If Dennis Walters had never had the accident, never lost the use of his legs, well, it's impossible to say what he would be doing now at age 65. But it's more probable than not that he wouldn't be out in the Central Florida sun hitting trick golf shots and dispensing life lessons to a couple hundred elementary school kids.
Yet here he was in Kissimmee, just south of Orlando, doing his show at a park across the street from East Lake Elementary. It was one of his last appearances in his adopted home state before he headed out on the road in a brand new RV for his 38th year of touring. It's a life he couldn't have imagined 41 years ago when he was paralyzed from the waist down in a golf-cart accident.
“If you had told me when I’m lying in a hospital bed 41 years ago that I’m going to do over 3,000 shows and meet Ben Hogan six times and have Sam Snead tell me dirty jokes and have Byron Nelson so close to me, I had to ask him to move … I’ve done 30 clinics with Tiger. Met three presidents. Done things with Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Yeah, if this was a movie, you’d say they made it up. It would be impossible to dream that big.”
Walters is big on dreams. He made sure the schoolkids understood that.
“You should never, ever give up on your dreams,” he said while rifling shot after shot, each one a tight little draw, out into the empty soccer field. “Strive for excellence and do something you didn’t think you could. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.”
DENNIS WALTERS is “the greatest story in the history of golf,” says Wayne Warms, a PGA pro who has known Walters since childhood. Warms compares Walters with Ben Hogan, who survived a near-fatal car accident in 1949 to become one of the game’s all-time greats.
Twenty-five years after his own accident, Hogan helped Walters deal with his by writing the promising young pro a letter of encouragement. Addressed to “Dear Denny,” it read in part: “We know the human body is a great machine and can absorb many shocks. Even though it may seem slow, recovery is possible provided one had faith, hope, will and determination. From what I heard about you I am sure you possess these qualities.”
The unforgiving reality of being paralyzed from the waist down prevented Walters from achieving his initial dream of playing on the PGA Tour. But he created another dream – being able to hit golf balls from a wheelchair. That one came true, and it led to a unique career as a trick-shot artist.
“When I first started doing this, I did this all for myself,” Walters said. "I was trying to figure out some way to just cope with what I was dealing with. But as I started to perform and do these things, every time I did one, someone would come up and say, ‘Wow, this really helped me out. It showed me what I was missing. Gave me new hope. Gave me something new to think about.’
“I feel I have a universal message, but especially for young people and people with disabilities. Listen, if I can have a career hitting trick golf shots for 38 years, wow, I think that’s awesome. However, I have had the opportunity to positively influence others. Maybe only a little bit but that’s made it even better. Every day I try to do something positive. I know most days we succeed. This is about golf, but it’s a lot more than just about golf.”
BARBARA HERMAN WONDERS: “Could you only imagine what kind of golfer he would have been on the Tour, if he had both legs?”
Walters’ only sibling, three years his senior, knows him like no one else. She’s the one who tells you that “Shorty” Walters was the star of his Little League baseball team, that he was a “phenomenal” bowler and that he is also a talented artist.
Walters’ pre-accident golf record speaks for itself. In 1967, when he was 18, he won the New Jersey Junior Championship, Caddie Championship and Public Links Junior Championship, an unprecedented triple crown. He went to North Texas State on a golf scholarship. He finished 11th in the 1971 U.S. Amateur when it was all medal play. He reached the final stage of the PGA Tour’s Qualifying School and was about to enter for a second time when the accident derailed him.
Even though he weighed only about 130 pounds, Walters was a long driver. Former major league pitcher Ralph Terry, who would later play a key role in Walters’ life, remembers playing with Walters in a tournament in New Jersey when Walters was still in high school. “I thought I could hit the ball a pretty good distance,” said Terry, who became a club pro after retiring from baseball, “and he had a little whippy-shafted Power-Bilt driver and he was outdriving me.”
“He hit the ball a freakin’ mile,” said Warms, who was a couple of years behind Walters at Neptune High School. “He had all the tools to make the next step, which he was about to do, and then the accident happened in July of ’74.
“If Dennis hadn’t gotten in that accident, I am totally convinced that he would have been the greatest player ever to come out of the state of New Jersey. There’s no question about that.”
“I CAN'T TELL YOU exactly what happened,” Walters says about his accident. “All I know is that I was in one of these old three-wheel golf carts to join a friend of mine on the back nine and I went down this new path that had stones on it. The next thing I know, I’m on the ground. Nothing hurt, I’m looking around for blood. Nothing bothered me so I go to get up and I can’t get up. I dislocated a vertebrae, which pinched my spinal cord.”
Walters’ accident happened at Roxiticus Golf Club in Mendham, N.J., on Sunday, July 21, 1974. He had played in a pro-am at Bonnie Briar Country Club in Larchmont, N.Y. – his final full shot a sand save – and had driven to Roxiticus to see Terry. Told Terry was on the course, Walters took a cart and drove out to find him. Driving downhill on a steep cartpath intended for uphill travel, Walters lost control of the cart while making a right turn at the bottom.
Walters spent several weeks in Morristown Memorial Hospital, then was transferred to the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange. He was given his sentence: You’ll never walk again. You’ll never play golf again. Golf was his life. They might as well have told him, Your life is over.
“I was so bewildered and so down and so low, I didn’t know what to do,” Walters said. “I came home to my mom and dad on the weekends and I was sitting there in 1975 watching the Bing Crosby tournament. A lot of these guys I played with in college were playing in it.
“So I’m crying my eyes out and Dad says, ‘Let’s go hit some golf balls.’ And I said, ‘Come on, man. How am I going to do that?’ And he goes, ‘Out of your [expletive] wheelchair.’
“I had this Byron Nelson 3-wood. It was my favorite club. I took that and we went down to this little clubhouse that had a net. This was in New Jersey in the wintertime. It had a net where you could hit balls.”
Walters hit balls into the net for two weekends. But he wanted more. “I’ve got to hit one outside,” he said. “I want to see where they’re going.’
They went out to the front yard. On Walters' third swing, the ball went “about 140 yards right down the street. Didn’t hit a car or nothing. Perfect shot.
“My dad is jumping up and down and high-fiving me. I said, ‘Man, that felt good.’”
A friend who owned the Crystal Lago golf course in Pompano Beach, Fla., invited Walters to visit. “I was staying in this little apartment that was right off the cart barn. I was going to stay a couple of weeks. I stayed six months.”
One of the course employees was “an old pro from Jersey,” Alec Ternyei. He teed up balls for Walters to hit, “every single day, all day. … I did that for about a month and I was doing better. I was hitting my driver about 180.”
Now Walters wanted to play a hole. Crystal Lago’s first hole was a par 4 of just over 300 yards. He recruited a couple of high school kids to set him up in his wheelchair on the tee. Tee shot: “One-eighty right down the middle.” Approach shot: a 5-wood to the edge of the green. “I took my putter one-handed and knocked it up for a gimme.
“It was probably one of the best pars ever made.”
It had taken Walters nearly 45 minutes to play the hole, though, and he knew he could never play a full round that slowly. But Ternyei had an idea. The next morning, he showed it to Walters. He had removed the passenger seat from a golf cart and replaced it with a frame with a platform on top. He then had taken a barstool, cut its legs off and bolted the seat to the platform. After a few more modifications, Walters had the equipment he needed to forge a career.
THREEE GOLF COURSES had held fundraisers for Walters, and he wanted to thank them. “I figured it would be nice of me to go back a year later, to show them I was actually playing golf,” he says. For the first two shows, he simply hit balls and delivered his “never give up” message.
By the third show, he wanted to do something different. As a kid, he had seen the great trick-shot artist, Paul Hahn Sr. He asked his father, Arthur “Bucky” Walters, to make him a 3-foot-tall tee.
He did his usual exhibition of hitting balls, “except at the end, I said ‘I’ve been practicing this shot – I want to see if you guys like it.'” The crowd loved it.
“I never thought I could really make a career out of this. I was just trying to cope with what I thought to be a hopeless situation. As rotten as I felt everyplace else, I felt good when I was at the golf course. For me, it was good therapy. Good mental therapy, good physical therapy.”
His sights now set on a trick-shot career, Walters studied the techniques of previous artists and began building his own repertoire. A friend, Gary Wiren, arranged for him to do a show in conjunction with the annual PGA Merchandise Show.
“It was at Disney World, right behind the Contemporary Hotel,” Walters says. “I was hitting balls in the lake with Bob Toski and Jim Flick, and Toski and I were having contests, like who could skip the ball the most.
“That was really the first show I did.”
Walters’ father tried to drum up business by calling golf courses, but nothing really happened until he wrote a letter to Jack Nicklaus. At the time, Nicklaus owned the MacGregor Golf Company. MacGregor signed Walters to a contract, “and the best part about it was they sent me everywhere. I went to junior golf charity tournaments, corporate outings, stuff like that. The more I did, the more people I came across, the more shows I got. I got more sponsors. So that was my real big break.”
TODAY, WALTERS LIVES at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Fla. In his garage are two signs – one that formerly hung at nearby Seminole Golf Club, a favorite haunt of Hogan, the other a large one identifying this Trump golf club by its original name, Ritz-Carlton. “They were tossing it,” he tells a visitor. “I said ‘Toss it over to my house.’” When he's home, he'll go to the back of the range most every day and practice with his bizarre menagerie of clubs – drivers with “shafts” consisting of a fishing rod, a rubber hose, a multi-hinged length of metal, and “heads” in the shape of a judge's gavel, a dog biscuit, a cellphone. His most distinctive club is the one he calls his 3-iron, but it's actually a three-headed 7-iron. He hits three balls at once with it, producing high, low and medium trajectories, all with one swing.
Inside his house, nearly every surface is covered with photographs. Mostly they fall into two categories: Walters with famous people; and his dogs, with or without famous people.
When Walters starts taking about his dogs, he’s harder to stop than a Pinnacle in a parking lot. He points to a photo of himself and his current dog, Mr. Bucky, both clad in tuxedos. “Mine was a rental,” he says. “He owns his.”
Another photo catches his eye. “Here’s the best picture ever taken, in my opinion,” he says. “I could be wrong, but I doubt it.” This photo shows Mr. Bucky standing on the Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrews. Standing on his back legs. “He walked right across the bridge,” Walters says proudly.
Mr. Bucky is the fourth dog Walters has used in his show. He was preceded by Muffin, Mulligan and Benji Hogan. All of them came from animal shelters. The role in his shows expanded over the years. Mr. Bucky's job is to put at least one ball on a tee for Walters, answer numerical questions with the correct number of barks ("What's the square root of 16?" "Ruff, ruff, ruff, ruff.) and chase a tennis ball to his heart's content. Audiences - especially young ones - LOVE Mr. Bucky.
“I got [Muffin] shortly after my accident because I was miserable and her job was to lift my spirits,” Walters says. “She was an angel. I had her for 12 years and never yelled at her.”
The next dog was Mulligan. Mulligan is painful for Walters to talk about. She died after running into the path of Walters’ club as he was hitting a shot. He devotes a short chapter to the accident in his autobiography, “In My Dreams I Walk With You.” It’s called “The Worst Day of My Life.”
Walters named his third dog Benji Hogan. A dog trainer for the movie industry worked with him, and Benji ended up doing several commercials. After Benji Hogan passed away, Walters doubted he would ever find another suitable dog. “I called up my sister and said ‘That’s it. I’m out of the dog business.’”
But sure enough, he eventually found the dog he would name in honor of his late father.
Dennis Walters meets East Lake Elementary students Arnaldo Febus and Edwin Defendini.
WALTERS CRISSCROSSES the country with his assistant, Mark Stephens, and Mr. Bucky, in a motorhome. It’s a big step up the comfort ladder from the minivan he and his dad drove for 17 years. That didn’t even have room for a wheelchair. Walters walked everywhere in those days, using his leg braces and crutches. When Bucky Walters no longer could accompany him, Barbara took over.
Barbara insisted that Dennis take an equal role in whatever work had to be done during their travels, such as setting up or breaking down his cart seat. Previously, Dennis’ father had done all the work. Dennis, she said, “did nothing but hit golf balls. He used to say that he was the golfer, my father was the gofer and the dog was the loafer.”
She also persuaded him to upgrade their transportation to a motor home. Newmar signed on as one of Walters’ sponsors, providing him a motorhome for his national tours. At first he had them fitted with hand controls so he could drive, but “I haven’t driven a mile in like eight years; I’m not getting hand controls on this one.”
He does about 90 shows a year, most of them set up by a core of longtime sponsors. “I do 25 things for Jelly Belly, I do 17 for Jersey Mike’s. The PGA of America has me do six. The First Tee has me do 10. The TPC network is 17, and the USGA sends me to five places. So if you added all these up it would be about 80.” In any given year he’ll also get show requests from about 10 “people who call me out of the blue,” making his usual total about 90 shows.
“Now they call it a business model. When I started doing this, I just wanted to do as many of these as I possibly could. So anytime I found a company that was interested in working with me, I said ‘Pay me a small promotional fee to promote your products in every show, and send me to do some shows.’ That way I figured I’d always have something to do.”
At Walters’ age, it’s fair to ask whether he has thought about retiring. He hints at it when a visitor points to an acoustic guitar on a stand and asks if he plays. “Nah,” he says, “that’s for the future. I’m thinking about it. I figure I’ve got to find some way to fill my time here.”
Later, after the show in Kissimmee, he expands on the topic.
“I have three criteria,” he says. “The first criteria is do I still enjoy doing it. The second is, am I physically able to do it. The third is, is my golf up to the standard that I expect. As long as those three things are in place, I’m going to keep going. If one of those things is not the way I like it, I think that’s going to be the time to pack it in. When that’s going to be, I have no idea.
“I still enjoy doing this. I still enjoy getting up every single day, almost without fail, looking forward to practicing, hitting golf balls, and hitting them as well as I can.
“I must be nuts, but that’s the way I feel about it.”