Every year during U.S. Open week, the USGA sets one evening aside to present one of its most prestigious honors, the Bob Jones Award. The award recognizes an individual who demonstrates the spirit, personal character and respect for the game exhibited by Jones, who won nine USGA championships in his brief but legendary amateur career.
This year’s honoree, who will be celebrated this evening, is Dennis Walters, an ambassador of the game whose life has reflected those same values we associate with the game’s supreme gentleman. Plus quite a few more.
Dennis estimates that he’s hit well north of 3 million golf balls over the course of his 41-year career as a performer, entertainer and teacher. He’s performed more than 3,000 shows and has logged well over 3 million miles on the road.
Looking at the faces of audience members at a Dennis Walters show, you'll see familiar expressions of expectation paid off in wonder, as if the crowd had gathered around a master illusionist. You'll hear peals of laughter and see broad smiles as people are reconnected to the joy of golf. And after his grand finale, you'll see people walking away a little lighter, inspired by his example and the amazing things this man can do - despite the difficult hand he has been dealt.
You see, Dennis performs all his astonishing golf shots without the use of his legs. At the age of 24 he was involved in a golf cart accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. His dream of playing on the PGA Tour (a goal very much within his reach at the time) was gone in the blink of an eye. No one would have faulted Dennis if he decided to forsake the game he once loved. But ultimately, golf would serve as the vehicle for a new dream and a different “tour” to play on.
With courage, determination and the loving support of his mother, father and sister, Dennis started hitting golf balls again. What began as therapy evolved into a career path that would allow Dennis to not only share his golf talent, but his Vaudevillian’s showmanship, his sense of humor and his passion to inspire and help others.
We recently caught up with Dennis to learn more about his life and what he hopes people can learn from his remarkable story. We hope you enjoy our conversation below.
TEAM TITLEIST (TT): Dennis, how did you get your start in golf?
DENNIS WALTERS (DW): I grew up in Neptune, New Jersey. The school I was going to was on the right and a golf course, Jumping Brook Country Club, was on the left. When I was eight, I walked through the woods and saw a guy hit a drive about 250 yards out there and I was amazed. To see how far the ball flew, watching it against the sky, and I'm thinking, that is really cool. I said, ‘I don't think I can do that now, but when I get big I want to be able to do that’. I asked my Dad to take me golfing and I just kept trying. Since then I’ve just spent every waking hour playing or thinking about it.”
TT: Did you work on the golf course?
DW: I caddied for several years at Jumping Brook, but then I started caddying at Hollywood Golf Club in Deal. I thought, when I die and go to heaven, this is what it's gonna look like, because it was magnificent. It was designed by Walter J. Travis and it's my favorite course of all time.
As a caddy, I wasn’t supposed to play but I’d sneak out all the time. I couldn’t help myself. The pro got tired of catching me and kicking me off so he gave me a second job picking the range with his two sons. We would hit more balls than the members did. If we were running low on balls, we'd go out there with football helmets on, with a wire basket and a wedge. And when we finished shagging balls for the last member, we got to go out and play.
When I was 17, I won three state championships in in the span of about six weeks (the 1967 New Jersey Junior Championship, Caddie Championship and Public Links Junior Championship). That’s when I knew I could play.
TT: You attended North Texas State University on a golf scholarship and you finished 11th in the 1971 U.S. Amateur Championship.
DW: Yeah, I finished 11th when it was medal play and I missed playing in the Masters by two shots. I'm still mad about that.
After I graduated from school, it was hard to find opportunities to play. I played in a tournament in Maine called the Egg City Open. I finished 2nd and won 500 dozen eggs. I'm serious. I sold the eggs right on the spot for 500 bucks. Those were the kind of tournaments I played in. I finished second in the New Jersey State Open. Then I tried to qualify for the tour and I missed it in the final stage. I was practicing, getting ready to try again when I had the accident.
TT: What happened?
DW: I was in an old three wheeler golf cart, the kind that had a tiller bar instead of a steering wheel, and I was going out to meet some friends. I saw where they were and I headed down this path. It was on the course but it wasn’t paved. There was a really sharp turn on it and a steep hill and I don't really remember what happened, but I was going down there and the thing started sliding and it flipped. I didn't have a mark on me but I couldn't get up. I dislocated a vertebrae which pinched my spinal cord, so I'm paralyzed from the waist down.
TT: It must have been devastating.
DW: I was terrified. I can't move or feel my legs and I don't know what the hell I'm going to do. When I'm laying in a hospital bed 44 years ago, honestly, I never thought I was getting out of it. I thought I was going to be there forever, that I would accomplish nothing. How am I going to play golf? I can't play golf. It's killing me.
I was sitting on the couch with my dad and we're watching the '75 Bing Crosby. All these guys I played with in college are playing in it. I played with all these guys, Tom Kite, Crenshaw, Lanny Wadkins, Andy North, Bruce Lietzke, Bill Rogers. All these guys were my contemporaries, and so I'm crying my eyes out, and my dad says, “C’mon, let's go and hit some golf balls, Champ.”
I'm going, “You gotta be kidding me. How do you reckon I'm going to do that?”
He says, “Out of your blanking wheelchair”.
So there was a little net and a little building down the street, so we went there and that's where I started hitting golf balls out of my wheelchair.
Dennis was one of the first subjects of our #WeAreGolfers Instagram campaign.
TT: You talk a lot about your father. He sounds like a very special guy.
DW: Oh, he's unbelievable, my Dad. I'll bet you, conservatively, my dad teed up well over a million golf balls for me. And never once, never one time did he say, "Come on, let's go, that's enough. Let's get out of here."
