2002: Golfweek Preferred - What’s your handicap?

I have friends who made it through the war in Vietnam, who overcame cancer, who were hit by lightning and survived, who were married three times and lived to tell about it.

Life is perilous.

The bravest person I know, however, is a man I never have seen walk without braces and crutches. On July 21, 1974, as he prepared for PGA Tour Qualifying School, 24-year-old Dennis Walters was paralyzed from the waist down when his golf cart flipped on a steep hill.

He had finished 11th in the 1971 U.S. Amateur, the last year it was a stroke-play event. He then turned pro and played the South African PGA Tour, leading some to predict stardom.

“Pound for pound, Dennis was the longest hitter I ever saw,” said former national long drive champion Evan “Big Cat” Williams. “I think he had a great chance to make it as a touring pro. He had length, and he had heart.”

After slowly rebuilding his life and his career, Walters now conducts more than 100 clinics and exhibitions annually. He hits an astonishing array of golf shots from a swivel seat attached to the passenger side of a golf cart. He is so accurate and so consistent that some call him “the human robot.”

More than this, Walters talks passionately about overcoming obstacles and reaching for dreams. For this reason, he was selected as the only golfer to appear with Tiger Woods during Woods’ summer clinics for inner-city juniors.

At a clinic before this year’s U.S. Open, Walters wowed fans with his shotmaking talent. At the U.S. Women’s Open, he did the same. With financial support from the U.S. Golf Association Foundation, Walters officially represents the USGA throughout the year. One of the missions of the USGA Foundation is to promote golf for individuals with physical handicaps.

Dennis Walters is my longtime buddy. I recently helped him write a book about his life, although the emotions I feel about Dennis and his struggle cannot be conveyed in any book. Consider the nightmare: Golf was everything to him; instantly it was taken away.

He was alone at the time of the accident, which occurred at Roxiticus Golf Club in Mendham, N.J. The first to find him was his friend Ralph Terry, who had the distinction of being an active major league pitcher and a PGA golf professional at the same time.

“I remember 1974 like it was yesterday,” recalled Terry, now retired in Larned, Kan. “That summer, Dennis lost the New Jersey Open in the playoff with Art Silverstrone and Pat Schwab. Dennis shot 69 in the playoff and got beat by Silverstrone.

“His game was just beautiful. It reminded me of watching the great hitters in baseball – Aaron and Musial, Williams, Mantle, Mays. When they hit the ball, it had a different ring to it. It had that real pure sound. It was like music.”

But it was not to be.

During rehabilitation, Walters was told he could make money by repairing watches. This made him angry, almost as angry as the doctor who said, “You’re not going to get any better. You’re never going to be able to walk again. You’re never going to play golf again.”

Months later, after veteran golf professional Alec Ternyei created the swivel seat for his golf cart, Walters returned to the rehabilitation center. He set up his cart in the parking lot and started hitting balls over a highway onto Essex County Country Club, where he once had been medalist in qualifying for the U.S. Amateur.

“The patients were hanging out of the building, watching me, and they were cheering,” Walters said. “Television people came. The newspapers came. The doctor who told me I wouldn’t play golf came out, and he shook my hand. ‘I was wrong. I’ll never tell that to anyone again,’ he said. It gave me a real boost of confidence.”

There are so many Dennis Walters stories:

Walters , who would win the New Jersey Junior and New Jersey Public Links championships, grew up as a caddie at Hollywood Golf Club in Deal, N.J. Every Monday there would be eight guys in a row named Smith on the caddie master’s starting sheet. Two foursomes, all named Smith. Uh huh. They were said to have mob connections.

“Everybody else was paying $5 a bag,” Walters said. “Once in a while you would get $6. These guys paid $50. I got to know them really well. I could club them accurately, and, I promise you, my guys never had a bad lie in the rough. They could hit 3-woods out of 4-inch grass and clover and dandelions because I got there first.”

After the accident, his left Achilles tendon atrophied, causing his left foot to continually come out of his shoe. As a result, Walters had surgery to lengthen his Achilles.

The day for surgery arrived, and the anesthesiologist came into the operating room. “OK, it’s time to put you under,” he said to Walters.

