SAVANNAH, Ga. – The first big step in Ken Green’s improbable return to golf came with a severe limp, just like every step since a horrific auto accident that took the lives of his girlfriend and brother and cost Green his right leg.
This was only a pro-am Wednesday on the Champions Tour, yet it carried so much uncertainty.
“All right, guys,” he said quietly to his amateurs as he stood over his opening tee shot. “I don’t know. This might be interesting.”
Even more beautiful than the flight of his tee shot were the ropes lining both sides of the fairway at the Savannah Harbor Golf Resort, indisputable evidence that Green was back on the stage where some thought he might never return.
“I do want to have fun and enjoy it,” Green said. “Because I don’t know how many times I’m going to get the chance to do this again.”
That he is even playing in the Legends of Golf, a two-man team event that starts Friday, is nothing short of amazing.
It was only nine months ago that Green, 51, was headed east on a Mississippi freeway when a tire blew out on his RV, sending it down an embankment and into an oak tree. His girlfriend, Jean Marie Hodgin, and brother, William Green, were killed, as was Nip, his beloved German Shepherd.
Green decided to have his lower right leg amputated a week later. It was his only hope of playing golf again.
“Golf is everything to me,” he said.
Then came another dose of devastation. Three months into learning how to compete with a prosthetic limb that took away so much of his power, Green’s 21-year-old son, Hunter, was found dead Jan. 22 in his dorm room at SMU. An autopsy revealed a combination of alcohol and prescription drugs.
Somehow, he kept moving forward.
“I don’t know how I managed to say, ‘OK, I’m going to still keep fighting the fight and go out there and try to play golf,”’ Green said. “That’s what the Big Guy wants me to do. You do the battle. But it’s a tough one. There’s a lot of crying moments, trust me.”
The battle is nothing new to Green.
He says his stubbornness came from his mother, a single mom working three jobs so her son could play golf. He has done battle with the hierarchy on the PGA Tour and at Augusta National, where Green once celebrated a tee time with Arnold Palmer by drinking a beer walking up the fairway. He managed to win five times on the PGA Tour and play on a Ryder Cup team.
A rebellious nature might have prepared him for times like these.
“From the day I said, ‘Cut my leg,’ there was no doubt in my mind I was going to play,” Green said. “Unfortunately, the mind thinks differently than the body. But I still believe that I can do this and I can pull this off. It’s just going to be a little longer time than I probably would have liked. Realistically, it hasn’t been that long.”
The Legends of Golf is the ideal place to start. It’s a better-ball competition over 54 holes, and he has a polar-opposite partner in Mike Reid, famous for being so gracious after a crushing loss in the 1989 PGA Championship.
They were partners last year, and when Reid heard about the accident, he sent Green a text a month later that said, “We can beat most of these teams on three legs, so get your game ready.”
Over the last two months, as Green questioned whether his game was good enough for this level, he suggested Reid find a partner who could help him. Reid would have none of it.
“It’s easy to say fellowship is more than important than championship,” Reid said.
Green isn’t sure what to expect. He has revamped his swing to play a draw so he can pick up extra distance. The loss of strength in his lower body means he can hit a driver only about 235 yards in the air. He no longer generates as much spin, and Green is still trying to find a comfortable stance for various chip shots.
He shot 68 at The Breakers near his home in West Palm Beach, Fla., but that was from a forward set of tees. Once he felt more comfortable and moved back, Green said he hasn’t broken par.
Then again, par isn’t the issue this week.
“I’m just glad to see him back,” Hal Sutton said. “We all forget how good we have it. It’s like Jackie Burke always says, ‘Much always wants more.’ We’re always wanting more and not counting our blessings for the ‘much’ we have. Ken is a great example for all of us. I’m sure he has more than he thought he would.”
Green never imagined being an inspiration to anyone, but he could feel it when he showed up in Savannah and began running into colleagues he had not seen since the accident.
“Every one of them has literally said, ‘It doesn’t mean a damn thing. It’s just great that you’re here,”’ Green said. “For them to say that has really eased my tension level.”
It used to be hardly anything made Green tense. Two days before the tournament starts, he already is feeling nervous. He is worried that his game is not ready to be showcased in the same tournament as Fred Couples, Tom Watson, or the twosome he will face Friday of Mark O’Meara and Nick Price.
But when his son died, Green realized life can take some cruel and unexpected turns.
“There’s been numerous things that have happened,” he said. “Who’s to say that something else can’t happy where you literally will never have a chance? I want to be able to say I have played, gone out there inside the ropes. There’s a special feel inside he ropes playing golf.”
He wants to play on his own this summer, hopefully the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open in Endicott, N.Y. For now, the thrill is playing on tour with prize money at stake.
This is a big deal for Green, even bigger for those around him.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Boy, this is great for Ken. This is really going to lift his spirits.’ But it’s the other way around,” Reid said. “He’s lifting us. What a measure of courage to be here and to be committed. To see the reservoirs of strength that he’s had to draw from a year ago to now, it lifts all of us. That’s the message that I hope we don’t miss this week.”