“As he listened to the cheers, he thought about why he might have survived the accident that killed his brother Bill; his girlfriend, Jeannie Hodgin; his dog Nip; and, maybe, why he lost a leg”
No one would have blamed Ken Green if the thought of quitting crossed his mind Friday. Partnering with his friend Mike Reid in the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf, he was operating on one hour’s sleep and he looked it, playing in his first official round of a Champions Tour event since the motor home accident last June that turned his world upside down.
Trying to become the first golfer with a prosthetic leg to compete in a tour event, Green was in a battle. There was anxiety and self-doubt. He hit two quick hooks off the tee and began the round with back-to-back bogeys. He hit two other tee shots way left.
“I was petrified,” Green said. “I was scared that I was going to embarrass golf and myself.”
Then everything changed. After another tee shot went left at the ninth hole, Green hit a 6-iron through the wind from a dicey lie in the rough. The shot landed softly on the green, 15 feet from the hole. His face brightened, his demeanor lightened and he limped over to the gallery ropes to bump fists with two reporters.
“There was too much anxiety,” Green said of the first eight holes. “I needed one shot to get me from an anxiety level of 10 down to 7, which I could work with. That was the shot I needed.”
Although he missed the birdie putt, it was the shot that turned his round, and possibly his golf comeback. It was his first green in regulation, and Green played the next 10 holes in one under par, helping his team with two birdies (and lipping out another) in a round of five-under 67, tying them for 17th out of 33 teams.
Green hit seven more greens in the incoming nine, lifting the cloud of doubt from his mind about the decision to play so soon after the accident and giving him a jolt of confidence to play the remaining 36 holes of the tournament.
Playing alongside Nick Price and Mark O’Meara — who combined for a 10-under 62 to tie for the lead with Joey Sindelar and John Cook — Green rode in a golf cart, and on a cloud of support and encouragement. Price, a two-time player of the year and Hall of Famer, shouted encouragement often.
“To be honest, and he’ll probably admit it, he was a little apprehensive the front nine,” Price said. “First four or five holes, I think he felt a little nervous and certainly looked like it. But we were pulling hard for him. To see the way he played the back nine — he was probably two or three under on his own ball with the exception of No. 13, which he bogeyed.
“He hit some beautiful iron shots, so it’s fun to see — you know, our heart goes out to him, obviously. We’re just happy to see him back out playing.”
So were the people in the enthusiastic gallery that followed Green all 18 holes of the 7,087-yard course at the Club at Savannah Harbor. They even cheered his mediocre front-nine shots, and the appreciation grew as he started gaining confidence and hitting crisper iron shots.
“That was something,” Green said of the cheers that erupted over his birdie putt at the 11th hole, and at the 15th, where he reached his pre-round goal of two birdies. As he listened to the cheers, he thought about why he might have survived the accident that killed his brother Bill; his girlfriend, Jeannie Hodgin; his dog Nip; and, maybe, why he lost a leg.
“I haven’t been known for inspiring people throughout my career,” he said. “But I’ve got a chance to do something good for people, something important in golf, and for people who are disabled, and people who have had accidents.”
When he was struggling through the first eight holes — “skanking it around,” he said, “like a regular Joe” — all he had to do was look down at the white shoe covering his prosthetic foot for a reminder of why he is going through what he is.
Written there in different shades of magic marker were all the reasons he is grinding away, facing the demons, trying to come back and compete again, against all odds.
Written on the left side of the shoe were the names “Brother Bill” and “Jeannie” and “Nip.” On the toe, in red, was “Hunter,” Green’s 21-year-old son, who died of an accidental overdose of alcohol and prescription drugs in January.
And on the right side was “Shelley,” for his sister Shelley White, who is caddying for him this week, as she did in the 1980s when he won five PGA Tour events. Next to her is “Junior” for his son Ken Jr., and “Missy,” to remind him of Mississippi, where the motor home went off the road.
Not known early in his career as someone who did everything with a purpose, Green left no doubt about the purposeful nature of the writing on the shoe.
“So I always remember there’s a point,” he said. “There’s a reason for doing this thing.”
When things turned around Friday, Ken Green felt like a golfer again. A real golfer. With a real sense of purpose.