August 23, 2009

'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.

He met Jeannie Hodgin through her father, Norman, a pro-am partner at the PGA Tour's Greensboro tournament in 1983. As many pros do in their nomadic lives, Green developed a lasting friendship with a family that he would see once a year. "I began staying at the Hodgins' house. They had something I'd never seen in a family: They had love. They loved each other and cared about each other. Jeannie and I were both married at the time. And it was 15 years before we were both solo. It didn't take me long to hook up with her. She was so vibrant, just so happy."

The Green team left Shreveport on Monday morning, June 8.

It was about 1:30 p.m. when they passed a dot on the Mississippi map called Hickory, near mile marker 118, about 40 miles from the Alabama border.

Bradley Artis saw it happen. The 37-year-old government worker from Baton Rouge, La., says he was driving three car lengths behind Green's motor home, which he referred to as a bus.

"The right-side tire blew out, like a little explosion," he says. "And the bus started to the left. It was going 71, 70 miles per hour. It came back to the right, like the driver was trying to get control. Then it went off the road and hit a big tree. It knocked that tree down."

Artis says he did everything he could. "I ran down the hill and tried to find a pulse on the woman. The other man in the bus was under her. The dog was smashed up against the driver's seat. The driver was thrown through the windshield of the RV." He says another witness, named on the accident report as William Downhour of Hot Springs, Ark., had identified Green as the driver. Downhour declined a Golf Digest interview. Highway patrol public-affairs officer Malachi Sanders says an investigation showed that Green was driving when the RV's right-front tire blew out, "causing the vehicle to veer off the road. The RV then went off the right side of the interstate, down a hill and collided with an oak tree."

Green disputes that account. "The officer is incorrect," he says. "I know for a fact I wasn't driving because I never drove during the day." He adds, "Billy was driving. I had a habit of going into the back bed when Bill was driving, just lying down and watching TV instead of staying in the front area. And I assume, once the tire blew, I heard it and came out. According to the skid marks, it went straight from the left lane straight across off the right side and down that embankment. We never lost speed, so when it hit that tree I was thrown out of the RV, and Billy and Jeannie and Nip weren't. They say they were killed instantly, and I hope they were. The speculation was, if I hadn't been thrown out the window, I'd probably have died with them. And sometimes I wish I had."

Green remembers leaving Shreveport.

"The next thing I know, I was in the hospital," he says. He says he saw his sister, Shelley, and her husband, Slugger White. They had arrived in Jackson, Miss., from Ormond Beach, Fla. "And I'm like, 'What are you guys doing here?' I didn't even know I was hurt, because I didn't know there was an accident."

An immediate surgery on Green's leg had implanted steel rods to reinforce its fractured tibia and fibula. Doctors did that because the leg could be saved. But when Green was able to speak to the surgeons, he wanted to know more than that. They told him that keeping the full leg would mean multiple surgeries over years. It also would result in limitations that rendered the leg less than what it had been. One thing was, he'd never walk the same way again.

Green says, "I'm like, 'But what about golf?' The doctor said, 'Golf's not going to be real good; you're not going to be able to play very good.' Professional golf was done; it wasn't even an option. So I asked, 'What if you cut it? Could I play?' He said, 'Yes, you could get a prosthesis. You could play. There's tons of people that do.' That's when I said, 'Well, you gotta cut it then. I gotta try. I gotta try to play golf.' "

Shelley White was there. "Anybody else would have said, 'Let me think about this for a while.' My Kenny didn't bat an eyelash. 'Cut if off.' "

Four days after the amputation, there stood at Green's bedside a young Mississippi woman who, in her father's church-meeting words, had come to "love on him." Green said to her the kind of thing he is always saying. He said smiling words. "What kind of misunderstanding of me do you have," he said, "that makes you want to meet me?"

Not a misunderstanding. A shared fate. Rachel Blackledge was 17 when she fell from a boat and lost a leg above the knee to a propeller as the boat passed over her. Her best friend was killed in the same accident. At 21, she walks on a C-Leg, a mechanical wonder of sensors, microprocessors and hydraulics that's the next-best thing to the real thing. She had come to the hospital to encourage Green that he could live the life he wanted, as she has.

