West Palm Beach, Fla.
As Ken Green stood in the living room of his spartan home, near the trophies that represent a prior golf life, he noticed the stare of one of his three large dogs, a 16-month-old German shepherd named Nip. In just one sentence he would reveal so much, including how Nip differs from the 14-year-old shepherd Blackie who “farts all the time” and his “psycho” Labrador retriever named Stitch.
“I like how she sits there and looks at me,” an untucked Green said of Nip. “She is absolutely devoted to me. She’s the only female who has ever been devoted to me.”
The words concisely reflect the love, pain and humor that define clinically depressed Ken Green. In the early 1990s he lost his marriage and custody of his two boys. He lost his money and still remains about $200,000 in debt to the “IRS and various people” thanks largely to monthly $10,000 support payments early on. He lost the golf game that won him five PGA Tour titles and a Ryder Cup berth in the late ’80s. He lost his faith, free-falling from fearless to fearful. He lost interest in playing. He lost emotional balance, evidenced by the eating and sleeping disorders and all the crying and drinking. And as his life unraveled, he said, “I lost my brain.”
But Green did not lose all of his fight, nor his quick wit.
“It was a long battle with very few wins,” Green said, referring to most of the past decade. “If I was a country, I probably would’ve surrendered.”
Green, though, happens to be a professional golfer and says he never thought about quitting. He still saw the PGA Tour carrot dangling as he struggled through life’s abyss and golf’s backwaters and 1998’s surgically repaired shoulder injury. Hence, battered but not broken, he is now back from the darkness. Having succeeded at Q-School last fall, the inconoclastic one is fully exempt on the PGA Tour this year for the first time since 1996. That is the same Tour that he estimates has fined him some 23 times for indiscretions such as club throwing and swearing.
“Some people might think it’s the return of Jason,” he cracked.
Others, such as his longtime teacher, Peter Kostis, and close friend Mark Calcavecchia, say Green’s climb from the depths rates as one of the best comebacks in golf history. “The ultimate phoenix,” Kostis said, referring to the bird in Egyptian mythology that sets itself on fire, then rises renewed from the ashes.
Fatter and balder now at 44, Green will start anew at this week’s Sony Open, where he figures to combat nerves rather than demons. He had so many demons, a word he uses often, that he gave them names: Negative, angry, scared, panic and financial. “Part of coming of age was killing them,” he said. “Now they’re gone, off to haunt some other poor soul.”
Green’s problem was he didn’t know how to purge them. He said he was clinically depressed for more than two years without knowing it. Finally he sought counseling and went on antidepressants. He has been taking Zoloft for three years and, fearful of a relapse, figures he will be on medication the rest of his life.
“It’s estimated 25 million live life in depression and don’t realize it,” Green said. “And it’s not an accepted sickness in the United States. People look at you like, ‘What’s your problem?’ This is going to sound strange, but I would’ve liked to have battled cancer or a heart condition rather than depression because at least you can identify those problems. I couldn’t function for two years, and it didn’t dawn on me that I was in a state of depression.”
A small circle of close friends also lifted him, financially and emotionally. His relationship of two years with girlfriend Jeanne is a happy one. And he adopted a new outlook.
“I started enjoying the battle of life about two years ago,” Green said. “Life is all about the challenge and fight. I’ve actually enjoyed the hurdles. That’s where I’ve gone to in terms of acceptance. Now I’m solid as a rock mentally, better than I’ve ever been.”
It has helped that last October he reunited with the youngest of his two sons, Hunter, 14. Their bond fractured by a protracted divorce, they didn’t see each other for two years. “Heartbreaking,” Green called it. “He didn’t want anything to do with me. That’s the reason I lost my mind. I didn’t expect to be in his life again.” But the son called out of the blue, and now they get together occasionally, sometimes for golf.
His friends recall the lowest of times. Kostis says Green was unable to play golf with him once because of the depression. Calcavecchia says Green had the “yips with every club” and constantly bawled when they talked on the telephone. “He cried every day,” Calcavecchia said. “It was a helpless feeling as a friend.”
By all accounts, Green is a different man from the brash one who used to rub some people the wrong way. He says he’s calmer and doesn’t get angry on the course. Calcavecchia says his friend has “mellowed so much.”
Not that he still doesn’t candidly oppose political correctness. He’s still the same guy who tried to sneak a couple of friends into the Masters in the trunk of his car – that after then-wife Ellen refused to send his tickets and tournament officials didn’t offer him help. He’s still an informal guy – one who still has no intention of learning how to knot a necktie, one who played at Q-School with a disheveled look that featured untied shoelaces, unshaven face and, as usual, no belt.
“I still haven’t figured out why people disliked me,” said Green, a self-described extroverted loner who claims to have had only a handful of close friends during his earlier time on Tour. “All I tried to be was honest and colorful. And I’m still going to answer questions honestly. My integrity is more important than the game of PR golf.”
Green’s game is still fueled by a sound short game, a controlled fade with a short swing and an aggressive style. Though back spasms caused him to top and shank some shots, he managed four top 10s on the 2002 Buy.com Tour. He missed only five cuts in 17 starts.
“I just released some of the demons last year,” said Green. “When you do that, anxiety goes down and natural talent comes out. I wasn’t playing scared golf. The only reason I fell off the earth is because I lost my brain, not my physical talent.”
That ability is the reason he says he thinks he can win again. But he admits he’ll have to “play hard” and avoid back problems to succeed on a Tour now dominated by the power game of younger, stronger players who outdrive him some 40 yards. “There’s no reason he can’t win again on selected courses,” Kostis said. “But it will be difficult for him to win on 30 percent of the courses simply because of length.”
Not focusing on money also might be difficult. Green lifted some financial burden upon signing a contract in the high five figures to use a Callaway Golf driver and ball. “I can’t tell you how many times I screwed up on the last hole thinking of money last year,” he said. “When you’re broke and have to pay bills, you can’t not think about money.”
Green might be a Tour veteran, but he sounds more like a giddy rookie. “I can’t express how happy I am for this,” he said. “It definitely will feel like I’m a little boy. This is what I desperately wanted. I’ve squared away my relations, my battle with life. The thing I haven’t squared away is golf. That’s the final hurdle of what I want.”
As for 2003, his goal is simple. And it has more to do with spirit than scores.
“I just want to make sure I don’t allow any more demons back inside,” he said. “If I can do that, I can play good golf and everything else will fall into place. This will be easy if I keep them out. They’re little devils. They always keep trying.”