“If there is something you really want to do – no matter how impossible it may seem – with enough hard work and perseverance you can do it”
American golfer Dennis Walters talks with Tony Bennett about how his life took a dramatic turn following an accident with a golf buggy which caused him to become a T12-paraplegic
Listen to the full audio with EDGA’s Tony Bennett chatting to Dennis Walters
Dennis Walters has in his own words been on ‘tour’ for more than 40 years. With three thousand events under his belt, Dennis has travelled the world, played and performed at most of the great courses including Augusta, St Andrews and Pebble Beach, and has touched the lives of tens of thousands of people.
Dennis started his love affair with golf right from the get-go. Starting at just eight years of age he was captured by nature and wildlife found on the course and was intrigued by the way the golf ball cut through the air along with the effortless swings of top players. Like many at that age, putting was great fun, and he spent hours rolling the ball along the smooth green surface towards the mini-flags on the putting green. In just four short years he had decided that golf was going to be his life and that the ‘tour’ was where he belonged. Dennis worked hard at this game to take his place lining-up against some incredibly talented players.
Dennis talks about the first time he saw golf, how the flight of the ball intrigued him and the way he started to play
AUDIO: 1. Dennis first touch – 4.00 mins
With a passion for the game that knew no bounds, Dennis improved a lot and ended up playing on the team of North Texas State University on the Tucker Intercollegiate Tour. He was one to watch and frequently locked horns on the golf course with players such as Craig Stadler, Lanny Wadkins, Jerry Pate and Andy North. All four of these players went on to win at least one Major Championship. Dennis produced some stellar play as a college player, winning many medals as the leading amateur and just missed out by two strokes to earn the trip of a lifetime to play the Masters. In those days they took the leading eight players from the US Amateur and although agonisingly close, he would make the trip to play at Augusta much later in life.
The next step in his career plan was the South African Tour. The so-called Sunshine Tour was for many years a fantastic grounding for aspiring players from America and Europe. The standard of competition was high, the courses excellent and the weather perfect. Once again Dennis had the opportunity to sharpen his skills against players such as Gary Player, Hugh Baiocchi and the Henning brothers. After a few months learning the vagaries of grain on the greens, and playing at high altitude in Johannesburg Dennis was ready for going to the US Tour qualifying school.
What he didn’t know is that just a few months later he would be wholly devastated after a freak accident, in which there was not a mark on his body, but would leave him paralysed. Dennis had been going to see his coach who was out on the golf course and so he got in a buggy and went to find him. Dennis came to a curve on the cart path, and his three-wheel buggy tipped him out and left him laid out on the ground. Dennis could not feel any pain, checked himself out, hands, arms, head and legs. “Not a scratch could I find,” he says, “no blood – no pain”, but then he realised he could not get-up, and could not move his legs. Finally, others came to his aid and got him in the ambulance which took him to hospital. This was his new home for the next four months.
Dennis couldn’t believe what had happened. He was devastated. Not only were his hopes of ‘tour school’ dashed but then he started to think that despite the best efforts of the doctors and their continual assurance that he would gain back the feeling in his legs, perhaps this would not be the case. His fears were confirmed when he spoke directly to the doctor and asked point blank if there was any hope. In the time it took to fall out of the buggy the doctor answered matter of factly that Dennis would never walk again. So how can someone who was already devastated get any lower? Dennis says that “He was as low as any human being could ever be, I was tied first. I simply could not believe it. Why me? Why now?” Answers would come later, not perhaps the answers he wanted to hear, but come they would. Dennis would not accept the prognosis and said to his doctor that one day he would go back and hit golf balls to prove him wrong. Who knows how much Dennis actually believed that he would, perhaps not even Dennis, but the dye had been cast.
Another four months of rehabilitation came and went and then one day a couple of years later he was lying on the sofa, with his head on his father’s lap as they watched golf on TV. Dennis was watching his friends, the players he competed with for so many years playing in a tournament, and he could not help thinking that he should have been there with them. The words, “Why me? Why now?” came back again and he started to cry. Dennis’s father was a strong man. He had been in the military and had a stiff jaw and warm heart. The sight of his son sobbing in front of the TV was too much for Bucky. “Let’s go and hit some balls,” he suggested. For Dennis lying on the sofa, as low as it is possible to be, and paralysed, hearing these words was enough to shock him out of his depressed state. Before he knew Dad had got him in his chair, thrust his Byron Nelson three wood into his hand and was wheeling him across the street.
