LINKS LETTER, 2005 ANNUAL EDITION

SIGNS

By Dave Childers

He started golfing at 6 years old. He played in his first tournament at 9 and won his first tournament at 11. He played through high school and college. He competed on virtually every minor golf tour in the United States and eventually made it to the PGA Tour.

Golf was all that Rob Strano knew. It was the only way he had ever made a living. But then his wife—a nurse and colonel in the Air Force reserves—was sent unexpectedly to Kuwait in January of 2003, leaving him with two young children to tend to.

“For six months I couldn’t travel, couldn’t compete,” said Strano. “I had to do something different with my life. I prayed as hard as I could, and God just spoke to my heart as plain as could be. He wanted me to learn sign language.”

For a couple of weeks Strano wasn’t sure what to make of the message.

“There was a seed there that was really deeply rooted,” Strano remembers. “I couldn’t shake it. It just kept growing and growing, but I didn’t know what to do with it.”

Then, on what seemed like a typical Sunday, the Strano family routine got derailed. Rob’s daughter was performing that morning at church, but not during the service that the Stranos would typically attend. He dropped off his daughter, headed inside, and was floored by what he saw immediately upon entering the building.

“There was a lady signing for the congregation,” said Strano. “I didn’t even know our church had that, because she didn’t sign during our normal service.”

Strano noticed a lady nearby and asked her if she knew how he could contact the signer. It turned out he didn’t need to, because the lady he was talking to was Donna Pierson, the American Sign Language teacher at the local college.

“It was definitely a God thing. God had put me right there next to Donna,” Strano said. “Think about it. There are six different entrances to our church, I still could have missed her if I had gone through any other door.”

It was—both literally and figuratively—the first “door” that God would open for Strano on his newfound journey—teaching the intricacies of golf to the hearing-impaired.

“I took ASL I and II from Donna, then I started looking everywhere for anyone who was offering golf instruction in ASL,” said Strano. “I was asking Google every way that I could think of, but I still found nothing. I was shocked. But I also started to understand where God wanted to take me.”

Strano, living in Florida at the time, embarked on a series of endeavors that helped bring golf to the deaf community. He did clinics and charity tournaments in addition to offering lessons. He launched his website, www.aslgolf.com, to help spread the word.

“When I first started, I did not know one word or letter [of ASL]. I didn’t know one single deaf person,” said Strano. “And now some of my best friends are deaf.”

NEW FRIENDS

One friendship that Strano cultivated early on was with golfer Kevin Hall and his family. Hall made history when he became the first deaf golfer to win a Big 10 individual championship during his senior season at Ohio State.

“I wanted to find out about Kevin and his experiences getting golf instruction, how he got to where he is,” said Strano. “He was fortunate to have a father that knew ASL and knew something about golf. That is rare. They are such a great family. Kevin is now like a little brother to me.”

For the most part, Strano found a community that was in dire need of his services. After learning some of the language, his next challenge was finding a way to refine his lessons to meet their unique needs.

“Until this time there hasn’t been anyone with my level of experience helping them,” Strano said. “They struggled to break 80 and were left to their own devices. Getting below 80 is all about fixing a few minor swing problems and working on everything from 100 yards in. The challenge was getting all of the short game aspects to translate fluently into their language.”

Strano found many methods of supplementing the ASL portion of his teaching.

He began using mirrors, pictures, and dolls that could be posed and manipulated. Some of the innovations stretched beyond communication as well.

When he had a group of beginners, he started them off with tennis balls instead of golf balls to increase their success rate and confidence.

As a touring pro with years of experience, Strano also had his own instructors to lean on for advice. One in particular, Dr. Jim Suttie, offered more than just advice—he offered encouragement and perspective.

“One of the first things that he said was that I might prove that the spoken word is useless when it comes to teaching the game of golf,” said Strano.

“Of course, that wasn’t ever my goal. My goal has always just been to provide quality instruction in a manner that benefits the deaf community.”

NEW HOME

After establishing his base in Florida, Strano knew that there was something missing from his operation. Just as he did in the beginning, he prayed long and hard about what to do next. The answer led him to Washington, D.C.—home of a strong and vibrant deaf community like no other that he could imagine.

The nation’s capital is home to the largest deaf university in the country—Gallaudet—as well as the Maryland School for the Deaf. Shortly after arriving last fall, Strano knew that he was in the perfect location to really grow his program.

“The response from the community has been just incredible,” Strano said.

“God answered every prayer that was asked and some that were not.”

In addition to serving the community, the community also has served Strano well already. He has completed ASL III at Gallaudet and will enroll in ASL IV next semester. He has also forged some strong partnerships in a relatively short period of time.

“There are not many golf teachers that can communicate with the deaf and Rob learning to sign enables deaf to learn how to play golf properly,” said Dan Hall, director of the Southeastern Deaf Golf Association. “I think it is a great thing Rob is doing helping the deaf community.”

Cathy Griswold’s 15-year-old son Eric attends the Maryland School for the Deaf. She enrolled Eric in one of Strano’s camps last year and has encouraged her son to continue working with him since.

“Sometimes there are obstacles in life, Eric is hard of hearing and it is sometimes a struggle to get him to fit into the main stream of the hearing world,” said Kathy, who has full hearing herself. “I just want Eric to have the same opportunity that everyone else has.”

Eric says that Strano has helped him with everything from correcting his slice to improving his short game to revamping his mental approach to the game. The fact that Strano has done all of that using ASL is a huge bonus.

“Rob signs great, he signs like a professional interpreter,” Eric said. “I really like how we communicate, it really brings us closer because he signs. It is nice to work with someone that can communicate in my language.”

Even more impressive to Cathy is Strano’s long-term vision. She is encouraged that he is not satisfied with merely teaching the basics of golf to the deaf community, but in helping them to navigate the challenges of pursuing golf at the highest levels.

“With Rob I feel that our road is being smoothed, this is a definite blessing for us,” said Cathy. “It is nice to have options for our children.

It is impressive to know that Rob is doing this because he felt it is his calling.”

Always one to look forward, rather than backward, Strano knows that his work in Washington, D.C., is just beginning.

“I keep telling people that I can’t wait to be one year from now, to see God’s work and how far this thing will have come. It is just unbelievably exciting.”

COPYRIGHT 2005 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Rob Strano

    Rob Strano headquarters out of Washington, D.C.’s Renditions Golf Club, but he is also available at the Kelly Plantation Club in Destin, Florida. He can be contacted at www.aslgolf.com.