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On The Green

Driving Force

Being a Paraplegic Hasn't Kept Dennis Walters Off the Golf Course

March 01, 2000|STEVE KRESAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What Dennis Walters does for a living--work as a professional golfer despite being paralyzed below the waist--seems unlikely, but it's true.

Walters, who was thrown from a golf cart in 1974, has spent the last 23 years traveling the country putting on clinics that not only showcase his skills as a golfer but also offer a message of hope as well as proof that hard work pays off.

Walters put on such a performance Tuesday at the Newport Beach Country Club for a group of "at-risk" teenagers in conjunction with the Southern California PGA.

Walters performs all sorts of tricks, including swinging a three-headed club (he calls it a three-iron) and hitting three balls--one at a time--that are stacked on top of each other using putty.

Walters plays from a swivel chair installed on the passenger side of a specialized golf cart. He pulls alongside his ball and, with the help of a strap holding him in place, spreads his legs wide and swings.

There is more to Walters' game than trick shots; his average drive is about 235 yards. He tries to play about three times a week in the winter, when he isn't traveling. His best score for nine holes since his accident is four-under 32. He plays only nine holes at a time because he uses crutches when he putts and 18 holes would be too tiring.

"It affects my life every second of the day," Walters said of his injury. "It's not like I can forget about it. Everything I do is more difficult and this is not the tour that I wanted to be on.

"But I'm happy that I was able to hang in there and I know that tomorrow when I wake up, I'll be hitting golf balls."

Walters, who grew up in New Jersey, started playing when he was 8 and fell in love with the game immediately. He began to excel at the game and eventually earned a golf scholarship to North Texas State, where he played on teams that won four conference championships.

He spent 1973 playing in mini-tour events in the United States and was on the South African tour.

He returned home to Neptune, N.J., to play a few rounds with friends as he prepared for the PGA Tour qualifying tournament in 1974. But he was coming down a steep hill in a three-wheel golf cart when its brakes failed.

Walters was thrown from the cart. "I didn't have a mark on me," he said, but then he tried to move, he couldn't.

He suffered a severe spinal cord injury and spent five months in the hospital. It was during that time that Walters realized how much he loved the game.

"A lot of things were taken away from me," he said, "but there is no way golf was going to be taken away too."

He didn't have a lot of options at first. His initial attempts were from a wheelchair at a driving range. He sat on a pillow to raise his body and began to swing.

He kept the chair in place with a rope tied to a stake, and reached the point where he could hit the ball pretty well.

Walters kept at it until he could hit the ball consistently more than 200 yards. But getting out on a course seemed out of the question.

However, a friend at the course where he hit driving range balls came up with the idea of cutting the legs off a swivel chair and mounting it on a golf cart.

From that humble beginning in 1977, his golf show was born. As he got better at playing from the cart, local golf professionals started asking him to demonstrate his skills.

But Walters expanded on that. He had remembered some of the trick-shot shows he had seen while growing up and decided there was something there for him.

Now, he spends about eight months a year on the road putting on shows and is a favorite opening act at Tiger Woods Foundation benefits.

"I just got a big club and a funny tee and got started," Walters said.

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