PINEHURST VILLAGE, NC – Dennis Walters likes to lay out his clothes before he goes to bed. In the morning, he nudges Gussie, short for Augusta, and playfully says, “Hey, service dog, I need some service. Can I have my shoes?
Gussie appears and takes a shoe. Walters then playfully follows with “They Come in Pairs”.
Gussie comes back for the other shoe.
This back and forth is repeated every day. Name a hole at Augusta National, and Gussie will bark par. Say the number 12, for example, and she will bark three times. Walters even taught Gussie, a rescue dog found in an abandoned bag on the side of the road outside San Juan, Puerto Rico, how to hit a golf ball. Walters is passionate about rescue dogs and calls Gussie an “uncertain” breed. As in, who knows.
“We’ve never been apart,” Walters said, “and we’re a good team.”
When the US Golf Association announced the first US Adaptive Open, Walters called to ask if his dog could be in the cart with him during the championship. Walters said he wouldn’t have played without Gussie, who picks up everything Walters can’t reach.
Because he’s an assistance dog, the USGA gave Gussie the go-ahead and Walters went to work to learn how to golf again.
“I would say it’s one of the coolest, greatest things ever,” Walters said of the 15th USGA championship. “It’s more than a golf tournament. Because I think what’s going to happen this week has the ability to change a lot of people’s lives.
“And by that, I mean, if you’re sitting in a wheelchair, I think one of the last things you might think you might do is play golf. But if all those hundreds of thousands or millions people with disabilities see this, I think the USGA has a golden opportunity to show others what is possible. It has the power to be far more effective than any golf tournament I can think of. It there is a real purpose here.
The US Adaptive Open will take place July 18-20 at Pinehurst No. 6. The 96-player field has at least five male and two female players in each impairment category: arm impairment, leg impairment, multiple amputee limbs, visual impairment, intellectual disability, neurological impairment, seated players and short stature. Four separate yards will be used, ranging from 4,700 to 6,500 yards.
“It’s amazing,” said Chris Biggins, a 30-year-old PGA professional who was born with cerebral palsy and plays with a +2.8 handicap.
“You had all these expectations and then you walk in and you see the signs, the setup, all the players here, and that makes it even more real. It’s a big league, the biggest I’ve ever been in, and I can’t wait to start on Monday.
Walters, 72, went to the North State of Texas on a golf scholarship and was preparing for a second trip to the PGA Tour Q-School in 1974 when the brakes failed on a three-wheeled cart that he was driving home in Neptune, New Jersey. He was thrown from the cart and suffered spinal cord injuries so severe that it left him paralyzed from the waist down.
During the last month of rehabilitation, Walters came home on the weekend and remembers lying on the couch with his head in his father’s lap as they watched the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am. A lot of his friends were in the field, Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, Andy North, Bruce Lietzke.
“I was crying my eyes out,” said Walters, who was emotional as he told the story on Sunday.
“My dad says, ‘Come on champ, let’s hit some golf balls.’ I said ‘How do you think I’m going to do this?’ He said “out of this outdated wheelchair.”
So they walked down the street to a little clubhouse with a net in the dead of winter in New Jersey and with a pillow, a wide strap and a rope, Walters’ dad made him hit some balls again . By the third weekend, he had moved to the front yard.
When he struck out his favorite Byron Nelson 3 wood 130 yards down the middle of the street, Walters had an epiphany: “At that exact moment, I realized that when I hit the ball in the middle of the face, it always felt good.”
In time, the Dennis Walters Golf Show was born, and over the past 45 years Walters has given more than 3,000 clinics around the world, with a beloved dog at his side. Gussie is her fifth dog and Walters thinks she might turn out to be the most talented.
Walters’ inspiring work has led to golf’s highest honors, including a 2019 induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame. He has also won the Ben Hogan Award, the USGA Bob Jones Award and the PGA of America Distinguished Service Award. Last year a documentary was made about his life which is on Peacock.
But despite all the millions of balls he hit, all the masterful tricks that thrilled audiences around the world, it had been decades since Walters had played 18 holes. Almost 50 years since he had participated in a tournament.
“It’s like being in a foreign country as far as I’m concerned,” Walters said. “It’s like trying to climb Mount Everest.”
Walters started with one-foot putts and found he couldn’t make them all.
“That’s how bad it was,” he said. “Chipping them, throwing them in the bunker, running them across the street. It was ugly. It was ugly for a while. Finally, one day after about six weeks, I think, I said, you know what, I might as well give it a try.
So after six weeks, he decided to try nine holes and found that hitting the ball from dirt wasn’t as difficult as he had imagined.
The last shot Walters hit in a competitive round over four decades ago was a 25-foot uphill bunker shot from a buried lie. He took out half of the sand from the bunker and pushed it down firmly.
Walters, who had the same barstool seat he’s used for 45 years strapped to a SoloRider cart, was afraid to drive his cart into bunkers when he started playing. During two warm-up events, he took the penalty stroke each time to avoid having to drive.
But during a recent game at the Chicago Golf Club, the club president encouraged him to drive the cart into a bunker. Walters stunned when he hit him from 6 feet.
“So I went up there and made the putt,” Walters said. “It was like my first Sandy in 48 years. Then I asked my dog to take the ball out of the cup.
Gussie has her own bed on the cart, as well as a miniature silver umbrella to help beat the heat. On the back of the cart is a red bumper sticker that reads, “My dog is smarter than your honor student.”
The emotions of the week loom large for many on the pitch. Playing in a national league again was never a dream. Walters thought getting out of bed all those years ago would be a miracle.
In 1971 he finished tied for 11th in the US Amateur and missed the Masters by two strokes. He’s still mad about it, despite running a clinic off the first tee at Augusta National, playing all par 3s and fishing at Ike’s Pond.
In his three-act play, Walters talks about the importance of dreams. When the Adaptive Open was announced, Walters himself had a new dream. While many of his friends are cutting back or quitting the game, Walters is just getting started.
World Golf Hall of Fame member Dennis Walters walks around the SoloRider cart he’ll be using at the US Adaptive Open. pic.twitter.com/oU1Stgrqvx
— Beth Ann Nichols (@GolfweekNichols) July 17, 2022
After traveling the world and seeing only the driving range and first tee of so many famous courses, Walters is expanding his horizons, playing at Oakmont, Shore Acres, Inverness and Chicago Golf Club in the past few weeks alone.
His new bucket list includes the two courses he grew up on: Jumping Brook in Neptune and Hollywood Golf Club in Ocean Township, New Jersey, where he grew up picking the range in his hand and dreaming of a career in the golf.
“I lay in a hospital bed 48 years ago, you’re going to tell me you’re going to travel the world and this journey will take you from that hospital bed to the World Golf Hall of Fame,” Walters said. “You can’t make this up. … There’s not a high enough number to calculate the odds on this.
There are 95 other players on the pitch who feel some version of that admiration and gratitude.
And a lucky dog.