Green makes inspiring return at Legends
SAVANNAH, Ga. – Just like that, Ken Green transformed from anxious and inspirational curiosity to impressive golfer in his first PGA Tour-sanctioned round since losing his lower right leg 10 months ago. Like his determined comeback from tragedy, the rally was impressive, more testimony about the potential of the human spirit.
Admittedly and understandably nervous, Green resembled an 8-handicap until he hit his first green in regulation at the ninth hole. He said he had never been so petrified, that he had slept only one hour the night before. But then, remarkably, he played the last 10 holes on a 7,087-yard course in 1 under par, making birdies at Nos. 11 and 15 and missing a 4-footer for another at 14. Counting a fringe at the 17th, his approach shots hit the putting surface on eight of his final 10 holes.
“I actually felt like a golfer again on the back nine,” said Green, believed to be the first player with a prosthetic leg to compete in a Tour event.
Then there’s the emotional part. He walked away from that opening round in the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf as perhaps the happiest guy in golf. While his mere presence inspired others, his solid shots coming in buoyed him. They elevated his hope that he can be competitive again. Golf is propping Green up now, and he embodied someone whose dream is very much alive.
“I come away thinking that this (comeback) can happen,” Green said. “It’s gone from a 7 (out of 10) to absolutely this can be done. I can’t tell you what that does for my spirit. It would be a tough pill to swallow if I played like a normal everyday golfer.”
Green lost his brother, girlfriend and dog and his leg to amputation because of that June accident on a Mississippi highway. If that wasn’t enough for one man to handle, his son Hunter, 21, died in January in a Southern Methodist University dormitory because of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs and alcohol.
That’s why golf is so important to Green. He says golf is his life now. He says golf saved his life. “Without golf, I wouldn’t have been able to handle what’s come down the road,” he said.
On Friday, after settling down, he gave himself and everyone else good golf in the Champions Tour’s better-ball event at Westin Savannah Harbor Resort & Spa. That’s why he was beaming. That’s why he was relieved. That’s why others marveled.
“If you can’t be inspired by that, you don’t have a pulse,” said Green’s partner, Mike Reid. “It’s that simple.”
Green takes about 15 pills a day for nerves, pain and inflammation. After he missed that 4-foot birdie putt at 14, he quipped while driving his cart on 15, “Clearly I didn’t take enough pills. My brain got in the way.” But he was talking about a different kind of high when he finished.
“Hitting good shots is the ultimate drug,” he said. “It’s like I want to play tomorrow’s round right now.”
For years, Ken Green has been known as an outspoken, flaky character – one who years before the accident endured nasty divorce, financial problems and depression. He was a five-time Tour winner, a Ryder Cupper and someone whose flippancy often drew fines from the commissioner’s office.
But now he’s in a different role. He knows it and relishes it.
“I haven’t been known for inspiring people throughout my career,” he said. “But I’ve got a chance to do something important for golf and the disabled and people who have had accidents.”
That’s why those last 10 holes were important. His gain was their gain. The higher his esteem, the better his performance, the more he can offer.
“I keep going back to the dream is attainable,” he said. “It gives me more fight and desire. It’s a wonderful feeling. It’s such a high knowing that we can do this.”
Green walked with his own source of inspiration here. All he had to do was look down. It was there on his prosthetic shoe, a size 6 instead of his usual 9 1/2. In colorful marker, he wrote the names of late loved ones – son Hunter, brother Bill, girlfriend Jeannie and dog Nip. He also scribbled the names of son Ken Jr. and sister Shelley, who caddied for him here. And then there was “Missy.”
“That’s so I always remember Mississippi,” he said. “So I remember there’s a point, there’s a reason you’re doing these things.”
Motivated as he is, Green knows being competitive on the Champions Tour over the next couple of years won’t be easy. It’ll take work and good fortune. He’s not sure his leg will be good enough to allow him to practice and improve and maybe crack the top 10 of a tournament. He doesn’t recover easily; here, unlike other pros, he skipped the Thursday pro-am and didn’t practice that day because it would’ve been too hard on his body. And he’s using a new, manufactured swing. His swing has gone from left-arm to right-arm dominant, his release from a hold to the rolling of the forearms, his ball flight from fade to draw.
Green hopes to play the Dick Sporting Goods Open on June 25-27 in Endicott, N.Y. After his two-year exemption expires in late July, he’ll have to rely on sponsor exemptions.
“You won’t see any quit in me,” he said. “That’s not going to happen. If I fail, it’s not because I said, ‘Hell with it; I’m giving up.’ ”
Before the first round here, Reid tried to loosen up Green with this quip: “I hope they have burlap sacks on the first tee because we’ll be odds-on favorites if it’s a three-legged race.” It wasn’t a new theme from the soft-spoken pro nicknamed Radar. A few weeks after the accident, Reid sent Green a text message that in effect invited him to be his Legends partner again. The text went like this: “We can beat most of these teams on three legs, so get your game ready.”
Remarkably, he wasn’t far off. Green and Reid shot 5-under 67 and were tied for 17th out of 33 teams in the Legends division. They played with the co-leading team of Nick Price and Mark O’Meara, who shot 10 under and then marveled about Green.
“I just don’t know anybody that could have done basically what Ken’s doing now,” O’Meara said. “It’s very impressive.”
“The back nine, he really played beautifully,” Price said. “He hit some beautiful iron shots. It’s fun to see. Our heart goes out to him.”
Green talked to himself often during the round – and to anyone who would listen. Driving his cart on No. 8, he said, “I’ll hit a green eventually.” After hitting a 170-yard 6-iron to 15 feet at the ninth, he was so excited that he got out of his cart, walked 15 yards to the gallery rope, fist-bumped a couple of reporters and said, “I finally got my GIR. I’ve had too much anxiety, too much quickness.”
Green often was 15-30 yards shorter off the tee than the others but outdrove O’Meara on 16. At first, the three others were just hoping Green would hit the occasional solid shot and maybe make a birdie, Reid said. They were complimentary even though he struggled.
“But on the back nine, we weren’t throwing him bones,” Reid said. “They would have been good shots for anyone with two legs. After a while, nobody said anything about his good shots because they were expected. He got better every hole. For a while, he transcended the injury. By the back nine, he was just a slightly shorter version of the guy I played with last year.
“It was amazing.”