Into Everyone's Life, A Little Ken Green Must Fall
The tour's bad boy is back, and he's still not pulling any punches
Ken Green arrived on the PGA Tour scene 20 years ago as a brash iconoclast known as much for his run-ins with the powers that be as for his aggressive, streaky play. He won five times in a five-year span, but he rubbed enough people the wrong way that after he made the 1989 U.S. Ryder Cup team, teammate Curtis Strange half-joked: "We're even cheering for Ken Green."
\Green's rebelliousness and propensity to pull stunts earned him both fans and critics. There were those distinctive green shoes, and he once got a bunch of his buddies into the Masters through the trunk of his car -- but said he didn't want to visit the club's barber shop because "I don't want to look like [former chairman] Hord Hardin." Some of the fun and games bordered on dangerous, such as hitting balls through narrow openings in sliding-glass doors. His antics made him the bad boy of the PGA Tour and earned him two dozen fines over the years. That's not counting the one he got reversed by telling the tour it was a nonalcoholic beer he drank while playing with Arnold Palmer at the 1997 Masters. (It wasn't.)
If Green enjoyed the wild ride of the '80s, the 1990s saw a steady downhill slide that turned into what he terms "an avalanche." It stemmed from a costly, protracted divorce from his second wife, Ellen, and estrangement from their son and Ellen's two other children. With his income dwindling, Green fell into debt, which he's still trying to pay off. He found himself haunted by mental demons on the course as his struggles mounted, falling off the main tour and into obscurity. Now recovering after being diagnosed with depression, he says he's healthier and happier than he has been in years.
At 44, Green earned his way back to the tour at last fall's qualifying school in what his longtime teacher, Peter Kostis, lauded as "one of the all-time greatest comebacks in the history of golf." Green started the year promisingly but admits that some trepidation remains. The voice message on his cellphone neatly summarizes his status: "Time to go back on the show. I'm gonna go out there and make me some dough. And this time, I plan on keepin' it... Well, at least a little bit."
Green invited Golf Digest to several interview sessions at his modest home in West Palm Beach, Fla. Though he has mellowed a bit over the years, Green still has refreshingly blunt opinions on tour life, his fellow players and himself.
Golf Digest: When you were on tour in the '80s you had a reputation for being a rebel. What does that stem from?
Ken Green: For whatever reason, I never really liked people telling me what to do. I've always been that way. I might handle it differently now, but I'm still not going to let someone tell me how I should act. Was it good that I ended up being a golfer? There are tons of guys like me, but nobody knows about them. I was in the public eye, so I took the heat.
You didn't seem to worry about the ramifications.
You know the bizarre thing? I can honestly tell you that I held back a lot. I'm like, "If they only knew what I really wanted to say..."
You're back on tour after a series of personal problems. How large was your debt going into the 2003 season?
I was about $300,000 in the hole.
Were you ever in deeper than that?
No, it's always been in that area. You try to pay the debts off, but when you're not making money, it's hard. And then my IRS deb... well, they don't have a prayer unless I do well out on tour. I'm getting "play well" cards all the time from the IRS.
What were the tough times like?
I certainly was months behind on some bills. You play the hockey back and forth -- you pay this guy, then you pay that guy. You take this credit card and pay that bill. Anyone who's been in financial difficulty understands how you play the juggle game.
What was your reaction last fall at the Q school when you got your tour card back? Was it happiness or relief?
The best thing was instead of panicking or choking on the last nine, I had the same sensation I've had a few times in trying to win golf tournaments in the last nine holes. And for that, I was ecstatic, because that's how you should be thinking, instead of thinking how you're going to choke and blow it. I still have a lot of room there for improvement, trust me.
You hit the skids when, the early '90s?
But I hung on and kept my card.
People thought you were a little crazy.
That's what some people believed. I think they're the crazy ones. Finally I got the mental yips full bore, and I lost it totally. I couldn't play. It's impossible to play when you have 20 different people in your brain trying to scare you. There's not one positive guy in there.
What are the mental yips like?
Before I even got over the ball, I knew I was going to miss it. It didn't matter if it was two feet, four feet. It's just horrifying. Playing on a professional level, it's pretty tough. Having one moment is not a big deal. I was having them every time I was over the shot.
What was it like being mentally blocked over the ball?
There were times I couldn't drag it back with a sand wedge. I knew before I even got over the ball I had no chance of hitting a pro-quality shot.