VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, North Carolina – 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 pops up and gets a shoe. Walters then playfully follows with, “They come in pairs.”
Gussie goes back for the other shoe.
This back-and-forth goes on every day. Name a hole at Augusta National, and Gussie will bark the par. Say No. 12, for example, and she’ll bark three times. Walters even taught Gussie, a rescue dog found in a bag abandoned 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 a “not-sure” breed. As in, who knows.
“We’re never separated,” said Walters, “and we’re a good team.”
When the U.S. Golf Association announced the inaugural U.S. 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 whatever Walters can’t reach.
Because he’s a service dog, the USGA gave Gussie the green light, and Walters went to work learning how to play golf again.
“I’d say this is one of the coolest, greatest things ever,” said Walters of the USGA’s 15th championship. “This is way more than a golf tournament. Because I think what’s going to happen this week has the ability to change the lives of a lot of people.
“And by that I mean, if you’re sitting in a wheelchair, I think one of the last things you’d be able to think you could do is play golf. But if all of these hundreds of thousands or millions of people with disabilities see this, I think the USGA has a golden opportunity to show others what’s possible. It has the power to be way more effective than any golf tournament that I can think of. There’s a real purpose here.”
The U.S. Adaptive Open will be staged July 18-20 at Pinehurst No. 6. The 96-player field has at least five male players and two females in each impairment category: arm impairment, leg impairment, multiple limb amputee, vision impairment, intellectual impairment, neurological impairment, seated players and short stature. Four separate yardages will be used spanning from 4,700 to 6,500 yards.
“It feels incredible,” said Chris Biggins, a 30-year-old PGA professional who was born with cerebral palsy and plays off a +2.8 handicap.
“You had all these expectations coming in, and then you come in and you see the signs, the setup, all the players here, and it just makes it that much more real. It’s a big-time championship, the biggest one that I’ve played in ever, and I can’t wait to get going on Monday.”
Donna Caponi, Jane Stephenson, Dennis Walters and Jack Nicklaus attend the 2019 World Golf Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony in Carmel-By-The-Sea, California. (Photo: Kimberly White/Getty Images)
Walters, 72, went to North Texas State on a golf scholarship and was preparing for a second trip to PGA Tour Q-School in 1974 when the brakes failed on a three-wheel cart he was riding back home in Neptune, New Jersey. He was thrown from the cart and suffered spinal cord damage so severe it left him paralyzed from the waist down.
During the last month of rehab, Walters went home on the weekends and remembers laying on the couch with his head in his father’s lap as they watched the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am. Many 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 Sunday recounting the story.
“My dad says, ‘Come on champ, let’s go hit some golf balls.’ I said ‘How do you reckon I’m going to do that?’ He said ‘out of that blanking wheelchair.’ ”
So they went down the street to a small clubhouse with a net in the dead of winter in New Jersey and with a pillow, a wide strap and rope, Walters’ father got him hitting balls again. By the third weekend, he’d moved to out to the front yard.
When he striped his favorite Byron Nelson 3-wood 130 yards down the middle of the street, Walters had an epiphany: “At that very moment I realized that when I hit the ball in the middle of the face, it still 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 the world over, with a beloved dog by his side. Gussie is his fifth dog, and Walters believes 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’s also won The Ben Hogan Award, USGA’s Bob Jones Award and PGA of America’s Distinguished Service Award. Last year a documentary was made about his life that an be found on Peacock.
But for all the millions of balls he’s hit, all the masterful tricks that have delighted audiences the world over, it had been decades since Walters had played 18 holes. Nearly 50 years since he’d competed in a tournament.
“This is like being in a foreign land as far as I’m concerned,” said Walters. “It’s like trying to climb Mount Everest.”
Dennis Walters practices for the 2022 U.S. Adaptive Open at Pinehurst No. 6 in Pinehurst, North Carolina. (Photo: Jeff Haynes/USGA)
Walters started with one-foot putts and found that he couldn’t make them all.
“That’s how bad it was,” he said. “Chipping, dumping them in the bunker, blading them across the street. It was ugly. It was ugly for a while. Finally, one day after about I think six weeks, I said, you know what, I might as well go try.”
So after six weeks, he decided to give nine holes a try and discovered that hitting the ball from the dirt wasn’t as difficult as he’d imagined.
The last shot Walters hit in a competitive round more than four decades ago was a 25-foot uphill bunker shot from a buried lie. He took half the sand out of the bunker and knocked it in tight.
Walters, who had the same barstool seat he’s been using for 45 years attached to a SoloRider cart, was afraid to drive his cart into bunkers when he first started playing. At two warm-up events, he’d take the penalty stroke each time to avoid having to drive in.
But during a recent round at Chicago Golf Club, the club president encouraged him to drive the cart into a bunker. Walters stunned himself when he hit it to 6 feet.
“So then I went up there and made the putt,” said Walters. “It was like my first sandy in 48 years. Then I had my dog take the ball out of the cup.”
Gussie has her own bed on the cart, along with a miniature silver umbrella to help beat the heat. On the back of the cart is a red bumper sticker that reads, “My mutt is smarter than your honor student.”
Dennis Walters and his dog Gussie meet with the media ahead of the U.S. Adaptive Open. (Golfweek photo)
The emotions of the week loom large for many in the field. Playing in a national championship again was never a dream. Walters thought getting out of bed all those years ago would take a miracle.
In 1971, he tied for 11th at the U.S. Amateur and missed going to the Masters by two shots. He’s still mad about that, though he has conducted a clinic on the first tee at Augusta National, played all the par 3s and fished in Ike’s Pond.
In his three-act show, Walters talks about the importance of dreams. When the Adaptive Open was announced, Walters himself got 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 gave a tour of the SoloRider cart he’ll be using at the U.S. Adaptive Open. pic.twitter.com/oU1Stgrqvx
— Beth Ann Nichols (@GolfweekNichols) July 17, 2022
After traveling the world and seeing only the practice range and first tee of so many famous courses, Walters is expanding his horizons, playing Oakmont, Shore Acres, Inverness and Chicago Golf Club in just the last few weeks.
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 by hand and dreaming of a career in golf.
“I’m laying in a hospital bed 48 years ago, you’re going to tell me you’ll travel the world and this journey will take you from this hospital bed to the World Golf Hall of Fame,” said Walters. “You can’t make that up. … There’s not a number high enough to calculate the odds on that.”
There are 95 other players in the field who feel some version of that awe and gratitude.
And one lucky dog.
How to watch
While there will be no full television coverage of the event, fans can watch near real-time highlights and feature stories during Golf Today (noon-2 p.m. ET) and Golf Central (4-5 p.m. ET) on Golf Channel all three days (July 18-20). The trophy ceremony will be shown July 20 on Golf Central.