“Inspiration” is a word frequently applied to Dennis Walters. Here are three people who can attest to that.
Billy Dowell, Winter Park, Fla.
As a former collegiate golfer at Mississippi State, Billy Dowell continued to pursue his dream of playing competitively while enrolled in grad school at Temple.
His body had other ideas. An attack of ulcerated colitis hospitalized him for 2 ½ months. He developed Crohn’s disease, ultimately lost his large intestine and saw his weight plummet from about 190 to 130. He developed inflammation in his left eye from glaucoma. He ended up having 11 surgeries.
Someone at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America told him about Dennis Walters, and Dowel went to see Walters at a show he was doing in conjunction with a Champions Tour event in the Tampa, Fla., area.
Dowell introduced himself to Walters, and that began a friendship that still endures.
Dowell, 39, began playing again and has turned in a low round of 68. “I’ve been really working hard on my game,” he said.
He has also dedicated himself to spreading the word about Walters. “Anytime I knew one of my buddies or somebody going through a tough time I would call Dennis and have him autograph one of his books and mail it to them.
“He always tells me to ‘keep swinging, keep swinging.’ Whenever I get down I think of Dennis and keep persevering. He is very special in my life.”
Dany Baker, Coffeen, Ill.
Dany Baker was a low-single-digit handicapper. But in 1993, at age 37 he lost the use of his legs after being involved in an auto accident. “I was a passenger,” he said. “It happened 10 miles from my house on a six-hour trip.”
Shortly after Baker got out of the hospital, a friend took him to a golf expo in St. Louis to watch Walters. “It was awesome,” Baker said. “It got me pumped up to play again when I found out there was a chance I might be able to play and I might get better.”
“I wanted to get to where I was competitive. I didn’t want to just be a dog-and-pony show.”
Using a Solo Rider cart, the kind that can be taken onto greens and into bunkers, and playing from the forward tees, Baker, 58, has shot a low round of 68. More important, he has used his own experience to inspire – and teach – others, including juniors, veterans, able-bodied and disabled alike. He coached the golf team at his old high school, Hillsboro High, taking it to the state finals five times. And he teaches others how to teach golf to people with disabilities.
Baker and Walters keep in touch, and Baker is one of several people who wrote letters to the World Golf Hall of Fame selection committee endorsing Walters as a worthy candidate for enshrinement.
“It’s been an awesome ride,” Baker said. “I even call him once in a while and thank him. He’s made a tremendous difference in my life.”
Dr. Paul Schottland, Florham Park, N.J.
“I knew Dennis before he had his accident,” Schottland said. “We grew up at Hollywood Country Club down the shore, the Jersey shore. My parents and grandparents were members of that country club.”
At 62, Schottland is three years younger than Walters. His grandfather introduced him to golf at an early age, and Schottland took to it, spending countless hours on the range. It was there that he met Walters, who worked at the range.
“He was a kind soul,” Schottland remembered. “Dennis was different. He was soft-spoken, quiet, meticulous in what he was supposed to do. He always struck me as one of the nicest guys in the world. If there was a bird that was hurt, other kids would throw rocks at it, you know? But Dennis would go ‘What are you doing? That’s a bird. He’s living. He’s in pain.’”
Fueled by a desire to become as good a golfer as Walters, Schottland excelled. “By the time I was in high school I was a 2-handicap,” he said. He captained his high school team and qualified for a U.S. Junior Amateur. Meanwhile, Walters headed west after accepting a golf scholarship to North Texas State.
“I didn’t know anything about North Texas State,” Schottland said, “but anything in Texas and anything that had the word ‘scholarship’ meant he had reached a level that was a little awe-inspiring.”
A few years later, Schottland got a call that sent shivers through him. “Did you hear about Dennis?”
“I didn’t want to say yes or no because I didn’t want to hear what the next thing was going to be.”
Then came the crusher. Walters had been paralyzed from the waist down after being in a golf-cart accident.
“It brings tears to my eyes now,” Schottland said.
Schottland described the next few years as “dark years in my experience. [Walters] wasn’t at the club anymore , and when you went to the club it would always be like ‘Have you heard anything about Dennis? How is he doing?’”
When Walters finally did reappear at the club, Schottland, who has a PhD in clinical psychology, found it difficult to deal with his old friend’s new circumstances. “I didn’t want to see him in that condition. He had his legs in braces, he had those metal crutches – that kind of stuff freaks me out. I didn’t have the stomach for it.”
Schottland eventually did come to grips with Walters’ condition, “and the next thing I remember is Dennis trying to play golf again.” Schottland watched in amazement as Walters and his father would pull into the club parking lot in a Ford pickup, hauling a trailer with a golf cart on it. “It was an exceptional effort just to get him onto the cart and to the first tee,” Schottland said.
The first time Schottland played with Walters after the accident, he wondered how Walters was going to putt, since he couldn’t drive his cart onto the greens. “But sure enough he swivels and he grabs those metal crutches and he has the braces on his legs and he's getting himself out onto the green and is holding himself up with the crutches and putting at the same time.”
Some years later, Schottland was reunited with Walters when Walters did a show at Jonathan’s Landing, a private club in Jupiter, Fla., where Schottland’s father lives. “We were both surprised and emotional when I showed up at the show,” Schottland said.
Schottland caught another Walters show last year at the Jersey shore. Schottland brought his kids with him, and Walters acknowledged his old friend to the crowd. “He talked about how friendships are important and that you can establish those through golf,” Schottland said.
When Walters’ sister, Barbara Herman, requested Schottland’s aid in getting Walters voted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, Schottland was happy to help with a letter of recommendation.
“When I wrote the letter I talked about what kind of human being he was even before the accident and how much he meant to me, his character as a human being meant to me. … Him getting through the accident was just more evidence of what he previously was. He’s just a giving person and he always was - down to earth, compassionate, connected, good values. No BS. That's the way he always was. I wrote it with the point of view that Dennis goes beyond the game of golf.”