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Golf Saved My Life

Lost In Autism, Found By Golf

July 2013

I should be dead. When I was 8 months old, I got very sick and received a blood transfusion from my father at the hospital. Our blood types were incompatible, but the doctors hadn't checked. My sister, Mariela, who is now a physician, thinks this shock to my system is why I developed autism.

Our parents had a nasty divorce. My sister and I were raised by our grandmother in La Banda, Argentina. From my earliest memory I've been in a separate universe. I couldn't tolerate noise, especially the laughing and screaming of other children. When I couldn't isolate myself, I covered my ears with my hands.

At age 12 I was still largely uncommunicative. People feared I wouldn't be able to find my way in the world.

Almost nothing was known about autism in Argentina in the 1970s. Even today neurologists have a hard time agreeing on a lot of things, although they describe the outward features similarly: the lack of social skills and repetitive behavior. Some people might say that having autism devalues any comments I make on the subject, but I believe I have a lot to add.

And how is it I can look back and speak about my language deficit so articulately? The answer is golf.

I was also lucky to have three aunts who were teachers. Even though I wasn't doing well in school, they didn't give up on teaching me to read at home. Because our region had such a low literacy rate, the fact that I was able to memorize the shapes of letters and could fake it gave everyone hope. When I was 17 I moved to Buenos Aires to live with family and enrolled in classes to become a journalist, even though I had no chance of becoming one. Besides my secretly limited command of Spanish, reporting events and interacting with sources were just about impossible. The city was just too overwhelming for me. I spent most of the time riding the bus because it was quiet.

I also went for walks in the park. One day I came across the Campo de Golf de la Ciudad, which is in the middle of Palermo Park in Buenos Aires. It was like stage curtains had opened to some fantasy set. It was so peaceful, and I walked farther in. I had to be mindful of the players, but it was a public space. I started going regularly just to walk and sit.

For class, our assignment was to research something that interested us. Being interested in nothing, I went to the office of the PGA of Argentina and told the people I was doing a project on golf history and asked if I could look around. As it turned out, their records were almost nonexistent. So I went to Argentina's Library of Congress and began looking through newspapers to record by hand the scores of every player, in every round, in every major tournament in our country, dating to 1905.

I loved it. My captivation with numbers found an outlet, as did my photographic memory for dates and names. Knowing no one else who could do such mundane work, the golf association happily paid me. The project took 13 years to finish. Afterward, I became the librarian at the Argentina Golf Association and often spoke with Roberto De Vicenzo. It was during this time I taught myself English, much of it from instruction articles in golf magazines.

I cannot overstate what learning English did for me. It unlocked my voice. In Spanish, I was never capable of insightful, reflective language. Although I never fell in love with playing the game, I believe golf was the perfect game to captivate and rebuild my brain because of its statistics, tranquil order and fundamentals that are a mix of math and metaphor.

I'm 46 now. I live in Hartford, Conn., and teach an online history course to apprentices seeking to join the PGA of Argentina. Moving to the United States has sown greater rewards culturally than financially, but I have several book projects I'm excited about. I have been homeless, but my parish now supports me in an apartment. Each day I walk to the Hartford Seminary Library to do research.

I prefer to be alone. For me, the people I pass on the street or in the library don't exist. The only people who exist are the authors and characters in the wonderful world of golf.

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