His legs may have been paralyzed, but his brain certainly wasn’t. “Why?” Walters quickly replied. The anesthesiologist thought about this for a few seconds, then said, “Right – you can’t feel anything down there.” The doctors conferred briefly, then unanimously agreed with Walters . He was turned on his stomach, and the surgery proceeded.

The anesthesiologist was a golfer. Suddenly free from his accustomed duties, he and Walters talked about the golf swing for more than an hour. When the bill arrived, however, it still included $1,500 for the anesthesiologist.

Walters once conducted a show in Washington for the National Rehabilitation Hospital. President George H. W. Bush was there.

The President came up to Walters and Muffin, his dog. “Who have we here?” he asked. Without missing a beat, Walters answered, “That’s Muffin, and she is a good little Republican.”

After seeing a photo of Muffin and the President, Walters said, “The President had his arms all around the little dog, and he was smiling. Muffin was smiling, too, and it was an absolutely wonderful picture. I subsequently sent one to President Bush. I think they should have used this in his re-election campaign. It probably would have helped.”

Walters has teamed up with many famous golfers for clinics and exhibitions. After a show with the wisecracking Fuzzy Zoeller, Walters asked Fuzzy for an autographed golf ball. After Fuzzy signed the ball, Walters put it down in his cart. His second dog, Mulligan, proceeded to eat it.

“I mean, the cover was 90 percent chewed off,” Dennis said. “He just destroyed the ball. I stuck the ball in the pocket of my windbreaker and temporarily forgot about it.”

At dinner that night – with Fuzzy and several others – Walters took off the jacket and felt the chewed-up ball in the pocket. So he asked Fuzzy if he would sign another ball.

“Are you selling these things?” Fuzzy quipped.

“No,” Walters quickly responded, “the dog ate it.”

“Come on, Dennis,” Fuzzy said with a smirk, “you can come up with a better excuse than that.”

Walters pulled the shredded ball out of his pocket with the flourish of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Everyone at the table laughed. Fuzzy signed another ball.

At a Senior PGA Tour event in Napa, Calif., in front of 1,500 spectators, Walters was demonstrating his technique for bunker shots. Balanced on a crutch with one arm and swinging a sand wedge with the other, Walters instructed, “Don’t be timid with this shot. You must be aggressive. You must be very aggressive.”

At that very moment, a short distance down the range, Senior Tour players J.C. Snead and Dave Hill got into a fist fight, something that drew everybody’s attention.

Actually, the “fight” didn’t last long. When onlookers broke it up, Snead had his foot on Hill’s throat. “And he was wearing his spikes,” Walters recalled.

Five minutes later, Walters resumed his show. “I said be aggressive,” he quipped to the audience, “but not that aggressive. These two guys are ridiculous.”

Walters has his own “Yogi-ism,” reflecting an encounter with Yogi Berra, the legendary catcher for the New York Yankees.

One of his shows preceded a golf tournament in which Yogi was playing. During the tournament, Walters was stationed on a par-3 hole, where he hit a tee shot with each group.

“I’m a big Yankees fan,” Walters told Yogi when the Hall of Famer marched to the tee. After hitting his tee shot within a few feet of the hole, Walters asked Berra for an autograph. He was ready with his own ball and Sharpie pen.

Yogi started writing, very deliberately, and seemed to be having some trouble. When he finished, he handed the ball and pen to Walters and said, “It’s really hard to write on these pimples.”

Drivers were barreling down an interstate highway in Indiana, and here’s what they saw: A small trailer sitting beside the road, a golf cart sitting on top of the trailer, and a man and a dog sitting in the cart.

Walters casually read a newspaper as trucks and cars flew past. A semi created great waves in the air, blowing the newspaper from his hands. Unable to walk, he couldn’t retrieve it.

Earlier, the trailer had suffered a flat tire, forcing Walters and his friend Bucky to make a decision – leave the trailer and cart, or leave the trailer, cart and Walters.

To guard against the theft of Walters’ customized cart, they chose the latter. Bucky took the tire to be repaired, while Walters remained in the cart atop the trailer.

Thousands of vehicles zipped past, people gawking at Walters and his faithful dog Muffin as if they were some kind of roadside freak show. Not one person stopped.

(“In My Dreams I Walk With You,” by Dennis Walters with James Achenbach, is published by Sleeping Bear Press.)

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