'I Can't Believe I'm Alive'
A crash cost Ken Green three loves of his life & part of his leg, but he vows to play on
With both hands, ever so gently, Ken Green rubs what is left of his right leg below the knee.
"Tender's not the word," he says. "I always thought of myself on the upper level of tolerating pain. I've had the back issues so long, the shoulder issues. You get the shocks and bolts, but you just play through. But the shocks you get with this . . . "
He raises the stump.
" . . . are mind-boggling. From here . . . "
He touches the sewn-together end of his leg.
" . . . the nerves send pain shooting everywhere through my body. I just end up crying."
Years ago he lost his wife, his money, his game and sometimes his mind. On June 8, 2009, he lost his home, his girlfriend, his brother and the sweetheart dog, Nip, that he had rescued from an alligator's mouth. Now he sits on a couch in his sister's home, the leg propped on a pillow. He is a sight. His brother-in-law, the PGA Tour official Slugger White, has buzz-cut Green's hair to about 15 on the Stimpmeter. There is a gully of a scar gashed into the left side of his head.
The soft flesh around and under his left eye is purplish and swollen over a broken suborbital bone. A front tooth is gone, and his jaw displaced one click to the right. ("Tough to eat when your teeth don't line up.") Ligaments in his left ankle are torn. All this left-side damage, he surmises, came with an impact so extreme ("I must have rocketed through the windshield") as to whip his right leg against something unforgiving.
"You look at the damage the RV had, it's pretty nasty," he says. "You gotta think, How do you get lucky enough to survive that?
Somebody might say losing the leg's a 'bad break.' Well, I've had bad breaks; this ain't one of 'em. And I can't complain about bad breaks anymore. I can't believe I'm alive."
Ken Green is 51 years old. He once moved with the big hitters, five times a winner on the PGA Tour from 1985-'89. He was a rebel, a rogue and a rascal, always the most likely star to be found on the roof of his house carving a 5-iron around a neighbor's chimney. He wore shoes of an iridescent green. During the 1997 Masters, paired with Arnold Palmer, he had a buddy bring him a beer on the 15th hole so he could forever say he'd had a beer with Arnie. He didn't really think he could do an Annika Sorenstam at Colonial but did say, "I was going to shave my legs and put on a bra and see if I could get an exemption."
Through the 1990s, Green found himself in a two-front war. He was diagnosed with clinical depression. And he couldn't hit a pro-quality golf shot. He told Golf Digest in 2003 that the costs of the war were an angry divorce, a $300,000 debt, thoughts of suicide ("I toyed with the car in the garage, carbon monoxide. Doing that or pills") and the panic that froze him over every shot. "I couldn't drag it back with a sand wedge." At the Bob Hope, with houses along the fairways, he flew drives over back yards into the front. He decided that evil little soul-destroying creatures lived in his brain. He called them demons.
The decade 1998 to 2008 was a melancholy slog interrupted by a single moment of delight. When Green regained his tour card in '02 qualifying school, his teacher, Peter Kostis, called it "one of the all-time greatest comebacks in the history of golf." But in two years, Green earned only pocket change. Worse, with the demons still in residence, old nerve damage along his spinal column flamed up to make his life miserable all over again. After turning 50 last summer, he did nothing memorable in seven Champions Tour events.
There were signs this season that he might have found his game, the most significant coming on March 15 in Valencia, Calif., when he was in last-round heat for the first time in seven years. Starting the day five shots off the lead, tied for seventh place, he shot a three-under-par 69 to finish seventh and earn $57,600. He was this close to winning: His playing partner that day, Dan Forsman, shot 66 and won $240,000. Green last won against touring pros in the 1990 Hong Kong Open.
"That week in Valencia, I didn't totally get rid of the demons," he says, "but I played without any fear under pressure the last day. It was also a financial relief. Basically, I was week to week. It's a terrible way to play golf thinking, Here's how much money I'm going to make with this shot. That's the demons getting in your head."
Four decent performances in the next two months shut the demons' mouths, at least for the moment. On June 7, he tied for 37th in Austin. The check for $8,480 gave him $123,906 for the year. Halfway through the schedule, it was already his best season since 1996.
That Sunday evening, Green loaded up his motor home, a 40-foot Holiday Rambler that had literally been his home for four years, most often parked on a friend's lot in West Palm Beach. The four of them -- the player; his girlfriend, Jeannie Hodgin; the German shepherd, Nip; and Green's older brother and caddie, Billy -- drove east into Louisiana for the night. The plan was to get to North Carolina for a week's rest at Hodgin's home before heading north to upstate New York.
They would cross the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, pass through the state capital of Jackson and drive east toward Alabama.
The Green Team
"I was at my happiest in the RV, traveling," Green says, "the four of us, driving around, talking a lot, having fun."
Billy Green was 57 years old. He had caddied for his kid brother his last four years on the PGA Tour. In May he had joined up again. Off they went to Birmingham and Cleveland, Des Moines and Austin. "He was my brother -- and we were really good friends," Ken Green says. "It says something about all our personalities that we spent a month together in that RV and never had one issue of a fight."
Nip was a story in herself. Chasing a ball six years ago, she jumped into a canal behind her master's Florida place. An alligator maybe seven feet long met her in the water. Next to jump in was Ken Green, who swam to Nip, grabbed the gator's tail and swam away with his dog bitten but alive. "Her devotion to me was so intense, and we cared so much for each other, that people thought it was abnormal," Green says. Mornings in the RV, once the early-riser Jeannie left the bed, Nip jumped into the warm spot alongside Green.