By Rich O’Brien
Dennis Walters was a promising young golfer. In 1967 he won three major New Jersey State Junior Championships. He earned a golf scholarship to attend North Texas State University where he was competitive against the likes of Crenshaw, Kite, Wadkins, Strange, Lietzke, McLean and North. He graduated in 1971 with a BA in Business. A few months later he finished tied for 11th at the US Amateur.
By the age of 24 he started dreaming of playing on the PGA Tour. That fall he came close to earning his PGA Tour card, but missed his opportunity at the Q School. Some people would have been heartbroken by this, but Dennis began preparing for his next attempt the following fall.
In early 1974 he found a dream job for any aspiring touring professional at Wykagyl Country Club in New Rochelle, NY. His job was to represent the club playing in tournaments, playing with members, giving lessons and practicing. During that time he literally lived in the club’s Crow’s Nest above the locker room and ate all his meals at the club. You could say his entire life was golf.
On July 21st, 1974 he struggled in a tournament. The Q School was only a few months away and he arranged to spend two days working with his friend and teacher, Ralph Terry at Roxiticus Golf Club in Mendham, N.J. Terry, in addition to being a PGA Professional was also a former major league baseball pitcher with the New York Yankees. His positive attitude always seemed to make Walters feel and play better.
Upon arriving at Roxiticus, he jumped in a golf cart and set out to join Terry on the back nine. Then the unthinkable happened. As he was driving the golf cart down a steep hill the brakes on the three-wheeled cart failed and slid on some rocks. Dennis was thrown from the cart as it tipped over and careened down the shoulder of the steep hill and finally came to rest some 60 yards below. He remembers the accident and the minutes that followed as if they happened in slow motion:
I tried to get up but couldn’t move. I was lying flat on my back without a single cut or scratch on my body. My pants weren’t even ripped. There wasn’t any blood and I didn’t feel any pain. In fact, everything seemed normal except that I couldn’t move my legs. In an effort to get something going, out of fear probably, I started beating on my leg. But there was no feeling at all.
After being transported to the hospital in Morristown, Doctors diagnosed with a dislocated T-12 Vertebrae. Unfortunately, it had damaged his spinal cord and he was a T-12 level paraplegic. He was told he was paralyzed from the waist down and that he would never walk again. The doctors also thought he would never be able to golf again, but Walters was determined to prove them wrong. After his accident things were looking pretty bleak.
“Big Cat” Williams who was among the friends and fellow competitor that visited Dennis to encourage him in the days following the accident.
Dennis found there were a lot of things he couldn’t do, but there was no way he was giving up playing golf and thus with this never say die attitude a new golf career was born. He had seen some shows by Paul Hahn Sr. and read some books about Joe Kirkwood, a pair of legendary trick-shot masters. He thought he could do it. It would take years of rehab and a lot of hard work, but he had a renewed sense of purpose and a new dream.
His dream may have been crushed if not for the invention of a special swivel seat mounted on the passenger side of the golf cart that allowed him to hit from a stable platform without injuring his back or losing his balance.
Golf proved to be wonderful therapy for him as he devoted his life to entertaining and inspiring others through the Dennis Walters Golf Show. He is now regarded as one of golf’s greatest showmen and travels around the world to demonstrate his remarkable shot making skills. Since 1977 Walters has performed well over 3,000 shows worldwide. He performs many of his shows to benefit the First Tee Programs, the USGA and the PGA. The message of the one hour show is about reaching for your dreams and doing whatever it takes to make that dream come true. You’re never too young to have one and there certainly are no expiration dates on dreams. Also, “if you have a dream and it doesn’t work out, never stop dreaming … get a new dream!”
Over the past 38 years, millions of people have been inspired by Dennis’ skill and message. The inspirational message and his charisma have brought numerous golf honors such as being selected as one of eleven honorary lifetime members of the PGA of America. He also received the 1978 Ben Hogan awards from the Golf Writers Association of America. And in 2008 the PGA gave him the Distinguished Service Award.
His impact on individuals facing disabilities, illnesses and challenges is even more profound. He found a way to rebuild his life and follow his passion for golf despite his paralysis. I am personally grateful for his example and he was my inspiration after I got hurt and had to rebuild my life and endure a long road to recovery.
And after my own recovery, I shared Dennis’ story with Fred Gutierrez, aka “The Partially Paralyzed Golfer”. According to Fred, “Dennis inspired me to believe in myself and follow my dreams of playing golf. He did not have an easy road to success and it was filled with a lot of blood, sweat and tears. A few years ago I attended one of Dennis’ shows and saw what he could do with a golf club and ball. All I can say is “wow”. Speaking with Dennis after the show, I admired how he tries to inspire people to go after their dreams and to set the bar higher each time. I want to do that!”
And like many people facing injuries, illnesses, or challenges he was left with the thought: If Dennis can do it, so can I.