Golf’s ultimate lesson is surely that of persistence, no sport enjoys such highs and lows in such a short period of time as we bride one hole then double the next. Chip in from nowhere and three-putt form six feet, hit our best drive of the day, long and straight down the center of the fairway followed immediately by a wicked slice out of bounds. The range of experience, from birdies to double bogeys, rewards a person’s ability to keep each shot in perspective, manage one’s emotions, maintain a positive outlook and focus on the shot at hand.
Damage control now with a prudent chip out will give us the opportunity to fight back with some birdies down the stretch. Just as in life a bad shot, a bad hole, a bad nine or even a bad round can all be overcome if we can keep the big picture in perspective. Persistence is a great trait to instill in kids and perhaps and even greater one as we face the challenges life as adults. Like no other sport golf teaches us that life is not fair and that we must accept then good bounces with the bad and adjust accordingly.
At 24, fresh out of college, Dennis Walters had all the traits of a champion. He had been dreaming big dreams since childhood, and he was ready to take action. That year, he had finished eleventh in the US Amateur Championship and had led his school to its fourth consecutive collegiate championship. His dream was to play on the PGA Tour and his future there looked bright. Then on July 21, 1974, a warm, sunny morning, just a few days before Qualifying School was to begin, Dennis was playing in a pro-am tournament at the Bonnie Brae Country Club in New Jersey. At the 18th hole his approach shot was plugged in a greenside trap, but Dennis played a fine explosion shot to three feet and saved his par. That shot would be the last competitive golf shot Dennis Walters would ever hit.
That afternoon he decided to play a few more holes at the Roxiticus Country Club. As he drove out to the 15th hole to catch up with some friends, his golf cart swerved off the path and rolled into the trees. Dennis was thrown headlong from the cart. Although he didn’t have a scratch on his body, he found as he lay where he had fallen that he was unable to move his legs. At the hospital, tests revealed that Dennis had suffered severe damage to his spinal cord. For Dennis Walters there would be no Hogan comeback as his injuries were irreversible. All the determination, persistence and courage in the world could do nothing to change that tragic facts. He was classified as a T-12 level paraplegic. In a few short seconds, the hopes and dreams of almost twenty years had vanished, along with the use of his legs. You can’t be a professional golfer when you are paralyzed from the waist down, can you? Says Walters, “When the doctor finally told me I would never walk again, it made me cry. Then he said I could never play golf again and that made me mad!”
The world’s greatest par
Dennis spent the winter of 1975 in Florida. Each day after breakfast, he made the short trip to the range and practiced, hour after hour, hitting balls while sitting in his wheelchair. While he was now becoming very proficient at striking the ball, he longed to be out on the course playing. One day, after hearing Dennis express this desire, a friend pushed his wheelchair to the first tee and told him to try. Dennis split the fairway with a drive of 220 yards. His friend wheeled him to his ball and helped him get in position. Then Dennis smashed a long iron onto the green and two-putted from his chair for one of the greatest pars in the history of the game.
A new beginning
With the help of his father, Dennis mounted a swivel seat on the back of a golf cart, complete with a seat belt to hold him in position for his long shots. While Dennis practiced putting and hitting bunker shots one-handed, while supporting himself with the aid of a single crutch. Incredibly, he was soon able to break eighty. Pretty good, but hardly good enough to make it on the PGA Tour.
Few people would have blamed Dennis if he had chosen the route of self-pity. None would have questioned him had he decided to give up golf. In fact, suggesting that he might still make his living playing the game caused many to speculate that he was suffering from advanced symptoms of self-delusion. But Dennis Walters never doubted his ability to succeed. During that winter of 1975, Dennis read books and watched films about Joe Kirkwood, the foremost trick-shot artist of the 1930s and 40s. Intrigued by the idea that he might follow this path as a career, he went to a clinic presented by famous trick-shot artist, Paul Hahn, Jr. Watching Hahn’s exhibition convinced Dennis that this indeed was something he could do and he set about building a repertoire of what he called, “Shots from unusual lies!” He designed and built a strange assortment of trick clubs and worked on adjustments to his swivel seat until he was ready to take his show on the road. All he needed now was an audience!
Dennis gave his initial public performance at the 1977 PGA Show, for a fee of $150. It was a start! He was once again doing what he loved. It wasn’t competitive golf but when he practiced his shots before a show, he felt as if he was indeed warming up for a tournament. In 1978 Dennis was presented with the Ben Hogan Award, given annually to a golfer who has come back after sustaining major injuries. The following year he appeared on the television show, That’s Incredible, where he drove a ball from a tee held in host John Davidson’s mouth. The publicity from this appearance gave his career a timely boost. At the same time, his determination and persistence on the practice tee were beginning to pay off. His repertoire of shots had increased, as had his showmanship. By now he was hitting shots with a huge array of clubs. He drives balls dead straight, well over 200 yards, with a collection of strange implements. His drivers are shafted with such unlikely things as a crutch, a radiator hose, a fishing rod, and a brass curtain rod, which he bends to produce or correct hooks and slices at will! One shaft features three hinges — count them, three! He hits balls from a three foot tee, off a watch and from beneath an egg without cracking it. He concludes the Dennis Walters Golf Show with the ‘machine gun’ shot, blasting five balls in rapid-fire succession as they roll across a piece of hardboard.
Dennis now appears at over 80 shows a year at PGA Tour events and corporate outings. Dennis would much rather have collected winners’ trophies at Hilton Head or Pebble Beach, but that wasn’t to be. Instead, he has succeeded in his own way. The heroes he once revered as a boy, now praise his accomplishments. Jack Nicklaus declared his show to be, “One of the most entertaining hours I have ever spent.” Gary Player said, “Dennis Walters is a great example of skill, courage and determination for everyone to see.” Arnold Palmer named him, “An inspiration to all of us.” Against all the odds, Dennis Walters has made it. People like Dennis Walters, become champions no matter what “bad bounces” life throws at them for them there is simply no other option.
So what was that you said you couldn’t do?