A lot of times it was dark out. "One more, let me hit one more," I’d say. And we would be driving some place, we'd be on a long drive maybe for two days, and I'd say to him, "C'mon pop, I want to go hit some balls." We would pull off on the side of the road at the first golf course we saw, and he'd get that golf cart off the trailer, we'd go hit golf balls. It was amazing. It really was. This was a bad thing that happened to me, but one of the good things was the wonderful times I had with my dad on all those drives.
TT: Do you get your attitude from him?
DW: Just about everything I learned to cope with this situation, I learned from my dad. And my mom was great too, my sister's awesome. She still helps me today. The accident turned their lives upside down, too. But it was my dad who basically gave me these life lessons, never giving up, never quitting, doing your best, all just basic growing up lessons, but were reinforced even more because of my situation.
Because it really would have been easy to quit. But my dad would never let me do that. And I didn't want to let him down.
TT: What was it like when you first started hitting shots again?
DW:When I started, I would say I was about as low as anyone could get. I was totally bewildered by the whole thing. I loved golf so much, I didn't want to live my life without it. I never thought I could make a career out of this. I was just trying to cope with what I considered to be a totally hopeless situation.
As I started to hit golf balls, I knew it was good medicine, it was good physical therapy, it was good mental therapy. Far better medicine than any pill I could take.
TT: When were you able to get back on the golf course?
DW: At first I couldn’t play, I’d just hit balls all the time. In the wheelchair, I had this pillow about 2 feet high that raised me up, and I had a strap around my waist and we tied the wheelchair to a spike in the ground so it wouldn't tip over.
But one day I said, “I can't stand this any more,” so we went over to the first tee and they shoved the pillow under me, put the strap on, tied it to the ground, and I hit a drive out in the middle.
I hadn't played one hole of golf in nine months, and so I went down the fairway. Everyone is watching from the clubhouse. The first hole is 310. I hit my drive about 180. I've got about 130 left. I take out a five wood and hit it about 2 feet off the edge of the green. They picked the whole thing up, pushed me towards the green. They are getting ready to shove the pillow under me, and I said forget it.
I leaned out of my chair, one handed, knocked it up for a gimme. One of the greatest pars ever made. I come back in and everyone is cheering, and I said, oh yes, this is great, took me 45 minutes to play the first hole.
And that's when my friend Alec Tornier - he was a golf pro from Jersey - said “I got it figured out.”
I came out the next day and he’d cut the legs off a bar stool. He put it on the side of a golf cart, and that's what really allowed me to get back on the course.
TT: When did you start experimenting with trick shots?
DW: 1977 was the first show I ever performed. In 1976 there were three courses that had benefits for me, and I wanted to go back the next year and show them I was actually playing golf.
The first two demonstrations went fine, but I got an idea leading up to the last one. I remembered seeing Paul Hahn give a trick shot exhibition once when I was a kid. He was the most famous trick shot artist in the '50s, and '60s. I asked my Dad to build me a 3-foot-tall tee, which he did. So we’re at this third course and on the last ball I tee it up on the 3-foot tee and nail it down the middle... and the place went nuts. So I thought, ‘maybe I'm on to something’.
TT: How do you go about learning trick shots?
DW:The PGA, at that time, had a 16mm film you could rent. I rented one of Paul Hahn doing a show at the PGA show at Firestone in 1960. I watched that thing for months on the wall in my room, and I started to borrow these trick shots.
My big break came when my dad wrote a letter to Jack Nicklaus, who, at that time owned the McGregor golf company in '81, '82, something like that. The McGregor golf company hired me and then my career took off. My dad went with me the first 17 years on the road.
TT: How has your show evolved over the years?
DW:When I first started doing this I did this all for myself. I was trying to cope with what I considered to be a totally hopeless situation. I didn't know where I was going, and I certainly didn't think I could make a career out of it, but what happened was, people would come up to me and say, “That really helped me. You gave me hope, you gave me inspiration, you gave me a reason for me to keep going.”
It all came back to me as a gift, the fact that I could do this for 41 years. I've been in this wheelchair for 44 years. I'm 69 years old and I still got it. To be able to do that is great, but to be able to help others along the way, it's made it even better.
TT: In every show you talk about dreams. What do you hope your audiences take away when they hear you talk about dreams?
DW: To me a dream is not something you have at night. It's having a positive thought in your head, having it in your heart, and doing whatever it takes to make it come true.
The show itself is great golf, it's a lot of fun. But there's a point to the whole thing. I hope that when people see that I can do this, that I challenge everyone in the audience to do something in their life that perhaps they didn't think they could. I'm encouraging them to reach for their dreams, to strive for excellence and to never quit.
TT: Final question, Dennis. What does golf mean to you.
DW: Golf means more to me than probably almost anyone, because it really did make a tremendous difference in the quality of my life. And the fact that I was able to make it in this world with my golf skills was really what I had in mind in the beginning. I've been on tour for 41 years. This is not exactly the tour I had in mind. My dream shifted. But nevertheless, every day when I wake up, I get to do the thing that I love the most, - to hit golf balls today, try to get better tomorrow. To me, that's the real essence of golf - improving, and I’m still improving. Oh my god, how lucky am I?
From everyone at Titleist, thank you, Dennis, and congratulations on your very well-deserved honor!
For more information on the Bob Jones Award, which Dennis will be accepting on Wednesday evening, June 13, please visit USGA.org.
And for more information about Dennis Walters and his upcoming appearances, please visit http://www.denniswalters.com.