Ken Green & Nip take on a gator

September 03, 2009

Before we get to the alligator and the golfer's dog, we should listen to the dog. "To hell with wagging just my tail," says Nip. After all, a happy dog has an electric wire of joy running through its entire body. So here's Nip, a German shepherd, 2 years old. She's dancing on this foot and that. She's wagging from nose to tail, fluttering like a gale-flung flag at Pebble Beach's 18th.

All because the man of her dreams, Ken Green, a five-time winner on the PGA Tour, has picked up a tennis ball. She says, "A thousand throws, Kenny, please, let's do a thousand, maybe more."

Dogs talk. Yes. Roy Blount Jr. hears them. He once wrote down what two Newfoundlands said on an ocean beach. He wrote it alongside a photograph in a book. The dogs were tired, dripping wet, and they said:

Hear that ocean crash and heave.

Nothing you can throw in it that we can't retrieve.

In his backyard, Green holds the ball. Nip sits, looks, pants, sighs, says, "Please, Kenny, throw it. A puppy can't sit cute forever." At the ball's first bounce, the electrified Nip is in full flight, plucking the ball out of the air.

Here, the alligator. Shortly before dusk on a late September day, rising to catch a toss from her man, Nip instead bumped the ball over a fence. It bounced into one of those ubiquitous South Florida canals.

Who knows what prehistoric creatures may have oozed out of Lake Okeechobee 40 miles from West Palm Beach, but a sign at the canal's edge near Ken Green's house advises: "CAUTION: ALLIGATORS MAY BE PRESENT." But for most of 17 years there, Green never saw an alligator.

He didn't see this one at first.

Then he heard two splashes.

The first splash was Nip's. The canal is 25 feet from Green's fence. When the ball bounced into the water, Nip looked up at Green and said, "Can I?"

Green said, "OK, go get it."

Over the fence and into the water Nip went. Nothing unusual. For most of the 2002 golf season, she traveled with Green on the PGA and Nationwide tours. She'd sit by the practice range. She'd swim in water hazards.

The odd thing was that second splash. It came from Green's right, from behind a tree. There he saw the cause of the sound. An alligator was gliding toward Nip.

Dogs have been the constants in Ken Green's life and career. As the 1980s became the '90s, he was a tour star on his way to winning $3 million (back then, real money). He had a beer or three. He prized fun, candor and eccentricity (those shoes, the green of split-pea soup).

Life's troubles buffeted him: injuries, depression, "demons of fear whispering, 'You're going to hit this one out-of-bounds.' " Against those vagaries, he always had allies in dogs--even through a divorce.

"My wife wanted cats in the house and the dog out," Green says. "At first I kept my shepherd, Blackie, outside. But I wanted her in. I brought her in.

"Four months later, Blackie and I both were out."


He's now 45, going back on tour again in 2004 after back injuries kept him out most of the 2003 season. He'll drive a recreational vehicle co-piloted by Nip.

That day in September, as he saw the alligator, Green says, "The gator and Nip were on a collision course, and I was hoping the gator made a move and missed, so Nip could get closer and get out."

Green talked to himself. "Like, 'What am I going to do?' Because now I can see she's not going to make it back. 'Am I really going to do this? Can I do this?' This isn't 'Crocodile Hunter' doing 34 takes figuring out what to show everybody. I've got six or seven seconds."

He also thought: "There'd just been a story out of New York where a camp counselor fell in a river and three buddies jumped in to help--and they all drowned."

Then he heard Nip yelp. Frightened. Hurt. The alligator had arrived. Both predator and prey disappeared under the water.

At that moment, a third splash.

Ken Green going in.

"It wasn't a choice anymore," he says.

Green jumped into the still water. Nothing moving. Neither gator nor dog in sight. Had the alligator already swum away with Nip? Green was in water collar-bone deep.

"And right in front of me the gator's tail pops up," he says. "The mouth is still down, drowning the dog. I got my arms around the tail, pulling it to me. The gator is literally not moving. I just pulled. Obviously it was surprised. It didn't know what the hell was happening. And it lets go of the dog.

"Up comes the rest of the gator, and now everything's moving toward me, like, 'Whoa!' So I take it, and I fall back, all the way in the water, over my head. Now the gator can do anything he wants, right? If he had grabbed me, I'd have been at his mercy. I'd have been done. I mean, I'm not afraid of dying. But not like that."

Meaning, in pieces. Greg Butcher, an alligator trapper for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, likens a gator's bite to vise-grips locked down, only with razor-sharp spikes in there.

"Then he spins," Butcher says, "and rips your arm off."

This from the commission's website:

"Because of their predatory nature and large size (up to 14 feet in length and greater than 1,000 pounds), alligators can, and occasionally do, attack pets and livestock. Regretfully, humans, too, occasionally are attack victims, and in rare instances are killed by large alligators."

Since 1948, more than 300 alligator attacks on humans have resulted in 13 deaths in Florida. As for dogs: "Dogs suffer many more attacks than humans, probably because dogs more closely resemble natural-prey ... "

Happily, when interrupted in its search for lunch, the gator in Ken Green's canal swam away. "In Mr. Green's case," trapper Butcher says, "the gator probably let go of the dog when he felt something on his tail. He was being attacked two ways, and he only had one mouth to defend himself. He just got out of there."

Green and Nip swam home. The dog needed 25 stitches in her left front leg and shoulder. Green had bruised ribs from the rasslin' match with an alligator that may have been seven feet long weighing 150 pounds.

Now the man and his dog lounge on a living room couch. Nip has her head between her paws.

She hears her man say, "People have asked, 'What in the world were you thinking?' And, 'Are you stupid?' Not one person has said, 'That was the right thing to do.' But, look. How could you just sit there and let that happen?"

Here, raising her pretty head, Nip says, "Write this down, Mr. Reporter: If it'd been Kenny in there, I'd have bitten that gator's ass till he let go."