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November 1, 2008

If Kevin Hall makes it to the PGA Tour, he's uniquely prepared for the spotlight

From: - Nov 1, 2008

by Dave Seanor, Golf Examiner

(Part 5 of a multi-part series.)
Durham, N.C. – David Paterson, the accidental governor of New York, is African-American and legally blind. He once told the New York Times that during his lifetime he has suffered more discrimination because of his disability than the color of his skin.

“Internally, I probably felt myself more discriminated against as a disabled person,” Mr. Paterson said in 2006, when he was lieutenant governor to Elliot Spitzer, who resigned last March after being ensnared in a prostitution ring. “And when I would experience discrimination from another African-American I would go ballistic. I thought black people were supposed to understand.”

Professional golfer Kevin Hall is deaf and African-American. He can empathize with Gov. Paterson, to a point.

“Not nearly as bad, but I’ve had a few experiences,” Hall says. “I remember two kids teasing me because I couldn’t hear anything they were saying. I remember a girl telling me she couldn’t go out with me because I was black and her parents wouldn’t like it.

“I remember being put in a bad tee time with kids who had no business playing in the golf tournament, because I was deaf and black. It took us 7 hours to complete our round – with a threesome! I finished 2nd in the tournament.

“Those things happen,” Hall says. “That’s just the way it is.”

If Hall still suffers episodes of discrimination, none has been evident during First Stage of PGA Tour Q-School at Treyburn Country Club. True, there’s only a smattering of spectators on the course, mostly players’ families and friends. As for his fellow competitors, they tend to go out of their way to accommodate Hall’s disability.

When he hits a good shot, as he did frequently during a third-round, 1-under-par 71 that moved him into a tie for 45th place, the other players in his group often make sure they’re in his field of vision so he can see their thumbs-up signals. If in Round 4 Hall succeeds in making up the five-shot deficit that separates him from the top 25, Hall will experience no shortage of congratulations for advancing to Second Stage.

Andrew Ruthkowski and Neal Grusczynski will be among the first to text-message a “well done” to Hall.

“I respect what he’s accomplished, because I compete against him all the time,” says Ruthkowski, a friend of Hall’s from college golf and the Hooters Tour.

“To know his story and what he’s been through . . . I see Kevin for who he is,” Ruthkowski says. “Most of the time I forget he’s deaf. A lot of times I’ll catch myself talking to him, but I have to throw something at him to get his attention.”

Ruthkowski and Grusczynski have been Hall’s running mates for the last two years on the Hooters Tours. Hall met them at college tournaments; Hall played for Ohio State, Grusczynski for Xavier University and Ruthkowski for Michigan State. They often play practice rounds together, go out for dinner and sometimes sample the nightlife at Hooters stops.

Indeed, Hall has gained a reputation as the ideal “wing man” at bars because he’s fearless when it comes to approaching women. The three friends often joke about the time in Orlando when a girl refused to believe Hall was deaf, insisting to the point of anger that the trio was engaged in an elaborate pick-up scheme.

“Kevin and I talk about everything, and I don’t do that with a lot of people,” Grusczynski says. “He’s easy to confide in.

“It’s kind of weird how our relationship his built over the years. We’ve gotten to the point where we mess with each other pretty hard core.”

Like Barack Obama’s candidacy for President, Hall’s close friendship with two white guys can be taken as evidence that more prejudicial barriers seem to fall with each succeeding generation. Ditto for Hall’s willingness to forgive and forget.

Hall’s acceptance of “the way it is” doesn’t surprise Dr. Gregory Ernst, the executive director of the St. Rita School for the Deaf in Cincinnati, which Hall attended from age 5 through high school graduation. Ernst characterized Kevin as someone who refuses to allow external factors to impede his drive to succeed.

“When you had Kevin Hall in the classroom, it wasn’t Kevin Hall who is deaf, or Kevin Hall who is black. It was Kevin Hall who wants to learn,” Ernst says.

Which isn’t to say Hall is meek. “Of course I get angry,” Hall says of the occasional episodes of discrimination he has endured.

“Why do things have to happen to me because of my skin color and the fact I can’t hear?” Hall says. “Most of the time I just shrug it off and go do my thing, but I do remember one instance where I lost it.

“It was two kids teasing me because I was deaf. They were laughing at me and kind of poking at me with their fingers. I tried to stay calm and just kept playing a video game, but when one of them started shoving me, I’d had enough. We all got into a fight but I ran away after a few seconds – two on one, that didn’t bode well for me.”

Ernst acknowledges “as (Hall) widens the spectrum of his experience, he’s probably going to see some of that (discrimination).”

Percy Hall, Kevin’s father, says it hasn’t happened yet.

“No. And I’m serious,” says Percy, when told of Paterson’s comment and asked if he has witnessed similar dual discrimination toward his son. “I have not. I mean, we’ve been everywhere, in some really remote places. And no, never. Not with him. I don’t know whether (people) are intrigued with his ability to play or his personality or whatever. But no, no issues at all.”

If there were, Percy Hall would recognize them.

He grew up in Selma, Alabama, and was 19 in 1965, the year that rural crossroads made headlines as a flashpoint in the civil rights movement. As a youngster, Percy and his friends would take circuitous routes into town, avoiding certain neighborhoods where they were sure to encounter harassment. He was subject to Jim Crow laws, relegated to “colored-only” facilities. He saw cross burnings and was all too familiar with the infamous sheriff of Dallas County, James G. Clark.

Like so many of his generation, Percy Hall was incensed by the injustice. “I saw what was going on, and I wasn’t going to take it,” he says.

He participated in boycotts and sit-ins and recalls Malcolm X being a silent observer at one of the proceedings. He heard Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. give sermons in Selma churches. His eyes burned from tear gas at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He was among the thousands who marched from Selma to Montgomery.

“I think society has changed an awful lot from that point in my lifetime,” Percy says. “Has it gotten better? Sure, it’s gotten better from where it was. But has it been eradicated? No, it hasn’t been eradicated because regardless of whether it’s a race thing, there’s going to be issues because of class.

“I still see it, but not with Kevin. I deal with stereotypes sometimes. People will see me (at a tournament), even blacks, and automatically ask, ‘How is your man doing?’ It depends on what mood I’m in, but I might say, ‘Why did you assume that I’m a caddie? I’m not caddying; I’m watching my son.”

What little bigotry or racism the Halls have experienced has been subtle. At one high school tournament, Kevin was listed as having the last name Woods. Percy was approached by a volunteer who asked, “Do you need a cart, Mr. Woods?”

In a USA Network segment during the 2006 Memorial Tournament, which Kevin played thanks to an invitation from fellow Ohio State alum Jack Nicklaus, it was noted – ironically, by an African-American announcer – that Kevin was the first person in his family to graduate from college.

“Wrong,” bristles Jackie Hall, Kevin’s mother, who earned a business degree from the University of Cincinnati as she was working her way up the corporate ladder at Ryder Transportation Systems.

If Kevin lights it up in the final round at First Stage, then manages to reach the Q-School finals and earn a PGA Tour card, he can expect a torrent of requests to discuss the meaning and impact of his accomplishment.

Which shouldn’t be a problem for someone who understands that’s just the way it is.

(Next: On to Second Stage, or back to the bushes?)

© 2008