Dennis Walters, a trick-shot artist unlike any other

April 25, 2014

The best players in the world were on the practice range at Doral, for the WGC-Cadillac Championship in March. To the side was another pro, Dennis Walters, who was strapped to a swiveling chair attached to a cart. He was conducting a trick-shot exhibition for a couple of hundred kids. Walters is paralyzed from the waist down. He's 64, fit and strong and barrel-chested. He's 5' 11" and 160 pounds—175 with his leg braces. He has Arnold Palmer's broad forehead and an unlined face, despite years in the sun. He was wearing a 1953 Timex with Ben Hogan's precise signature across its face, and he was catching shots flush with an old, head-heavy Orlimar driver with a 48-inch shaft.

In the early 1970s, Walters was another young stick with Tour dreams, a Jersey boy who went to Texas for college. For golf, really. As the No. 1 player at North Texas State, he played against Ben Crenshaw, Bruce Lietzke, Jimmy McLean. He finished 11th in the 1971 U.S. Amateur. Forty years ago, on a pleasant summer afternoon, Walters was on a Garden State course, trying to catch up with some friends. He was a pro by this point and had already played in a one-round event that day, but he was looking for more golf. He lost control of his cart, went flying into a tree and never walked on his legs again. But he's given 3,000 golf exhibitions since then.

On the Monday after Doral, Walters was 90 miles up the road, on a Bermuda-grass field at the Howell L. Watkins Middle School in Palm Beach Gardens, where 90 percent of the kids qualify for a free or reduced-price school lunch. Again, there were a couple of hundred kids around him, many of them Jamaican-and Haitian-born and seeing live golf for the first time. One shot exploded. Another shot launched three balls at once. Most were perfect 220-yard draws. The kids oohed and ahhed. After they actually try golf, they'll be even more impressed. It was a warm day and Walters was sweating. Golf can look easy, but it never is.

What a swing. He takes it back over the right back fender of his cart and follows through over the front one. It's a round swing, right out of Ben Hogan's Five Lessons. Walters has a light grip, heavy arms, perfect tempo, genuine enthusiasm. "You've got a beautiful course right here," he told the kids. Who knows how many people he planted the golf seed in over the last 40 years?

The kids liked the shots. They liked Bucky, Walters's assistant. Crenshaw once asked the dog how many British Opens James Braid had won. Five barks. The kids asked math questions. I stumped the pooch with how many Twinkies in a package.

Walters talked to the kids about the power of dreams. Daytime dreams, that is. Playing Augusta National was on his own wish list, and he got to play it recently, or a few holes, anyhow. He did a practice-tee exhibition for his host and two caddies. Bucky was on fire. He can tell you the number of green jackets won by Nicklaus (six), Palmer (four), Hogan (two, both after his horrifying 1949 car accident). When I told Palmer recently that I'd just seen Walters, he lit up and said, "He really gets through it."

Walters lives in Jupiter, Fla., in the low-rent section of a big-ticket development down the street from Ernie and Luke and the others. On his walls are beautiful letters from George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford, from Nicklaus and Palmer. When Hogan wrote to Walters in 1974, weeks after his cart-path accident, Hogan was surely remembering that Greyhound bus on Highway 80. Hogan wrote, "With your permission, I would like to offer my thoughts and a word of encouragement." Note the total lack of presumption.

After lunch, we went to the practice tee near Walters's house. He had me hit while sitting in a chair. It makes your swing round, smooth, slow and aware of your upper body. You come from the inside and after impact you go left. It's a slice-proof swing, but it's difficult, too.

Years ago, Walters was practicing by himself at Shady Oaks, Hogan's legendary Fort Worth hangout. At the end of the day, he met Hogan.

"Mr. Hogan!" Walters said. "I had hoped you might watch me hit a few."

Hogan said, "I've been watching you for two hours." They talked briefly. Hogan said, "I hope our paths will cross again." Hogan crossed his left and right index fingers.

They crossed paths five more times, these two men who stayed with the game when life seemed to have other plans. Hogan once said to him, "You might be the best golfer." He wasn't talking about scores. He was talking about devotion.

When he dreams, Walters plays golf, on his own legs, in tournaments. Then he wakes up. In his book, he's logged 3,000 tournaments at this point—3,000 and counting.