Covered Bridge Golf course had an indoor practice net, which was used during the winter months was ideal for Dennis to take those first tentative swings. After the first few swings, Dennis could tell that he was going to find it difficult to hit the ball. “My knees are in the way,” he said. Dad gave it some thought, left Dennis and went back home only to return a few minutes later with a TV cushion. This cushion was fairly chunky and had wings on it so that it could be put up against the sofa, “To rest your back and let your arms sit on the wings”. The cushion was put on the seat of the wheelchair making Dennis sit up taller and so giving him more space to swing the club past his legs. The first problem was solved. The next issue was that now that Dennis could swing easier the club travelled a little faster, and he was being pulled from the chair. Dad took another trip across the road back home for a belt that would help support Dennis and keep him secure in the chair. The second problem solved, but then came the daddy of them all. As Dennis would swing harder he would tip the chair off balance, and so it was simply a matter of time before the chair, and its contents ended up spilt across the grass. For someone as determined as Bucky this was simply another obstacle to be overcome. Bucky had frequently said that he was stupid, “Because I don’t even know how to spell can’t.” Far from stupid, he made yet another journey back home and this time he returned with a length of rope, which he tied to the chair and then secured to a tree behind Dennis. So here is Dennis sat on a cushion in his chair, with a belt holding him in and a rope stopping the chair from moving. Now Dennis could get to practice and not surprisingly he did.
PGA – 2008 Distinguished Service Award Winner
Days turned into weeks, and Dennis was ready to continue hitting golf balls again, but the weather in New Jersey was too cold. He got an invitation to visit Crystal Lago Golf Club in Pompano Beach Florida where he met Alex Ternyei. “Alex the Pro” was the kind of guy who knew how to fix and make things, and after a few weeks of continuous practice on the range with Dennis, they decided to go the course. The first hole was some 310 yards, and so with the same routine that Dennis had almost perfected, he sat on a cushion, fastened the strap that held him in place and secured the rope. Out came the trusty Byron Nelson Driver, and swish off went an arrow straight shot down the middle of the fairway. Releasing Dennis from his hitting position took some time, as did wheeling him down the fairway where the same pre-swing routine took place before he smoothed a five wood shot just onto the apron of the green. Finally, on reaching the green, an excellent first putt left a tap-in par. Dennis was both elated that he could once again play golf and at the same time disappointed in the realisation that he would never reach the level he had before. It had taken 45 minutes, lots of effort and support for Dennis to play just one hole. Alex the Pro had an idea. Alex had agreed to meet Dennis as usual at around eight o’clock in the morning, but on this particular morning, things would be different. While Dennis was still waking-up, he could hear, the sound of hammers, saws, and arching metal. When Alex went to meet Dennis, he did so with a prototype seat mounted over the rear wheel of an open-topped golf buggy. This changed the game for Dennis who could now see a different future.
Dennis wanted to say thank you to the clubs and people that had helped him during those early experimental days in which he found his way of playing the game again despite being a wheelchair user. It was here a second accident took place, in this case, it was a happy accident. Dennis would hit a few balls, and the onlookers would be suitably impressed, but it was when he hit a few ‘funny’ shots that were out of the ordinary, that he really grabbed their attention. Dennis immediately realised that a few trick shots would give his spectators something that they would remember. It was the birth of what would become the Dennis Walters Golf Show. Over the months and years that followed Dennis would work at hitting all manner of shots, some which he copied from the established trick shot specialists of the day and others which he would invent for himself.
