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Hailey Koth
Kelso High School golfer Hailey Koth practices her swing at Three Rivers Golf Course on Tuesday. Roger Werth / The Daily News

Being deaf doesn't prevent Hailey Koth from playing golf. It's not like most team sports, with rapid communication between teammates, whistles and horns, cheering crowds.

Golf is much different. Silence is golden on the golf course. Announcers call the action in hushed whispers and good shots are celebrated by polite, subdued applause.

So being deaf doesn't prevent the Kelso senior from playing 18 holes.

But learning the game from scratch, without being able to communicate with a coach? That's what makes Koth's journey from golf newcomer to one of the Lassies' top golfers so impressive.

In the beginning...

Koth first came out for the girls golf team her freshman year, having never played the sport before.

It was a frustrating process. Early on, there were more rainy days than sunny ones, and one can only shank so many shots and still call it fun.

But eventually, things clicked.

"At first, I was hitting so bad," Koth said through her interpreter, Kelso School District employee Megan Moon. "I just kept saying, ‘Try your best, keep hitting.'

"Then all of a sudden I would hit and it would feel so good and my ball would go, and I knew," she added. "I just kept feeling like I was improving and I could play this game. I really could do this, a lot more than I could when I was a new little freshman."

That improvement wasn't just in her mind. Take her scores in Kelso's annual nine-hole jamboree at Three Rivers Golf Course. After missing out her freshman year, Koth placed 35th in both 2009 and 2010 with scores of 72 and 75, respectively.

But 2011 brought a quantum leap. This spring she took 10th at the jamboree with a nine-hole score of 54, a 21-stroke improvement from the year before.

Koth thinks her strengths are her driving and putting, although her teammates and coach Jim Langenbach say she's the best chipper on the team.

"She's gained patience," said senior teammate Casey Birdsell. "That's the biggest difference I've seen.

"Everyone knows Hailey has an attitude. We know Hailey has an attitude. From last year to this year, that attitude has kind of gone to more patience and saying, ‘I know I can be good at this if I really do listen to Coach and look at other people and see how they're doing.'"

The language of the game

Koth has overcome the inherent frustrations that turn away new golfers struggling to learn the game, but that process has been much more difficult than for "hearing people," as Koth puts it.

Langenbach has taken a sign language class, but that was 30 years ago. His direct communication with Koth, sans interpreter, consists of miming motions and instruction, a thumbs up for a good shot and sticking his tongue out and feigning sickness for a bad one.

The rest of the instruction is done through Moon.

"You have to not worry about if you're making a fool out of yourself," Moon said. "You have to stand there and kind of have to listen to what he said. I had to learn a lot of vocabulary. I still am learning vocabulary."

In essence, Langenbach has been instructing two golfers - Moon and Koth, although both Moon and Langenbach have experience with the dynamic. Moon interpreted for another deaf Kelso golfer, Dehne' O'Connor, for four years before Koth joined the team.

(Only two years ago did Moon decided to put all the free instruction to good use and try golfing herself. "I can hit a ball," she said. "I would not say I am nearly as good as these guys.")

Interpreting golf instruction isn't as simple as substituting Langenbach's words with their corresponding signs. Most golf lingo doesn't have corresponding signs.

"All of this — chip, putt, drive — there's no signs for any of that," Moon said. "And then you get into the specifics of the movements."

To clear that obstacle, Moon and Koth have developed their own language within their sign language — it's like the "Inception" of sign language — by reappropriating signs to use for specific golf terms.

Their sign for the driving range is the standard sign for the word "far." That way Moon doesn't have to spell out D-R-I-V-I-N-G R-A-N-G-E every time.

"Together we've kind of come up with some creative signs that we understand," Moon said. "If I used them with other people, they wouldn't understand what I was talking about."

A future in golf?

Langenbach has big hopes for Koth's golfing future. But Koth seems to have different plans.

Golf is not a passion for Koth like Langenbach wishes it was. It's a hobby — one that she admittedly has put a lot of time and effort into — but not one she sees pursuing at the collegiate level.

Her real love affair is fashion, which she hopes to study at the Art Institute of Seattle after spending a year at Lower Columbia College.

She'll still golf, but on her own terms.

"If I'm in the mood, then of course I'm going to want to go play golf," Koth said. "For fun, just for enjoyment those nice weather days."

If only Langenbach could get Koth, along with his other golfers, to the course on their off days, during the summer, throughout spring break. He believes he could have a state tournament golfer on his hands.

"I think she should be able to," Langenbach said. "But it depends on how much you put into it, how hard you're going to work."

Koth's already worked harder than the average high school golfer. Taking the next step will be up to her.


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