also happens to be African-American. And with Tiger Woods on the sidelines until next spring, Hall arguably is the most accomplished, active African-American golfer on the planet. The Champions Tour’s Jim Thorpe excluded, Hall is the only
American black male not named Woods to have won a pro tournament of any consequence since Tiger joined the PGA Tour in 1996.

“I don’t really think about that,” Hall says. “I prefer to just let people decide. All I
know is I want to be the best golfer I can be. That’s the best thing I can do for myself.”

Hall, 26, has spent the last 10 months trolling golf’s backwaters, mostly on the Hooters Tour. It’s all been preparation for Oct. 29, when he tees off in Round 1 of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament – better known as Q-School – at Treyburn Country Club in Durham, N.C. If Hall makes it through Q-School’s First Stage as one of 23 players who will advance from the field of 85 at Treyburn, he next must survive Second Stage (Nov. 12-15, likely at Southern Hills Plantation in Brooksville, Fla.) in order to compete in the Q-School finals, Dec. 3-8 at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif.

Up for grabs at PGA West are 25 exemptions onto the PGA Tour. That’s the ultimate goal, but of more immediate importance to a player of Hall’s experience level is making a respectable showing at the Q-School final and thus earning exempt
status on the Nationwide Tour. It’s the Nationwide Tour, more so than Q-School,
that’s the proving ground for the big show’s Generation Next.

“For someone in my position, I would be equally as happy to earn Nationwide Tour
status as I would be with a PGA Tour card,” Hall says. “Goals like making it to
the PGA Tour usually involve a long learning process, a process where you take
things step by step and with every step you learn something new and use the
experience to help you in your development as a complete golfer.”

Since childhood, Hall has aspired to play professional golf. But it wasn’t until 2004, when as a senior at Ohio State he won the Big Ten individual championship by a conference record 11 shots, that he became convinced his dream was achievable.

“When I won my first collegiate tournament (earlier that season at the Marshall Invitational), I felt that I had potential to play golf professionally, but I needed more proof,” Hall says. “Winning the Big Ten like that just gave me a sharp shot of confidence and I knew I had the game to do it.”

If Hall makes it to PGA West, he can thank the Hooters Tour.

Yes, the tour is affiliated with the eponymous restaurant chain known for its chicken wings and provocatively clad servers. During tournament weeks, players are eligible for a 20 percent food discount at the local Hooters. That’s a welcome perk on this Diaspora of former college stars, Nationwide Tour refugees and 20-something B-1 visa holders from the UK, South Africa and Australia.

Life on golf’s mini-tours is decidedly unglamorous. Players who had grown accustomed to elevated status as a U.S. college athlete or member of a European national amateur squad now must suffer the indignities of fast food, cheap motels, monotonous car rides and raggedy golf courses.

Suffice to say, no one gets rich. David Skinns, a 25-year-old Englishman who played for the University of Tennessee, won three times on this summer’s Hooters Tour Pro Series and topped the season money list with $134,809. Hall was No. 110 among 309 players, earning $9,103 in 10 starts. His best finish was a tie for 17th at the Kandy Waters Memorial Classic in Augusta, Ga.

Hall’s four-year career earnings – the sum realized from three seasons on the Hooters Tour, 11 starts on the Nationwide Tour, five starts on the PGA Tour (via sponsors’ exemptions), and a third-place finish in the 2008 Ohio Open – add up to roughly $61,000. That’s before taxes and expenses.

Money aside, grinders on the Hooters Tour can gain a wealth of experience. The 20-year-old circuit boasts nearly 150 alumni who have made it to the PGA Tour, including major championship winners Jim Furyk, John Daly, Lee Janzen, David Toms, Tom Lehman, Shaun Micheel, Zach Johnson and Ben Curtis.

“Kevin is paying his dues,” says Jackie Hall, Kevin’s mother. “He’s learning the hard way. But when it happens, he’ll appreciate it more.”

Some suggest Hall has a competitive advantage because he’s not distracted by noise. (Sound familiar, Casey Martin?) But any golf instructor will tell you that sound provides important feedback when a ball is struck. Moreover, Hall isn’t immune to distraction, thanks to exceptionally acute peripheral vision. As does Woods when he hears a camera shutter click, Hall will stop in mid-swing if he detects movement in the gallery.

“I can’t say (being deaf) is a plus,” says Percy Hall, Kevin’s father and occasional
caddie. “It doesn’t facilitate what he’s doing. He deals with distractions – voices in his head and visual distractions. Those kind of things are going on in his head, just like everyone else.”