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December 13, 2002

A real feel for the game

From: - 13 Dec 2002

Playing golf for a living sounds just fine to deaf pro Sung Man Lee

By Bill Fields
Golf World

Sung Man Lee's e-mail screen name, pgasmile, speaks to his dream and his disposition. And both of them were intact Monday in La Quinta, Calif., despite his 136th-place finish at PGA Tour qualifying school. Lee's eight-over 440 total was 16 strokes too many to earn a PGA Tour card for 2003, making him just another man who would have to do better next time. But for the 22-year-old South Korean, the scores did not tell the whole story.

Golfers have won with withered arms and missing fingers, wearing thick glasses and back corsets, but try to think of one whose disability was that with which Lee competed in the 108-hole marathon last week in the California desert: simply not being able to hear the ball fall into the cup.

You'd think it wouldn't be that big a deal. In golf, there aren't any plays called, no line drives to react to, no footsteps coming up on you with the finish line in sight.

If you're deaf, like Sung Man Lee, you can't hear someone's cell phone go off in your backswing, can't be distracted by someone jingling quarters when you're over a putt, can't be disturbed by some bozo in a cart slamming on the brakes like he is headed for a wall at Indy. You can't hear any of that.

But you can't hear a friend laugh or the wind blow, either. You can't hear the familiar percussion of your irons clanking together as they're carried down the fairway. You can't hear the thump of a bunker shot struck just right, the whoosh of a delayed hit, the comforting thud of an approach shot that barely clears a lake.

Should Lee's dream pan out some day, he won't be able to hear the gallery roar. That might be why there has never been a deaf golf star.

If feel instructs golfers, sound thrills them. If you're old enough, recall the first time you nailed a tee shot with a persimmon driver and heard that buttery click given up by the sweet spot. If you're too young for that, remember the first time you flushed an iron shot and the noise was a beautiful surprise, like a shout and a whisper at the same time.

"Hearing impaired since birth, Lee doesn't have the pleasure of those memories. "But I can feel a good shot," he said. That's "neukilsoo isseoyo" in Korean. Lee was in a rented home off the sixth fairway of the Nicklaus Tournament course at PGA West. His father, Kang Kun, and his mother, Sook Hie, were nearby. Lunch had been a bag of In-N-Out hamburgers. "I like everything about America," Lee said through his agent and interpreter, Michael Yim of IMG.

The family moved to the U.S. three years ago so Sung Man could further his golf. He likes "Walker, Texas Ranger" but stays in touch with his Korean friends, and brother, Sung Ju. E-mail helps with the 14-hour time difference between Lees' home in Irving, Texas -- where Kung Kan, an avid player, teaches golf to fellow Koreans -- and his native Chonan, a city of 330,000 about 50 miles from Seoul.

Lee was 8 when his father introduced him to golf. The game helped him develop confidence, and it didn't matter if he used sign language (he doesn't) or read lips (he does, but only Korean speakers). The family's count of 2,000 balls a day seems improbable, but Kang Kun said, "He practiced so hard his fingerprints were almost erased." By any measure, Sung Man was hooked, and he was good. When he was 9, he broke 90. When he was 18, he won the Korean Amateur.

This was the second time in three years Lee has advanced to the final stage of Q school. He got this far in 2000, when, like last week, he earned conditional status on the Nationwide Tour. With his shock of thick black hair hidden under a bucket hat, he has a smooth and powerful swing, the pace of a pretty song he cannot hear.

He is striving to get his scores as consistent as his tempo. At second stage this year, he shot 79-65-72-81. Last week, he was in position to earn full privileges on the Nationwide Tour but shot a fifth-round 81. "He's real close," said veteran Shane Bertsch, who played with him Sunday. "He has a lot of shots, and he's a great putter."

Lee closed with a 68. He knows what a birdie feels like. He wonders about the birds.

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