News & Opinion

Sauers enjoys playing his 2nd shot at life

It’s been an up-and-down season for Gene Sauers on the Champions Tour. He has had four top-10s, including a second at the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic. He also has missed a cut and finished T-27 or worse five times. 

As the 2016 U.S. Senior Open champion, Sauers enjoyed the opportunity to play in the recent national championship at Erin Hills – his first U.S. Open in 30 years. But he was 9 over par on the gargantuan golf course and missed the cut. Moreover, he spent much of the time trying to get comfortable with a new driver, after cracking his “gamer” three weeks earlier.

Cracked drivers, missed cuts, inconsistency . . . Sauers can live with all of it. That’s the whole point: Sauers can live, and the 54-year-old Savannah, Ga., native never forgets it. 

“I don't let things bother me too much,” Sauers said as he tested drivers on the practice range at Erin Hills. “I just try to enjoy every day.”

Sauers was a three-time winner on the PGA Tour and seemingly healthy when he began feeling pain in his left shoulder. In 2003, he finished 159th on the money list and was trending in the wrong direction as the pain shifted to other joints. By 2005, he had to quit playing altogether.

He went through diagnosis after diagnosis and at one point, he was given methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug used to treat cancer patients. The condition worsened until he couldn’t get off the couch. 

“I had hardwood floors in my house and I had to put socks on my feet,” Sauers said. “Within three minutes, I could slide myself to the refrigerator, get something to drink and slide myself back. I only had about three minutes before my legs would start burning and I had to prop them up. It was just ridiculous.

“That’s when I started to burn from the inside out. My legs and everything turned black. It didn’t get my body, thank goodness. If I got it on my face or anything, I’d probably be gone.”

Sauers checked into Duke University Hospital, where a plastic surgeon identified the problem as a rare skin condition: Stevens-Johnson syndrome. Blood vessels in Sauers’ arms and legs were clotting, and his skin was burning from the inside out.

For the next several weeks, Sauers laid in a hospital bed, unable to move, unable to feel. Doctors put his chances of survival at 25 percent. Sauers told his wife, Tammy, that he didn’t think he would survive. She wasn’t listening.

"I didn't think I'd ever be here," he said. "And I probably wouldn't. She kept me strong."

The treatment was painful, and the first movements excruciating. But multiple skin grafts, physical-therapy sessions and Tammy talks later, Sauers walked out of the hospital on June 1, 2011. One chip at a time, he rediscovered his game and beat the odds.

“When I got out of the hospital, I couldn’t hit a pitching wedge five yards,” Sauers said. “It was that bad.”

Eight weeks after leaving the hospital, he played golf with a friend and birdied the last three holes to shoot 1 under. In 2012, Sauers competed in two PGA Tour events and made a cut. Later that year, he turned 50 and played five Champions Tour events, posting two top-10s.  

In 2014, the miracle man held a three-shot lead after 54 holes of the Senior Open at Oak Tree National. But he couldn’t hold it, losing a playoff to Colin Montgomerie. Then came last year’s stirring episode at Scioto Country Club, Jack Nicklaus’ old haunt, in Upper Arlington, Ohio. Sauers made pars on the three difficult finishing holes to overtake Miguel Angel Jimenez and consummate his incredible comeback with a Senior Open title.   

This year, Sauers received the Ben Hogan Award from the Golf Writers Association of America, an honor that goes to someone who continues to be active in golf despite a physical handicap or serious illness.  On Thursday, he will tee it up at Salem Country Club in Peabody, Mass., hoping to repeat as a USGA champion (tee times: http://bit.ly/2u9RjGP). 

But mostly, he’s happy to be alive. 

“I never thought I’d be walking again, let alone playing this magnificent game,” Sauers said. “So being a national champion has been awesome this past year. Having my name etched on that trophy is just a great feeling; nobody can ever take that away from (me).”