Dennis Walters has spent almost 40 years delivering a simple message:
Don't ever let anybody tell you that you can't do something.
A paraplegic since 1974, Walters was told he would never walk again.
Yet he did.
He was told he would never play golf again.
Yet he did.
If he isn't the most positive person I've ever met, he's in the discussion.
There are some people and things, however, that make him positively angry.
Spoiled professional athletes, for instance.
"I have no use for pro sports whatsoever," he says, his eyes turning steely. "Zero. They’re making five, 10 million dollars, they’re unhappy."
His rise in blood pressure is absolutely palpable when the subject turns to attitudes toward the disabled. "I want you to read this," he says, producing a printout of an article by Jerry Tarde, chairman and editor-in-chief of Golf Digest. It's a remembrance of the late Frank Hannigan, the former USGA senior executive director who died March 22, 2014. The column, headlined "Portrait of a Man Who Shook Things Up," won a second-place prize in the Golf Writers Association of America's annual writing contest.
"How could someone write this?" Walters wants to know. "And how could he get an award for it?"
At first glance, I'm puzzled. It's a well written remembrance of a complex, controversial man. Most of what I knew about Hannigan came from watching him on TV when he served as a rules expert for ABC. I interviewed him by phone a couple of times, and read many of his "Letters from Saugerties" columns that ran on GeoffShackelford.com. In my experience, many of the terms used to describe him over the years - "opinionated," "cantankerous," "biting humor" - were accurate.
There was nothing humorous, however, about the Hannigan quote that Walters pointed out to me: "Screw the disabled."
How could there not have been a stink raised over this, Walters wanted to know. What if a similar sentiment had been expressed about women, or a minority group? And how could the GWAA possibly give this column an award when it contained such a sentiment?
The short answer is, for a lot of reasons. The quote comes 1,000 words into a 1,600-word article. It's not a new quote. It's contained in a section where Tarde references Hannigan's "characteristically acerbic" monthly critiques of Golf Digest: "About an inspiring story on disabled golfers, his response was: 'Screw the disabled.'"
In an e-mail, Tarde provided more context for the passage. "I always believed that a good profile showed the subject at his best and at his worst and guided the reader to a fair conclusion," he wrote. "I knew Hannigan for almost 40 years, including long stretches of not speaking to each other because of disagreement about his ruthless and intemperate opinions, and I wasn't alone. He could also be incredibly intelligent and, dare I say, kind. To ignore either side of Frank was to misrepresent the man."
Let me stop for a moment here and make one thing perfectly clear: This isn't about Frank Hannigan or Jerry Tarde. This is about the experience of being disabled. And it's not a plea for sympathy; it's about the desire to be treated with respect and dignity, something everyone deserves, and why the disabled often feel they aren't.
First, no one likes to admit to a weakness, especially a physical one. Ever hear of "survival of the fittest"?
Second, health is supposed to be a private matter. But it's hard, if not impossible, to keep a disability a secret when you're in a wheelchair, or on crutches or parking in handicapped spots.
Last, the disabled are often viewed in a negative light even by the people who love them. Wayne Warms is one of Walters' oldest and closest friends. After Walters' accident, Warms worked with him on developing a swing he could use while sitting down. But Warms at first thought he couldn't do it. "The first time I saw Dennis on crutches with his braces, it made me absolutely sick to my stomach," he said. "Because I knew him when he wasn't like that. And as a result of feeling that way, I kind of got turned off a little bit. I'll never forget the feeling that I had that night, when I was thinking about it. I beat myself up all night over how I could feel that way and letting him down after all the things we had done before the accident."
Is it any wonder that when someone who has the good fortune to be able-bodied tosses out a thoughtless remark like "Screw the disabled," it might just get under the skin of a Dennis Walters?
Which brings me to my final point about respect. Plenty of golf luminaries, including Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, have supported the idea of Walters being inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in the Lifetime Achievement category. Here are the eligibility requirements, straight from the WGHOF's website:
"To be considered for selection in the Lifetime Achievement category, an individual must have contributed to the game significantly in areas outside of the competitive arena (i.e. administrator, course architect, innovator, instructor, media, etc.)."
How about someone who has carved out a living for himself in the game despite monumental odds? Someone who created a career in golf doing things no one had ever done before? Someone who remains unique in his job description? Someone who has undoubtedly brought people into the game - both disabled and able-bodied - through the example of his own success?
What more evidence could the selection committee need of a tireless ambassador for golf? And not to be morbid, but Walters isn't getting any younger. Wouldn't it be nice to induct him while he's still around to enjoy it?
It would show him some respect.