PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It was quiet on Dye’s Valley Course on Tuesday morning, with the exception of a few occasional laughs and plenty of smiles.
It’s the smiles across different faces that make every year during Players Championship week one of Rob Strano’s most memorable of the year.
One of the recurring events during The Players occurs just beyond the driving range at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course.
Students from the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind make the trip annually to the Players and get one of the athletic treats of their year — a couple hours on Dye’s Valley Course with a lesson from Strano.
Why is the morning always so memorable?
“The smile’s the best part. The smiles are the reward for me,” Strano said.
For the past 17 years, Strano has conducted a clinic for a small FSDB contingent where they learn as much as they can about golf.
It is done by Strano alone, with some peripheral help from Players volunteers.
And it’s done completely in American Sign Language.
Strano’s story is well known among the PGA Tour and to those who cover The Players annually. His event is often low-key and tucked away from the busier Stadium Course, but it makes the same impact year after year.
The faces are the only thing that change.
“I never played golf before, this is my first time playing golf,” said Florida Deaf student Lesean Nagle. “Probably I’ll do golf again in the future, but I don’t know when.”
A former golfer who won five times over three tours, Strano segued into teaching as his playing career wound down.
In 2003, Strano said that he felt led to blend traditional teaching the game to learning sign language and bringing the game to deaf and hard-of-hearing students in a way where even those with no prior golf experience can understand.
“I learned how to do a swing and I practiced and this is my first time,” Corian Spalding, a Florida Deaf student who lives in Ocala, said through an interpreter. “It felt really awkward, but I’ve been improving throughout the day. I think I’ve been improving a little bit and a little bit each time.”
Strano said that teaching the deaf and hearing impaired the basic skills of the game was something that he just couldn’t ignore years ago. It was a market devoid of any instructors.
He became the person to take the reins, and 17 years later, Strano is still going strong. On Tuesday, he went through his typical clinic, showing students the basics like how to hold a club and follow through. Students took it all in before Strano wound the clinic down by telling them to tee it up.
Instead of golf balls, Strano has students hit colorful tennis balls off of tees for 20 minutes or so. Laughs and the whooshes of clubs are the only sounds.
“Things I would normally say in a golf lesson, ‘swing easy, don’t swing so hard, swing plane.’ If I said swing plane to these kids, they’re going to look to the sky and say, ‘what’s an airplane got to do with a golf swing?’
“Or if I said, ‘don’t swing so hard.’ Well, hard is a texture. To get the concepts right, it helps increase their learning curve. It happens so fast. I’m always amazed at how quick these kids learn the concepts of the swing and then put a good swing on the ball and hit some fun shots. And, of course, like we said, the smile is the great reward.”