Dennis talks about learning and practising for his Golf Show
AUDIO: 2.Learning and practising his golf show – 1.40 mins
For those who are steeped in golf, the name Dr Gary Wiren will be familiar. Gary who at the time was one of the worlds best golf educators served on the PGA of America training panel for over a decade. Gary became an advocate for Dennis, and it was his intervention in those early years that helped get Dennis a few golf shows. The first of these was with famed teachers Bob Toski and Jim Flick. Although initially Dennis was very shy and really did not have too much in his trick shot armoury, he kept learning, kept developing his repertoire, and improving his presentation. Those few shows turned into more and today with over 3,000 golf shows under his belt, he can rightly claim to be one of the best in the business. Dennis prepares for each and every show as he would have prepared for a tournament in his early years as a player. Never once he says “has he given anything less than his best.” With golf shows at Augusta, St Andrews, and with some of the greatest names in golf, including Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods with whom he has conducted more than thirty clinics to his credit, Dennis readily identifies with his audience.
Dennis talks about his Golf Show
AUDIO: 3. If my life was a movie – 1.33 mins
The golf show has given real purpose to Dennis. When he first had his accident “To even get out of bed would have been a major victory,” he says. Today, as he rolls onto the ranges of the world to conduct his golf show, in his specially customised, red, white and blue golf buggy, he has to pinch himself. He has performed in front of thousands, has met four US Presidents, and has been on first name terms with golfing greats such as Hogan, Snead, Nelson, Palmer, Player, Nicklaus and Woods. Dennis connects with people all over the world and loves every minute of his ‘tour’. “I cannot play the PGA Tour as I had one day hoped, but this is my Tour, I have performed in every state, in Canada, Mexico and the UK,” says Dennis. Dennis has had four canine companions, all rescued from animal shelters who have contributed not only to his Golf Show but also to his life, “I like to think that like me they have had a better life because of golf.”
Dennis talks about his Golf Show partners part 1
AUDIO: 4. Dennis’s Partners 1 – 2.38 mins
Dennis talks about his Golf Show partners part 2
AUDIO: 5. Dennis’s Partners 2 – 4.00 mins
Through his Golf Show Dennis is able to spread optimism and inspires people not only with his ability with a club and ball but also with the words he uses to connect with his audience. The maxim, “If there is something you really want to do – no matter how impossible it may seem with enough hard work and perseverance you can do it,” is central to the message Dennis communicates. His ability to touch people has resulted in media articles, a book, numerous speaking engagements and awards. The PGA of America and the United States Golf Association are just two of the pre-eminent organisations in the United States that have presented Dennis with awards reserved for the very best in golf. In 2008 the PGA of America presented Dennis with their highest award which previously had Jack Nicklaus, Byron Nelson, and Gene Sarazen as former winners, and just a few months ago the USGA granted him the 2018 Bob Jones Award in recognition of his spirit, personal character and respect for the game. “Only nine people have received both of these prestigious awards,” says Dennis who is humbled by the recognition.
Dennis talks about receiving recognition
AUDIO: 6. Receiving awards – 3.10 mins
“I started doing this for myself, to cope with what I thought at the time was a hopeless situation, but as time has gone by it seems I have been able to help raise awareness of golf for the disabled and bring hope to others – not bad for a T12 Paraplegic,” he whispers. Who would have thought as he lay on the sofa with his father more than forty years ago that the life of Dennis Walters would take the turns it has? He has played the ‘tour’, not the tour he had hoped for, but a ‘tour’ of his own making. He has played the great golf courses, been alongside the great players and spent a life in the game he loves.
Dennis talks about what golf means to him
AUDIO: 7. What Golf means to Dennis – 5.50 mins
Throughout his life as a golfer with disability, Dennis has tried to encourage others to participate in a game which has been a constant joy in his life. He has changed people, challenged their beliefs and raised their expectations. One person who will never be the same again was his doctor. Remember the doctor that said he would never walk or play golf again? Well, Dennis did go back to the hospital and took the doctor out to the front where he hit several shots over the road and onto the golf course. The doctor stood opened mouthed, leaned forward and said he would never again make such a prognosis. “Never stop dreaming,” is the advice from Dennis and “If one dream fades – then get another.”
Dennis gives his advice
AUDIO: 8. His advice – 10.12 mins
Interesting links for Dennis Walters
The story behind the photo
The inspirational Dennis Walters is no stranger to comebacks
Dennis Walters Show, Golf Trick Shots
The Dennis Walters Story
Paralyzed Golfer Overcomes Doubts – The New York Times
Dennis Walters and Mr. Bucky at Trump National Doral
How to contact Dennis
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