BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- The greatest night of Dennis Walters' life was still going the next day.
"It was a moment that just laid out where I have gone in the last 32 years in the most beautiful way," said Walters, a paraplegic who Wednesday night was honored with the PGA of America's Distinguished Service Award for his inspirational work as a golf ambassador and trick-shot performer. "I could feel the people, and all the love in the air."
Tears flowed in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Max M. Fisher Music Center during a video of Walters' life that contained testimonials by Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods. Walters' sister, Barbara Walters Herman, read an inspirational letter written to him by Ben Hogan.
That was followed by the 58-year-old Walters' moving speech, which came after he and his wheel chair were raised out of the orchestra pit onto the stage. Walters then used crutches to lift himself upright as he received a standing ovation.
"I'm told it lasted more than 20 minutes," he said, "but it seemed like it went really fast. I was eager to say those words." Among other things, Walters told the audience, "if you have a dream and it doesn't work out, never stop dreaming. Get a new dream."
The program was headlined by the Four Tops, who dedicated their set to Walters. "The place was packed, and it was rockin," said Walters when reached by phone Thursday on his way to Pinehurst in his 43-foot Newmar Mountain Air motorhome to perform in the Jimmy V Golf tournament Sunday.
Walters was a New Jersey amateur star who tied for 11th in the 1971 U.S. Amateur and had just missed out on PGA Tour Qualifying School when on July 21, 1974 he flipped a three-wheel golf cart on a newly graveled road at Roxiticus CC in Mendham, N.J., dislocating a vertebrae that pinched his spinal cord. After a period of severe depression, Walters, with his father's encouragement, found a way to hit golf balls from his wheelchair. Walters was soon sending out drives more than 200 yards and finding all sorts of new ways to hit a golf ball. In 1977, with sponsorship help from Nicklaus, he started The Dennis Walters Golf Show.
Since then, Walters has given more than 2,700 exhibitions (about 12 a month in the spring, summer and fall) at golf tournaments, clinics, military bases, schools or anywhere where he can reach audiences that include the physically challenged or underprivileged. The show consists of his life story, how golf can help people overcome their problems, and trick shots, with the shot the punch line. Since 1997 Walters has taken part in 30 Tiger Woods clinics, and in the last few months has done shows at the U.S. Open, the U.S. Women's Open, the U.S. Senior Open, and the PGA Championship.
In the show, Walters, sits in a swivel attached to the side of a golf cart. Strapped in by a seat belt, Walters starts his show by sending out solid shot after solid shot, and then moves to trick shots involving a gavel-headed club, a three-headed club that hits three balls simultaneously, hitting balls off of eggs without breaking them, and hitting shots through fire.
Walters, who by putting one-handed after balancing himself on leg braces and a single crutch can still break 40 over nine holes at his home course, the Ritz Carlton in Jupiter, Fla., keeps his golf advice simple.
"I hit the ball best when I have no swing thoughts," said Walters. "When I picture my target, I visualize where I want ball to go, and just let go. Sometimes it helps me to think about swinging the club over the back fender of the cart, and through the ball over the front fender. From fender to fender, always approaching from the inside, not getting the arms too tight and just letting the club rotate."
For life advice, he uses the example of his own. "By telling my story I encourage people to reach for their dreams, strive for excellence and try to do something they don't think they can do."
Over the years, three different dogs have accompanied Walters in his show. They have all been terrier mixes rescued from animal shelters. In May, his third dog, Benji Hogan, died at age 12.
"I can exist without a dog, but I can't live without one," said Walters. "But I'm just not ready yet." He's looking for a terrier mix about 25 pounds, which he hopes to train over the winter in time to do shows next year.
-- Jaime Diaz