Blackledge is a physical-therapy graduate student at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. She thought of Green as humble, funny and upbeat. "We talked amputee to amputee," she says. "Still, I was very surprised, with him not knowing me from the man in the moon, that he opened up to me so much. He was very aware of what was ahead. He said, 'I know losing my leg is going to be the easy part.' So he wasn't into denial about the difficulties. That's important, but the real important part was that he is extremely motivated. He wants to play golf again. He has such a passion for golf."

His contemporaries know it. Twelve years after Green's 15th-fairway beer with Arnie, Palmer called the hospital. So did Jack Nicklaus, Mark Calcavecchia, Fred Funk, Mike Reid, Greg Kraft, Forsman and, from South Africa, Gary Player, "upbeat and positive that I could get back."

It's not just golf that Green wants. It's professional tournament golf. "When the doctors talk about golf," he says, "they don't understand the level that we play at, even on the Champions Tour. Look what Tom Watson did in the British. They have no clue. So that's my mystery. Am I going to be able to maintain that level? Or am I going to drop a couple levels and not be able to play at that high level? That's something I'll know, but I won't know it for six, seven, eight, nine, 10 months."

Peter Kostis believes Green will play again. Of possible amputations, losing the lower right leg is the least harmful to the golf swing, he says. "I don't know that any change in his swing will be huge," says Kostis, who has worked with Green for 26 years. "We'll have to create a swing that depends less on body rotation." In work with military amputees, Kostis says he met a soldier who went to war with a lower-leg prosthesis. "If he can go back and be in Special Forces," Kostis says, "I can help Ken Green hit a golf ball."

Another golf teacher, Ken Peck, lost his lower-left leg to a blood infection and says he returned to a 2-handicap level within a year before losing his right leg. "Ken really should be able to play at the same level as before, if not better," says Peck, marketing director for the National Amputee Golf Association. "He can build a more neutral swing with no weight shift, a quieter swing, and he'll become more creative with his short game. I have no doubt that he can do it."

Green is ready. "I have total faith in Peter figuring out what we're going to do," he says, "and I have total faith in my ability to do it."

He has thought about the moment he steps onto a tee again.

"Shoot 85? No way. I wouldn't do that to the game or to myself. If you see me on the tee, it'll be because I am ready to do something. I'll be soooo nervous. I'll pray, 'Don't make a total fool of yourself.' "

Then, laughing: "I may ask the tour, 'Can you bend the rules just once and give me a wide-open first fairway, please?' "

'No way I'm gonna quit'

Losing the leg will be the easy part. The man said so himself. "Sometimes," he says, "I start bawling and can't stop."

On the couch in his sister's home, Green says it was four or five days after the accident before he fully understood that Jeannie, Billy and Nip were dead.

"You start realizing you've lost them. You're in shock. I mean, I just lost the three most important people in my life. They're gone. They're dead. I'm not going to have those conversations with Jeannie anymore. Bill and I used to rag on each other something fierce, and we had a blast doing it. But that's gone, too. It's a hard thing. I woke up every day patting Jeannie and Nip. Now I don't have any of it. It hurts. It sucks. There's no other way around it. People tell you, 'Just remember the good memories.' That's such a crock. I can understand what they mean. But that doesn't do you any good."

Golf has been his safe harbor since childhood. He grew up the son of an alcoholic father soon divorced by his mother. He learned to play golf at 12 when his father was a school principal in Honduras. He remembers drunken, frightening drives on cliff-side mountain roads. He has since won some of life's games and lost more, and even in that he can find a laugh line. "There's that theory that God never gives you anything you can't handle. I'm like, 'Dude, haven't you seen how I'm doing so far? And now you're throwing something else at me!' "

His answer, as always, is golf. "There's no way I'm gonna quit," he says. "I love the golf. I love it. If I couldn't play golf, I wouldn't want to be on the planet. My intensity is there, and there's no way I'm gonna quit. I am going to play professional golf again."

The next afternoon, Green had a molding made of his stump. It was the first step in the creation of a prosthesis, one step nearer that wide-open first fairway.