ERIN, Wis. – A lot has happened to Gene Sauers since he last played a U.S. Open 30 years ago. That was before he married Tammy, whom he’d met in high school but was too shy to ask out. Before their sons Gene, Rhett and Dylan came along. Sauers couldn’t imagine in 1987 that he’d later quit the game he loved out of sheer frustration, only to come back to it after fighting a disease that literally burned him from the inside out. That he’d win his first major title – the 2016 U.S. Senior Open – after putting away his golf clubs for seven years.
The word “survival” will be tossed around at Erin Hills. The 117th U.S. Open will be referred to as a brutal test, the kind of mental gauntlet that separates the weak from the strong. Life-and-death descriptors are common in sport. But when it comes to telling a story like Sauers’, who is a real-life against-all-odds survivor, those words don’t seem fit for a game.
“I don’t take anything for granted anymore,” said the 54-year-old Sauers. “Thank God for giving me a second chance at life.”
The first sign of Stevens-Johnson Syndrome was a black mark on Sauers’ arm. It looked like frostbite, Tammy said.
She snapped a picture and sent it to a doctor at Duke University Hospital, who told her to get Gene to Durham by the next morning. As they drove up from Savannah, Tammy watched in horror as the burns spread over her husband’s arms and legs.
“He was pretty consumed within 24 hours,” she said.
The ordeal started when Sauers woke up one day with pain in his left shoulder. The pain started to ping-pong to other joints in his body. Doctors initially thought he had Rheumatoid Arthritis. Something didn’t sit right with Tammy though, especially when they began treating Gene with Methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug used to treat cancer. She raised so many questions doctors locked her out of consultations.
“It had to be at least 10 different things they thought he could have,” said Tammy, including Lyme Disease and Lupus. Doctors had him on Prednisone and Hydrocodone.
When the Stevens-Johnson Syndrome hit, Sauers graduated from extreme joint pain to feeling like he was being burned alive. The rare skin disease condition was destroying blood vessels in his arms and legs.
After Duke, where learned he did not have R.A., Sauers was sent back home to Savannah to be treated for his burns. For weeks Sauers couldn’t feel his body nor move it. One nurse in particular brought in her entire home movie collection. Friends gave him books on motorcycles and guns. Sauers didn’t know if he’d ever get out of that hospital. Tammy told him otherwise.
Doctors had given him only a 25 percent chance to live.
In the fifth week, a physical therapist came to help get him moving.
“God almighty, trying to get out that bed?” said Sauers. “That was some of the lowest points right there.”
By the end of his stay, Sauers was playing golf holes in his mind before he fell asleep. Places where he grew up in Savannah; places where he’d had success.
He told Tammy he couldn’t wait to play golf again; she pictured casual rounds with friends.
The first thing Sauers did when he got out of the hospital on June 1, 2011 was buy a motorcycle and a 9 mm gun. Tammy, who was already worried about the depression and withdrawal he struggled with getting weaned off of painkillers, wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a guy with skin grafts getting on a bike.
But Sauers got rid of the bike within a month and turned his attention to a rebirth of sorts. He first started work on his short game on his backyard putting green. And then eight weeks after his hospital release, Sauers teed it up at Ford Plantation to play with good friend Chip Usher. After 15 holes, he called Tammy to report that he was 2 over. Not bad for a guy who hadn’t hit balls in seven years.
Later that night at dinner, Sauers said “Aren’t you going to ask about the rest of the round?”
He’d birdied the last three to shoot 1 under.
Fast forward six years and Sauers is having dinner in the clubhouse at Erin Hills with 2016 U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson.
“Yeah, this place is a monster,” Johnson said to the oldest player in this week’s field.
On a Tuesday practice round at Erin Hills, the 5-foot-8-inch Sauers hit driver, 3-wood into the par-4 fifth hole. On No. 8, he hit 3-wood out of the rough and watched his ball land short of the green, rolling back down the hill leaving him 60 yards to the hole for his third shot at the par 4.
It doesn’t help that three weeks ago his driver of two years cracked down the middle and he has had trouble finding a replacement. Not ideal on a track listed at 7,741 yards.
But Sauers knows his strengths. He can stripe a 3-iron into a par 3 while someone half his age hits 8-iron. He’s at a disadvantage for sure, but not out of it at a championship where pars are always a premium.
“I’ve got enough talent,” he said. “I can get it going.”
Last April Sauers accepted the Ben Hogan Award for his inspiring display of perseverance. Tammy said the award attracted the attention of a team from Harvard that’s working on developing a test that would help identify what medicines lead to Stevens-Johnson Syndrome in certain people. What’s fine for one person could be pure hell for the next.
And the problem, Tammy said, is that there’s not enough awareness of the syndrome for doctors to diagnosis it quickly. For many people, the eyes are one of the first areas the disease attacks. It’s incredible that Sauers’ entire face was spared.
Paul Azinger has known Sauers since his rookie year on the PGA Tour and was in the booth calling the U.S. Senior Open for Fox last August. Azinger, who calls Sauers one of the bravest offshore fisherman that you’ll ever meet, cried during the broadcast.
“There is nothing not to like about Gene Sauers,” said Azinger. “I’ve never heard him say anything bad about anybody in his life. He’s one of the nicest people in the world.”
Sauers was 24 years old the last time he competed in this championship. He made the cut that year. The journey back has been nothing short of miraculous.
“I can’t imagine that it could get better,” said Tammy.
Golfweek staff writer Jeff Babineau contributed to this report.