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June 24, 2005

Professional golfer signs on to teach deaf players

From: St. Louis Post-Dispatch - St. Louis,MO,USA - Jun 24, 2005

By Kathleen Nelson
Of the Post-Dispatch

Watching Rob Strano at work renders as futile any attempt to describe the beauty of his work.

Strano uses sign language to teach the deaf to play golf.

A native of Belleville, Strano long ago put to use his talent in golf. The winner of five pro events and a competitor on the PGA, Nationwide and NGA tours, Strano is first and foremost a Christian. Among his sponsors is a Christian athletic apparel company. His golf bag is emblazoned with "Crosseyed: Fix your eyes on Jesus."

Surprisingly, though, Strano wasn't looking for a higher purpose two years ago but accepted the challenge when presented with one.

At that time, he said, he felt God calling him to learn sign language. The notion was still on his mind a week or so later, when he attended a church service solely to hear his daughter perform. Sitting next to him was a stranger. They struck up a conversation. She taught sign language.

"People have been put in my path," Strano said. "God has been driving this for me."

Recognizing the meeting as a slap upside the head, he started taking lessons in sign language from the erstwhile stranger, Donna Pierson. As he learned, his mission came into focus. He started offering lessons and clinics in sign language last spring.

Strano, 40, is so committed that he packed up his family from their home in Florida last fall and moved to Washington to study sign language at Gallaudet University. He's scheduled to play in 10 to 12 tournaments this year around nine clinics, including one last week at Golf Headquarters' Family Golfplex in Kirkwood. Attendance was sparse, just three students each day. The turnout was no disappointment to a man of patience and faith. The clinic, he said, "was an introduction, to get the word out about how you can learn to play golf using sign language."

Among the students was Lauren Sebaugh, 13, who saw an ad for the clinic in the newspaper, cut it out and showed it to her mother. Lauren's grandmother is an avid golfer, and Lauren wanted to learn, too.

"She has a beautiful swing," Strano said. Lauren said the clinic had given her the desire to take more lessons.

"Only if I teach?" Strano signed to her.

She nodded enthusiastically.

Strano uses some teaching aids designed for all beginners, such as color-coded grips to show which fingers go where. He dresses up a volunteer in what appears to be hockey goalie gear covered in velcro. The students tried to hit tennis balls at the goalie's chest protector or blocker in the shape of a target or the helmet. The methods have been especially effective for the deaf because, Strano said, "they're so tuned into visual learning."

Other methods are his own. Among them are a series of seven pictures of different phases of a golf swing, laid out in a circle. The students move from one to the other, memorizing the positions.

Another is a strobe light, used in the same way hearing golfers use a metronome, to regulate the timing of the stroke. All of his students started the day with a slow back swing and whipping follow-through. After five minutes with the strobe, though, their swings were more even, fluid. They returned to the tee hitting longer and straighter.

Strano would be well-advised to patent the idea before it shows up on the Golf Channel or a late-night infomercial.

Some of his deaf students, including the three here, he said, "are so gifted athletically. They are easier to work with. They are more attentive and more focused. They pick up things faster because they're locked in on your face or the signs or what you're trying to show them."

Strano signs, the students' eyes fixed on him. They sign back, leaning or stepping toward him. He signs back, moving closer. Their focus transforms the gestures into something more intimate and lasting than words could.

"The best part of the clinic was the sign language," said Noah Logue, 15, a sophomore at Brentwood High who would like to play on the golf team. "It helps keep the information in my head after I get home. It's easier to remember the signs than the words. Learning in sign language is like a computer getting a new memory card. The information stays permanently."

To instill such understanding without words is a gift that can be admired - even envied a little - by those whose communication is bound to sound.

For more information on Strano's programs, log on to