World Golf Hall of Fame Member Dennis Walters Creatively Prepares for the 2023 United States Disabled Open at PGA Golf Club, May 8-10
by Michael Abramowitz
World Golf Hall of Fame and PGA Honorary Member Dennis Walters realized last Fall that his game was stuck in neutral.
The legendary golf trick shot artist could fly the golf ball off the tee, but his body—which has been paralyzed from the legs down since a golf cart accident nearly 50 years ago–-could not adjust to putt, chip or pitch. Anything hit off the ground was a struggle, and he needed to deviate from the comfort and norm of playing from a customized golf cart that he regularly used for “The Dennis Walters Golf Show.”
After all, before last year, he hadn’t competed in a competitive event in 48 years.
So, Walters, 73, turned to some of his PGA Member friends for advice and instruction, including Bob Ford, Brad Faxon, Wayne Warms, Rob Schaal and Kevin Compare. Walters wanted their help in preparing for next week’s 5th United States Disabled Open at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Plus, on his bag will be another ally, PGA Member Russ Holden, who lives near the course.
Walters and Compare were once playful trick shot rivals. “Divot the Clown” was Compare’s alter ego, and he competed in a friendly way with Walters for gigs around the country. Today, they’re close friends and confidants. Most weeks, Compare travels from PGA Frisco in Frisco, Texas to Palm Beach, Florida to teach the game. Frustrated with the state of his golf game, Walters asked Compare to take a look. What was supposed to be an impromptu conversation evolved into a two-hour lesson, which led to regular coaching sessions ever since.
“Every student I teach has some kind of disability,” said Compare, a PGA Master Professional and PGA Education Faculty member. “You have to adjust to their ability.”
“Kevin is a great friend, a great person, a great instructor,” said Walters, who has performed over 3,000 golf shows since 1977, while traveling over 3.5 million miles. “I’ve learned a lot from him. He teaches in an easy-to-understand way. He has a wealth of knowledge. He can help the Tour player. He can help beginners. It is rare to find someone so well versed in knowledge who can communicate so well to help everyone.”
Walter’s regular golf car was long ago modified for performing trick shots off 4-foot tees and high arching shots that his show partner dogs, such as his current canine companion, Gussie, would retrieve. The dogs would also demonstrate math equations with their barks as part of the show.
Crowds, especially kids, love it.
But to compete in the U.S. Disabled Open was no simple trick. His driving was game ready, but the rest of his game was another story.
“My driving was fantastic, I had practiced with my show for 48 years,” said Walters, the 2008 PGA Distinguished Service Award recipient, an honor that has been presented to the likes of Presidents Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton; and golf legends such as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. “But hitting balls off the grass was foreign to me.”
Walters realized he needed to get a new solo-rider golf car designed for people who are paraplegic. Yet, he insisted his regular 90-degree swivel seat, which he invented, be installed, accompanied by a special chair for Gussie, who will be riding by his side in the United States Disabled Open. Walters adjusted his seat so it would swing out versus him hitting sideways, as he had done countless times before.
“It’s fascinating to watch him play,” adds Compare. “He is now playing golf at a different level.”
His game looks to be peaking. Neutral be gone.
“I’ll be anxious to see how it works,” said Walters. “It’s a big tourney.”
The 5th United States Disabled Open will be played at PGA Golf Club’s Ryder Course, May 8-10, with mens and womens divisions. The PGA of America is the presenting partner. The Host PGA Professionals are Jeremy Wiernasz, PGA and Holly Taylor, PGA.
The US Disabled Golf Association’s mission is to provide people with physical, sensory and intellectual disabilities an opportunity to showcase their ability in a golf championship at a high level. Last year, the United States Disabled Open was won by Eliseo Villanueva, of Fayetteville, North Carolina (Mens); and Deborah Smith of Rockford, Illinois (Womens), at Laurel Hill Golf Club in Fairfax, Virginia.
For more information, visit usdgagolf.org