By Ron Schachter
In large italics atop his website, Ken Green writes “God has thrown some big asteroids at me. And you have two choices: you get squashed or you take them on.” The biggest of those asteroids landed almost three years ago, when his recreation vehicle blew a tire and veered off a Mississippi interstate. Green’s brother, his longtime girlfriend, and his German Shepherd were all killed.
Green suffered head injuries, and his right leg below the knee was mangled. As he lay in a hospital three days later, he made his first major decision about keeping his career as a professional golfer alive.
“With the leg kind of hanging, which is what it would have been doing, I’d have just dragged it everywhere; I would have had no chance at all to play any professional golf,” Green said. “So my feeling was, ‘OK, we’ll cut it off. I’ll put the dopey prosthetic on and I’ll play. I never gave it any thought as to how hard it’s going to be.”
In just five months, Green started swinging a golf club, an action he found easier than climbing the stairs with his new prosthesis. Less than a year after his accident, he became the first amputee to play on the Champions Tour at the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf Tournament in Savannah, Georgia.
The 53-year-old Green has competed in about a half-dozen champions events since. Champions Tour President Mike Stevens says that Green’s return ranks as one of golf’s great comebacks.
“It’s got to be the top,” Stevens said. “I don’t ever recall anyone in my tenure and history of golf anyone attempting to come back and play from this severe of an injury, not just physically, but psychologically and emotionally given all that happened in the accident.”
But Green’s road has been a lot rockier than he ever imagined. While Tiger Woods seems to reinvent his swing every few years to great fanfare, those changes pale compared to the adjustments Green has had to make.
“I can’t turn as much because I don’t have the ability to turn off of my hip for whatever reason, so when I come down, this left side of my body does that motion, and when you do that you’ve lost a massive amount of power, which is why I’m 20 yards shorter. I would have been much better off if I had lost my left leg.”
Since Green can’t bend his right knee, shots for which the ball lies uphill or downhill from where he is standing having become much more difficult to make. His limitations have also forced him to abandon his left-to-right fade shot, which was his bread and butter during his pro career.
If they had a golf tour in the old testament, Ken Green would have qualified as Job. Besides coping with physical condition – which includes a continuous stabbing pain in his severed limb – Green also has to deal with the sudden death of his 21-year-old son from a drug overdose two years ago.
To add insult to injury, Green’s two-year exemption from having to qualify for most Champions Tour events – earned on the strength of his earlier success on the PGA Tour – expired during the year he was recovering from his injuries. He appealed to tour officials to restore that lost eligibility.
“I said, ‘Listen, I want to help golf, I want to help kids, I want to help the Wounded Warriors, I want to help me. All I want is the year. I can do it in a year,” Green said.
Instead, Green received an annually renewable major medical exemption. While Tour President Stevens claims that status should open up as many as half a dozen tournaments, Green doubts that he’ll actually be eligible for more than one a year. Otherwise he has to depend on the kindness of sponsor’s exemptions to compete.
If Green hasn’t gotten much sympathy from the tour, he has received plenty of other support. Fellow senior golfers have raised more than $100,000 for him. Just last Tuesday there was another fundraiser in his hometown of Danbury, Connecticut, where he received the key to the city. Michael Whitmer, who covers golf for the Boston Globe, adds that Green’s recent adversity has softened what once was a prickly reputation in the golf world.
“When he was on the Tour he was a hot-tempered guy,” Whitmer said. “And he had issues with alcohol, he had issues with temper, so I think people’s opinions have changed about him based on what he’s been through.”
Last month Green partnered at the Legends of Golf Tournament with senior golfer and longtime friend Mike Reid.
“I thought I loved the game a lot,” Reid said. “But I am certain that I would not have paid the price and would not have kept the dream alive that he has kept alive by virtue of his love for the game.”
How far Green’s comeback goes remains to be seen. Because he once played on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, he does have a lifetime exemption to the Senior PGA Championship starting Thursday in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Green says that whether he plays will come down to a game-time decision, due to the unpredictability of his pain, which has him ponder the more distant future.
“Eventually if it doesn’t get any better by the end of this year, I’m going to have to make that decision: you’re going to have to suffer like an idiot for a year and a half or two years and do it, or don’t. And knowing me I’m going to suffer because I want to try it.”