On the practice tee at Lake Nona Golf Club in Orlando, where David Leadbetter gives lessons to Nick Price and Nick Faldo, a golfer is giving a clinic. Each shot he hits flies over the 200-yard flag in a tight draw, painted against the sky with the same trajectory. Price and Faldo would envy his consistency. "I've got straight down," Dennis Walters says.
Length is another matter. Walters's best drive is 230 yards, only as far as Price and Faldo can hit their two-irons. Still, Walters's tee shots are amazing considering his handicap: He is a paraplegic, with no movement or feeling from his waist down.
On this day in late November, Walters is giving his 80th trick-shot exhibition of the year. He has driven the 180 miles from his home in Plantation, Fla., to Lake Nona with his sister, Barbara, and his dog, Mulligan. Mulligan is part of the show—he tees up the ball for Walters. Walters hits from a swivel chair that's mounted on the passenger side of his specially designed golf cart. A seat belt holds him in place, and before each shot he pushes his knees together to keep his legs from getting in the way of his near-classic swing. All of his club-head speed is generated by the rotation of his upper body, because he cannot use his lower body to pivot.
Walters hits shots blindfolded. He hits balls from under cups, off the face of a watch and from under an egg without cracking the shell. He hits with shafts made from a fishing rod, from a radiator hose and from string. He hits with a tennis racket and off three-foot-high tees. He hits one ball that is covered by burning newspaper and, machine-gun style, a bunch of balls that are rolling off a ramp. These are all parts of the Dennis Walters Golf Show, a trick-shot exhibition billed as golf's most inspirational hour.
February 27, 1995
"When I do my show, I try to make it so the people have fun, so they leave with a smile on their face," Walters says. "I try to hit great shots they can remember. I try to show them, if you're willing to work hard and persevere, you can overcome anything. When you think about it, there are only a few things in life that are impossible."
This is what gives Walters satisfaction in life now: hitting a golf ball on the sweet spot of the club. It's his competition, his way of measuring himself against the countless hours of practice. At the same time, never far from his thoughts is that moment almost 21 years ago when he was riding in a cart on the back nine at Roxiticus Golf Club in Mendham, N.J.
He was 24, a pro just back from a four-month stint on the South African Tour with realistic hopes of qualifying for the PGA Tour. That July morning he had played in a pro-member tournament at Bonnie Briar Country Club in Larchmont, N.Y. On his last hole he'd had a buried lie in a bunker. With the skill of a touring pro, he had hit the sand shot to three feet and made the putt for par.
In the afternoon he decided to play nine holes at Roxiticus, where his friend Ralph Terry, a former New York Yankee pitcher, was the club pro. He went in search of Terry, who was on the course, playing the 16th hole. The cart path on 16 led down a steep hill. It was covered with gravel. There was a curve in the path, a curve he had taken before. Alone in the cart, he hit the brakes, and the cart, an old style three-wheeler, started skidding. He tried to steer the cart back on the path. The rest is a blur. His next memory is of being laid out in the woods and thinking about his Toney Penna MacGregor driver. It was his most-prized possession, and he wanted to make sure it wasn't scratched.
"I've thought about this millions of times and tried to reconstruct it, but I still don't know what happened," Walters says. "I know I was paying attention. I was not fooling around. I was not going too fast."
Terry was on the other side of a hill, putting out on 16. A dog heard the noise of the cart overturning and barked, alerting a forecaddie, who called out, "Ralph! Come quick! Come quick! There's been an accident! Somebody flipped a golf cart!" Terry ran to the cart and saw his friend lying in the woods, gasping for breath.
"How are you doing, Dennis?" he asked anxiously.
"It's serious, Ralph. I can't move my legs."
"Well, you're just stunned. Just be still. Don't try to move around."
Terry quickly summoned a doctor from the clubhouse and called the local rescue squad. Before Walters was taken to Morristown Memorial Hospital, the doctor stuck a pin into Walters's hip, about four inches below his belt. Walters couldn't feel it. The doctor told Terry right away, "It doesn't look good. He might be paralyzed." Terry didn't want to believe him.
There wasn't a scratch on Dennis Walters.
"It was like somebody turned off a switch to the lower part of my body," Walters says today. "I was fully conscious, but I couldn't understand what was going on. It was total bewilderment."
Just like that, Walters's dream of a career as a Tour pro was shattered. Although he didn't know it at the time, a different career was about to begin.
At the hospital the neurosurgeon painted a grim picture. "He was a coldblooded bastard." remembers Terry. "He said, 'You can believe in miracles if you want to, but it doesn't look good.' " Walters was taken into surgery. He had dislocated the 12th, or last, thoracic vertebra, and it had pinched his spinal cord. He spent the next three months strapped in a Striker bed that was suspended by two metal rings that reminded Walters of a Ferris wheel. For 90 days the bed was rotated, flipped and tilted to keep pressure off his back and prevent fluid from building up in his lungs and heart.
