AUGUSTA, Ga. – The big oak’s shade was welcome on a warm, sunny, spring afternoon. It was Wednesday, the day before the Masters Tournament begins, and the usual crowd of members, guests, media, caddies, contestants and golf legends milled beneath Augusta National Golf Club’s most iconic spot.
Beneath the old oak. It’s The Place to be and hang out at the Masters. We’re behind the ropes, sequestered by our special endowed status. It’s the equivalent of sitting in first class.
The old oak was planted in the 1850s, about 80 years before Bobby Jones had the wild notion of hosting a golf tournament on a former nursery. You think the Masters is steeped in history and tradition? The old oak dwarfs it by decades, just as its enormity (held together underneath by a shocking number of wire cables) towers over The National’s storied clubhouse.
You never know when a legend might pass by under the tree. On Masters-eve Wednesday, cameras are set up there, waiting for just such an occasion. Writers tend to gather together, chatting with one another while glancing around for interview possibilities, searching for one last pre-tournament story.
That’s when I saw a hall-of-famer. He didn’t stroll past. He drove by on a motorized scooter. It was Dennis Walters, a once-promising young golfer who was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident but overcame that adversity to perform more than 3,000 trick-shot shows and carve out an amazing career in golf, just not in the way in which he originally had hoped.
I was part of a 16-person panel of experts who voted Walters and a few others into the World Golf Hall of Fame last November. He will be enshrined in a ceremony held Monday evening before the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in June.
When Tiger Woods congratulated Walters a few weeks ago on making the shrine, Walters told him, “Who would’ve thought I’d get into the Hall of Fame before you?”
Woods laughed. They are buddies, by the way. Walters and Woods have done 30 shows together.
Wednesday night, Woods accepted the Golf Writers Association of America’s Ben Hogan Award, given to a golfer who made a remarkable comeback.
“I won that in 1978,” Walters said with a laugh. “I told Tiger, ‘That’s another award I got before you did.’ ”
The story of Walters, who will turn 70 later this year, is an amazing one, but too few know it. Even fewer recognize him, though he’s got his name and his own logo on his golf shirt. You know how it is with folks who have disabilities or are tied to a wheelchair. Others tend to look away, fearful of even imagining such a situation. Though Walters is known in golf circles, he isn’t quite a recognizable face. He looks to me like a cross between former PGA Tour players D.A. Weibring and Doug Tewell.
Walters’ anonymity strikes home when our conversation is interrupted by an older woman who has an important question. She asks, Where did Walters get that scooter? Is it his or is it a loaner? She’s having trouble getting around. It’s a rental, and Walters tells her that she can get one up the street at CVS. She’s not coming back for the tournament rounds, however, so Walters tells her to call CVS in advance, perhaps in February, to reserve one for next year’s Masters. She thanks him and wanders off.
His story has been told often. In a nutshell, his father helped him get off the ground and start hitting golf balls, once they figured out the mechanics. The last piece of the puzzle, after strapping Walters to a cart and tying it down, was installing a bar stool on a golf cart so he could be mobile and not just hit balls but foray back onto a course.
Before he got the bar-stool cart, his first attempt featured two kids pushing him to the first tee, strapping him into position and letting him swing. He hit a 180-yard drive down the middle, had 130 yards to the flagstick and hit it just short of the green. The kids were about to lift him into position for the third shot when he told them not to bother, leaned over and used a putter to bat the ball into gimme distance. Nine months after his accident, he parred his first hole.
“Everybody back at the clubhouse was cheering,” Walters said. “People said, ‘Dennis, you’re playing golf again.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but it took me 45 minutes to play one hole. It’ll take 12 hours to play 18.’ ”
Enter the friend who sawed off the barstool legs and attached it to a cart. That’s how Walters got back into golf 42-plus years ago. He’s still using that barstool seat.
Walters is a golf story, of course, but he’s more. He’s an inspiration, a message that anything may be possible. And we don’t know half of the challenges he has faced in daily life; probably not one-tenth.
He remembers playing with Gary Player, a friend, in a tournament in Durban, South Africa. The wind was howling off the adjacent Indian Ocean. Neither of them played all that well that day, Walters recalls, but Walters scored a little better. He’s already planning how he’s going to jab Player with that recollection during his Hall of Fame induction speech. “I’ll say, Well, Gary might have been a little nervous that day playing with me,” he said jokingly.
Two shows stand out among his 3,000-plus. One was at St. Andrews, the home of golf. The other was right here at Augusta National.
“It was on Thanksgiving, and it was for the members,” he said. “I was a little stiff that day, so I hit a hundred balls off the first tee – that’s where I gave my show. Later, I thought, That’s like making the cut in 25 Masters.”
A short while before our chat, Walters rode over by the first tee box and heard a stranger in front of him say, “Man, I’d like to hit a golf ball off that tee.” “Dude,” Walters told him, “I’ve hit a hundred shots off that tee.”
The man looked at him, saw the motorized cart and asked, “Really?” Then Walters told him his story.
That Augusta National at Thanksgiving show has a punchline. Walters performed his next show at a First Tee chapter built on a converted landfill. Reality check.
“My shows have taken me everywhere,” he said. “To Pebble Beach, then a supermarket opening. Or a car dealership. Or an inner-city school.”
He has met four presidents. The only one he missed among the last five was a Democrat. He has met celebrities of all walks – movie stars, athletes, you name it.
He always delivers the same message, intentionally or not, a familiar message: Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.
“Forty-five years ago, I’m laying in a hospital ward, my world has collapsed and everyone told me, You’ll never play golf again,” Walters said. “I told myself, If I actually get up out of this bed, I will have accomplished something. I never imagined I’d have a career in golf. I just wanted to get out of that bed.”
Forty-five years later, Walters is attending his 12th Masters. “I’d have been to more if I had better connections,” he said, invoking his easy laugh.
The one figure in golf whom he wished he’d met was Masters founder Bobby Jones. “Our stories are similar in that we loved golf, and a disability played a major role in our lives,” Walters said.
In 1971, Walters finished 11th in the U.S. Amateur. At the time, the top eight finishers qualified for Augusta. He missed playing in the Masters by two shots. “I’m still mad about it,” he said, smiling but not laughing. He really is still disappointed. “That would’ve been amazing.”
His life has been amazing in a different way. It’s Wednesday at the Masters and a bona fide hall-of-famer sits on his scooter a foot or two from me, checking out the spectators swarming past. We’re under the old oak, in the shade. It’s the place to be.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle