The nerves in the lower leg he lost in a tragic accident jangle, buzz and hurt.
“I call it being Tasered almost – it’s a constant lower level of Taser and then it gets nasty,” Green said Wednesday, a day before teeing it up in the opening round of the Senior PGA Championship at Valhalla. “And so, it’s been quite a journey.”
The 52-year-old Green, a five-time winner on the PGA Tour, was driving on June 8, 2009, when his RV blew a tire and went out of control down an embankment, ramming into an oak tree. His longtime girlfriend, Jean Marie Hodgin, his brother William and even his beloved German shepherd, Nip, all were killed.
Green’s lower right leg had to be amputated. Months of rehab followed. He now wears a prosthetic.
Yet he is still hopeful of making a living at golf. He entered three Champions Tour events a year ago and made the cut in one. Now he wants to prove that he can still play, that he won’t be beaten down by so much adversity.
“I can’t tell you how bad I want to play one good tournament, and what I mean by that is if I were to finish in the top 20 in any Champions Tour event,” he said. “I could walk away and smile.”
There have not been many smiles lately.
His 21-year-old son Hunter was found dead in his SMU dorm room in January 2010. The death was deemed an accident, due to a lethal mixture of alcohol and prescription drugs.
Green, beset by depression and mental problems during his career on the regular tour, says he’s driven to keep playing by the memory of those he’s lost and also by all those he meets – particularly in the military – who have lost limbs.
“They use golf as a therapy to get them reinvolved,” he says, marveling at their resilience.
He wants each private golf club to admit four wounded veterans. The clubs, he said, would benefit from such a patriotic gesture. And golf would help the veterans adjust to their changed lives.
The pain in his right leg has prevented Green from practicing as much as he would like and as much as he should to maintain his game. But that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t dream.
“That’s the great thing about competition and golf – it comes flying back at you. Your brain still says, ‘You’re good. You can still win,”’ said Green, who will ride in a cart during the tournament. “There’s a part of me that still says that I can pull off a win some day.”
Even if he doesn’t, it means a lot to him to know that others are pulling for him. He encounters fans who aren’t aware of the accident, who don’t know about what he’s been through. A man who was never patient before finds himself explaining it all once again to them.
“It’s a unique story,” he said. “I don’t want to say it’s a good story because good things didn’t happen. But I have to turn it into a good story. That’s what you do when bad things happen.”
RAIN GAUGE: A surplus of rain this spring, and over the past few days, has prevented Senior PGA officials from using low-lying public parking lots across from Valhalla Golf Club.
As a result, fans are parking at nearby businesses and churches and then catching shuttle rides to the course.
All the water is nothing new at Valhalla. The 2004 Senior PGA, won by Hale Irwin, was plagued by heavy rain that turned small streams into rivers, turning the layout into a muddy, dangerous mess.
Heavy rain was expected Wednesday night and scattered thunderstorms are expected throughout the week, with a possible respite on the weekend.
APPROACHING THE END: Hale Irwin won 20 times on the PGA Tour, including U.S. Opens in 1974, 1979 and 1990. He is also one of the most decorated Champions Tour players ever, with 45 wins.
Despite his glittering career, Irwin hasn’t won on the over-50 circuit since 2007. Next week he will turn 66 years old.
He realizes that the days are long since over when he was one of the most feared players at any major championship.
“There is going to be an end,” Irwin said Wednesday, the day before beginning pursuit of his fifth Senior PGA Championship. “Whether it’s a tapering off or whether it’s the cliff, I don’t know. But I do know that I still enjoy the competition. I still like to push myself. I still enjoy going out and playing against the young guys as they come on the tour.”
There are more aches and pains now, of course. Aspects of his game, particularly off the tee and around the green, are reflecting his age.
He believes he can still be a factor.
“People ask me, ‘Is it fun?”’ Irwin said. “Well, it’s not fun to play poorly. But I hit enough good shots along the way to know I can do this. It’s a transition time. I understand that.”
THE DIFFICULT SIXTH: The sixth hole at Valhalla Golf Club is a par-4 measuring 468 yards. That’s not particularly stout for even senior players. But it’s how the hole is laid out that makes it a round-killer for many in the field of the Senior PGA Championship which begins Thursday.
Most of the players will hit driver or 3-wood off the tee. A large tree on the river bank on the right edge of the fairway cuts off access to the green for a ball that doesn’t travel far enough.
But the work has just begun after a good drive. Then the field will still have at least 225 yards left, over the river and to a small, bunker-surrounded green set back in the woods. The green used to sit just on the other side of the water, but the hole was lengthened when the course hosted the Ryder Cup in 2008.
“You’ve got to hit two of your best shots of the day to make a par because the green’s not very accepting, that’s for sure,” said John Cook. “Anything you can do to get it up and around the green and eliminate the big number (is good). Four will be a really nice score, 5 is not going to hurt you and there will be very few 3s.”
Mark Brooks won the 1996 PGA Championship at Valhalla – before the hole was lengthened. He’s not a fan of the change.
“You wouldn’t really call it a true par-5,” he said. “But it’s more like a 4 1/2 .”
Tom Lehman added, “It’s easily the hardest hole out there. Not even close. If you can make three pars and a bogey, you’re going to be beating the field. If you can make four pars, you’re going to pick up two, two and a half, shots on the field.”
DIVOTS: Larry Nelson’s team won Tuesday’s pro-am. … Lehman, who won the 2010 Senior PGA Championship at Colorado Golf Club, hosted 11 former winners of the Senior PGA and PGA Championship on Tuesday night at the annual champions dinner at The Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville. … Eleven golfers have won both the PGA Championship and the Senior PGA Championship. Former PGA Championship winners Mark Brooks, Nelson, Nick Price, Jeff Sluman, Hal Sutton and Bob Tway could join that fraternity with a win.