Unique golf camp caters to deaf children

Marcia Martinez

Speaking with their hands and fingers and listening with their eyes, a corner of the driving range at Panther Creek Country Club in Springfield, Ill., was abuzz with activity.

Around a dozen deaf students participated in a camp while golfers competing in the 36th annual LPGA State Farm Classic practiced just a few feet away. The daylong affair included a clinic with LPGA professional Natalie Gulbis, golf lessons, lunch and other activities.

Gulbis, 28, greeted the group by signing her first name. She shared stories and demonstrated different shots. The students taught her the sign for France, the site of her sole LPGA win in 2007. Later, she encouraged the students to try to lift her heavy golf bag, then she asked them to touch her clubs for good luck.

“They’re excited just to play the game of golf,” Gulbis said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be born with that sort of disability. I think it’s great when you have organizations like this that provide an opportunity for them to feel a little bit more normal and to enjoy some of the things that we get to enjoy.

“It’s special to see that just about anyone can play golf, and golf doesn’t discriminate against any sort of disability or economic status. I love working with kids. I love what they’re doing here. I’ve done a lot of stuff with the Special Olympics. It makes me appreciate the game of golf even more to see that everybody can enjoy the game the way we do,” said Gulbis.

Lead instructor

This golf camp for deaf children is the brainchild of lead instructor Rob Strano. The former tour professional, who is based out of Destin, Fla., started the United States Deaf Golf Camps in 2004 after his 15-year career.

“Not really knowing what I was going to do next, I was just led to take up sign language,” Strano said. “Not really knowing that God was tugging me that way, I learned the language real fast, which is unusual for someone my age.”

That move prompted another move.

“You go to Google for every answer you need,” Strano said. “So I said, ‘Is anybody teaching the deaf how to play golf in sign language?’ I found there was no one in the world actively doing this, and I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. This is too easy.’

“The kids are great. They’re fast learners. It’s a labor of love,” said Strano.

He conducts around 10 camps yearly, and they’re geared specifically toward the needs of his students.

“We learn a lot through feel and a lot through visual,” said Strano. “I don’t do a lot of ‘spoken signing,’ if you want to put it that way. A lot of the training aids are feel-related, so they can feel where the club has to go and feel what they’ve go to do.”

Lighting the fire

A brother and sister duo from Jacksonville, Ill., attended the event. It rekindled 13-year-old Ariella Dramin’s interest in the sport.

“Before, I wasn’t really interested in golfing. Now that I’m participating, I’m really fascinated with it,” she said with the help of an interpreter. “I want to practice more.

“Natalie was really nice and is a really good golfer. She can do some finger spelling. She seemed motivated to learn sign language,” said Dramin.

Joel Dramin, 11, was the “golfer” of the bunch. He took up the game around age 4 and plays in summer tournaments. He seemed to absorb all the tips given by Gulbis and Strano.

“It was nice to learn some of the body movements needed for golf,” he said with the help of an interpreter. “I learned a lot from that. You want to be in L-formation and not bring it back all the way over your shoulder.”

Conducting a camp in his home state was on Strano’s wish list, since he has put on many camps for deaf children throughout the country at PGA and LPGA events. He graduated from Belleville East High School in Belleville, Ill., and came out of the country club that produced several pro golfers, including 1968 Masters champion Bob Goalby, Frank Connor and brothers Jay and Jerry Haas.

“I’m trying to do more with the ladies because the ladies know a little bit of sign language and they’re a lot of fun,” he said. “Natalie was great. The kids really took to her personality because she’s so outgoing.”

Marcia Martinez can be reached at 217-788-1547.