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The silent sound of dreaming big

The silent sound of dreaming big

Mike Houston, a PGA professional with limited hearing, wants Plum Creek to become the heart of deaf golf in Central Texas.

By Kevin Robbins

Friday, July 07, 2006

KYLE — When he teaches the quiet game of golf, Mike Houston can go an entire lesson without a word. Words are useless.

Houston uses his hands — to touch, to show, to applaud by wiggling his fingers in the air. The instructor can hear well enough in one ear to appreciate the thump of a flushed 7-iron.

But most of his pupils cannot.

Houston is a PGA of America professional with a specialty: He is technically deaf. He gives lessons at Plum Creek Golf Course, where he entered a tournament one day and met the general manager, who was so charmed by the 38-year-old former dockhand that Plum Creek now is on its way to becoming the home of deaf golf in Central Texas.

“I want to empower the deaf,” said Houston, who lost 70 percent of his hearing in his right ear and all of it in the other after he fell down some stairs at age 5.

At a lesson one Friday at Plum Creek, Houston spent more than an hour with Chris Hamilton, the athletic director at the Texas School for the Deaf. They worked on posture, balance, the grip.

They exchanged no words. Hamilton does not hear. The session was conducted in American Sign Language.

“Golf doesn’t require a lot of communication,” Hamilton said. “The important thing is to feel good enough to play around hearing people without being intimidated. Golf doesn’t have a lot of obstacles for the deaf.”

Houston wound up on the driving range at Plum Creek through happenstance, stubbornness and the desire to fan the embers of a thousand dreams. He grew up around golf in Illinois but left the game when the obligations of adulthood settled into his life.

But he missed the splendor of watching a golf ball soar. So he started playing again, studying images in golf magazines to see how Watson and Nicklaus and Palmer took the club back or finessed a pitching wedge to a shortside cup. He soon was beating his co-workers in union tournaments in the Pacific Northwest.

Houston quit his $43,000-a-year job at the loading dock and drove to Arizona on a golf-induced whim. There he met Patrick Swift, director of golf at the Arizona Golf Resort in Mesa.

“He didn’t want to be excluded because he was impaired,” Swift remembered. He gave Houston a job as a cart attendant, and Houston practiced his game before and after shifts.

“You can’t just show up and say, ‘I want some range time and $40 an hour to teach,’ ” said Houston, who embraced his job at the resort and worked on his PGA certification.

Houston always seemed to be finding himself in a good place at a good time.

In Mesa, he developed a following of students who liked his enthusiasm and how he seemed to listen intently. In a hearing world, Houston had an advantage over many golf instructors who so love the sound of their own voice instead of the silence that comes with watching.

“Mike’s a good listener,” Swift said. “And too many teachers are not good listeners.”

Houston traveled to San Antonio last year on business and met, unknowingly, his future boss over dinner one night.

He eventually moved to Texas to work for Deaf Link, a video system that allows instantaneous access to interpreters. He and his new wife make up the sales staff for the venture.

Meanwhile, the yearning to teach golf continued to burn.

So did the urge to play.

Houston tried to find a job as an assistant pro at the courses in San Antonio. “Nobody had a spot for me,” he said. “I figured my golf career was over.”

But then he met Plum Creek general manager Alan Wooley last year at a tournament at the daily-fee course in Kyle. Wooley saw something in Houston.

They spent a day together, just them and their golf clubs and their love for sharing their sport. Wooley hired Houston as a low-level professional.

They talked about ideas.

Could they build a golf academy for the deaf at Plum Creek? Could they write grant proposals to the United States Golf Association and the PGA of America to get money for that? What about the Texas School for the Deaf? Could they somehow bring a golf team to the school up the highway in Austin?

“We really want to make the deaf community feel like they have a place to come and feel welcome,” Wooley said.

While Houston instructed Hamilton during the AD’s recent visit to Plum Creek, a part-timer at the course sailed past in a golf cart, hauling crates of range balls. The youth signed something to Houston. Houston signed back.

He’s teaching the employees at the golf course to communicate in ASL.

“I want this to be the home for deaf golf,” Wooley said.

For now, Plum Creek is the home of a U.S. team member in the World Deaf Golf Championships. Houston made the squad this year for the first time.

He leaves for Canada soon to play in the weeklong event, which includes teams from Australia, Canada, Chile, Denmark, England, Finland, Ireland, Japan, Norway, Scotland, Sweden and South Africa. Houston is one of 10 competitors on the men’s team. The championship begins July 18 at the RedTail Landing Golf Club in Edmonton, Alberta.

“There’s no guarantees in life,” Houston said. “This might be my only chance to play international golf.”

Sometimes, Houston looks back at his bearing a decade ago and shakes his head.

He was operating a forklift in a warehouse. It was a fine job that paid well among good people, but Houston knew there was something else in his soul.

“Those are a lot of days wasted,” he said, preferring now to think about what’s to come.

“I feel like I have now contributed something.”

[email protected]; 445-3602

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