That was how Wayne Warms saw Walters for the first time after the accident. Warms, a close friend, was the assistant pro at Manasquan River (N.J.) Golf Club. "I came in, and Dennis had a golf club in his hands," remembers Warms. "He kept saying, 'All I want to do is hit a ball again.' "
Doctors told him there was no way that was going to happen. If you can't stand up, they asked, how are you going to play golf? Walters got into a shouting match with one orthopedic surgeon, calling him "an idiot." When he finally got to use a wheelchair, Walters stopped before rolling out the door of his hospital room. "I turned around and looked at that bed contraption, and it was really scary," he says. "For every person who came to see me, and there were a bunch, I can imagine what they were thinking."
They were thinking what the doctors were thinking. There was no way Dennis Walters would ever play golf again.
After five months at Morristown Memorial he moved to the Kessler Center for Rehabilitation in nearby West Orange. From the window of his room Walters could see the fairways at Essex County Country Club. In 1971 he had qualified for the U.S. Amateur at Essex County, and he went on to finish 11th at Wilmington (Del.) Country Club. That was his senior year at the University of North Texas, where as a junior he had lost a playoff in the Tucker Intercollegiate Tournament to Bruce Lietzke. "I could say without a doubt that Dennis had enough game to qualify for the Tour and possibly be a good player out here," Lietzke says.
Thoughts of playing again drove Walters through rehabilitation. He would go home on weekends, prop himself up with a pillow and hit shots from his wheelchair into a net at a community center near his home in Neptune. N.J. He would whiff some shots and top others, but eventually he was finding the center grooves on the club. Some of the rehab therapists at the Kessler Center didn't, or couldn't, believe it. His college coach, Herb Ferrill, could.
"For one, Dennis was the most dedicated golfer I've ever seen," Ferrill says. "He lived from one day to the next on the golf course. He had an obsession about playing golf."
In February 1975 Walters went to Florida, where he met a semiretired professional named Alex Ternyei, who used to make hickory clubs and taught the old-fashioned way, that power is generated by the hands and arms more than the legs. "I figured if I was going to play with my hands and arms, I needed to learn from someone like Alex," Walters says. Every day, Walters would beat balls on the range at Crystal Lake Country Club, with Ternyei tirelessly teeing up every shot.
"One day I was sitting on a stool in the clubhouse, and I said, 'Man, I'm tired of just hitting balls,' " remembers Walters. "Alex turned to me and said, 'When you wake up tomorrow, this swivel stool will be on a golf cart.' "
The next day, eight months after the accident, Walters was out playing golf. Using the jury-rigged seat, Walters would hit shots from the cart, then use his crutches to get on the greens and putt, one-handed, doing what doctors and rehab therapists had said he would never do.
Next, he made a career out of it.
Walters read books and saw films about Joe Kirkwood, the trick-shot artist from the 1930s and '40s. He went to see another trick-shot expert, Paul Hahn Sr., at a junior tournament. He reworked his clubs, lengthening his shafts to accommodate his stance. He had a more adaptable seat made for his cart. He put an act together but couldn't find an audience. His big break came when Dr. Gary Wiren, then a teaching pro, arranged for him to appear at the PGA Merchandise Show in 1977. "After the show the Titleist rep told me I could keep the rest of the balls," says Walters, who earned $150 for his appearance, during which he had hit balls into a driving-range lake. "I told him, 'Man, if I knew that, I wouldn't have hit them into that lake.' "
Word spread slowly, and that year he did five more shows. He had eight shots in his repertoire, all of them copied from Kirkwood and Hahn. In 1979 he appeared on That's Incredible!, hitting balls blindfolded and out of host John Davidson's mouth. Walters followed the act of a man from France who pulled out his own tooth. Gradually Walters expanded his shot repertoire and worked to become more of a showman.
Now Walters travels all over the country and puts in appearances on the PGA Tour, the Senior tour, the LPGA tour and the Nike Tour, as well as doing shows for the PGA of America and numerous corporations and charities. With the help of his father, Bucky, and Barbara, he does his own booking and now makes close to $200,000 a year. He has two major sponsors, Cobra and Yamaha, and at clinics he hands out and hits Maxfli golf balls with his face and name on them. "I leave about 10,000 balls a year around the country, and they're all donated to junior golf," he says.
Last November the National Golf Foundation honored him with its Graffis Award for outstanding contributions to the game. He had already won the Ben Hogan Award, presented for courageous recovery from illness or injury, in 1978.
He still cherishes that last sand save in Larchmont. He can feel it coming off the club face, see it landing on the green and stopping three feet from the hole with the type of spin the good players call Tour sauce. It was pure.
His pure shots now come from a seated position, and he's good enough to break par for nine holes from the front tees at Jacaranda Country Club, where he lives. It may not be the PGA Tour, but it's golf, and Walters is doing it for a living.
"I never got to do what I wanted to do, but I did get the opportunity for my shots to mean something," Walters says. "Maybe I can't hit 'em as far, but when I hit them right in the middle, it still feels the same."