On the practice tee at Lake Nona Golf Club in Orlando, where David Leadbetter gives lessons to Nick Price and Nick Faldo, a golfer is giving a clinic. Each shot he hits flies over the 200-yard flag in a tight draw, painted against the sky with the same trajectory. Price and Faldo would envy his consistency. "I've got straight down," Dennis Walters says.
Length is another matter. Walters's best drive is 230 yards, only as far as Price and Faldo can hit their two-irons. Still, Walters's tee shots are amazing considering his handicap: He is a paraplegic, with no movement or feeling from his waist down.
On this day in late November, Walters is giving his 80th trick-shot exhibition of the year. He has driven the 180 miles from his home in Plantation, Fla., to Lake Nona with his sister, Barbara, and his dog, Mulligan. Mulligan is part of the show—he tees up the ball for Walters. Walters hits from a swivel chair that's mounted on the passenger side of his specially designed golf cart. A seat belt holds him in place, and before each shot he pushes his knees together to keep his legs from getting in the way of his near-classic swing. All of his club-head speed is generated by the rotation of his upper body, because he cannot use his lower body to pivot.
Walters hits shots blindfolded. He hits balls from under cups, off the face of a watch and from under an egg without cracking the shell. He hits with shafts made from a fishing rod, from a radiator hose and from string. He hits with a tennis racket and off three-foot-high tees. He hits one ball that is covered by burning newspaper and, machine-gun style, a bunch of balls that are rolling off a ramp. These are all parts of the Dennis Walters Golf Show, a trick-shot exhibition billed as golf's most inspirational hour.
"When I do my show, I try to make it so the people have fun, so they leave with a smile on their face," Walters says. "I try to hit great shots they can remember. I try to show them, if you're willing to work hard and persevere, you can overcome anything. When you think about it, there are only a few things in life that are impossible."
This is what gives Walters satisfaction in life now: hitting a golf ball on the sweet spot of the club. It's his competition, his way of measuring himself against the countless hours of practice. At the same time, never far from his thoughts is that moment almost 21 years ago when he was riding in a cart on the back nine at Roxiticus Golf Club in Mendham, N.J.
He was 24, a pro just back from a four-month stint on the South African Tour with realistic hopes of qualifying for the PGA Tour. That July morning he had played in a pro-member tournament at Bonnie Briar Country Club in Larchmont, N.Y. On his last hole he'd had a buried lie in a bunker. With the skill of a touring pro, he had hit the sand shot to three feet and made the putt for par.
In the afternoon he decided to play nine holes at Roxiticus, where his friend Ralph Terry, a former New York Yankee pitcher, was the club pro. He went in search of Terry, who was on the course, playing the 16th hole. The cart path on 16 led down a steep hill. It was covered with gravel. There was a curve in the path, a curve he had taken before. Alone in the cart, he hit the brakes, and the cart, an old style three-wheeler, started skidding. He tried to steer the cart back on the path. The rest is a blur. His next memory is of being laid out in the woods and thinking about his Toney Penna MacGregor driver. It was his most-prized possession, and he wanted to make sure it wasn't scratched.
"I've thought about this millions of times and tried to reconstruct it, but I still don't know what happened," Walters says. "I know I was paying attention. I was not fooling around. I was not going too fast."
Terry was on the other side of a hill, putting out on 16. A dog heard the noise of the cart overturning and barked, alerting a forecaddie, who called out, "Ralph! Come quick! Come quick! There's been an accident! Somebody flipped a golf cart!" Terry ran to the cart and saw his friend lying in the woods, gasping for breath.