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Legends of Golf and Camaraderie

The Savannah tournament shows the best side of the game

Posted May 01, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece

legends of golf

The notion of golf as one, big international family, gained a rather special dimension for me during the Liberty Mutual Legends Tournament in Savannah.  It had much to do with the caring way that players behaved towards each other; very different from what I have come to expect on the regular tours on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is no coincidence that all the participants happened to be seniors, varying in age from 50 right up to their eighties.  These are men who have known very different times on tour to the multi-millionaires who could retire on their earnings without even winning a tournament.  One sensed a far greater awareness of the importance of friendship and camaraderie; the importance of life itself.

Nowhere was this more in evidence than in the general reaction from fellow players and spectators to the presence of Ken Green, whom I watched last Saturday competing with his partner, Mike Reid, in the Raphael Division of tournament week.  My interest was sparked not only by the physical plight of Green himself, but the fact that he happened to be playing opposite the British/Irish partnership of Mark James and Des Smyth.

As the Americans walked off the 18th, I remarked to Green that the last time had seen him play was in the US Masters. “That was a lifetime ago,” he replied with a wry smile.  I assumed he was referring to the great misfortune which caused him to lead off his website with the words: “God has thrown some big asteroids at me. And you have two choices: you get squashed or you take them on.”

This refers to events of four years ago when a tyre blow-out on his recreation vehicle caused it to veer off a Mississippi interstate with disastrous results. Green’s brother, his longtime girlfriend, and his pet dog were all killed. The player himself sustained head injuries and damage to his right leg that was so severe as to require amputation below the knee. Only five months later, Green started swinging a golf club again and now, as a 54-year-old, he competes on the Champions Tour.

Watching him swing a club, illustrated how much of a hands game golf is.  It was also especially interesting that, though wearing normal-length slacks, the prosthesis on the lower part of his right leg was exposed, leaving spectators in no doubt about his disability.  The message was clear:  though the leg may not have been as good as the one God gave him, it was still possible for this five-time tournament winner to play decent golf in elite company.

Green, a New Englander by birth, is an interesting fellow.  Once described by Johnny Miller as the best fairway wood player in the game, he first competed in the Masters in 1986 having made the breakthrough on tour with victory in the Buick Open the previous year.  Productive appearances at Augusta National appeared guaranteed when, in his first competitive round there, he earned a crystal vase for a 68 which happened to be the best opening round of that particular Masters – six strokes better, incidentally, than Jack Nicklaus, who famously went on to take the title.

In the event, Green quickly tumbled out of contention with a second-round 78 and eventually finished 44th for a very modest reward of $3,000.

I wasn’t at that particular Masters, but I was there for his only other appearance in 1997.  By that stage, he had made the 1989 Ryder Cup team in which he gained two points for the American cause as a partner for reigning Open champion, Mark Calcavecchia.  He had also become as bit of a lad, as we say on this side of the pond.  Among other things, he took delight in attempting to  diminish Augusta National as golf’s holy of holies, recounting in the media centre how he had sneaked friends of his into the grounds through a gap in the fence at the end of the practice ground.

As things turned out, his performance matched his mood when rounds of 87 and 74 left no doubt about an early departure on the Friday evening.  Little did I imagine that it would be 16 years before I saw him again.  And that great, personal tragedy would have befallen him in the meantime.

Whatever about his love/hate affair with Augusta National, Green is currently making a marvellous contribution to tournament golf.  And the general mood of his fellow seniors in Savannah gave the lie to the current Nike proclamation by Tiger Woods, that winning takes care of everything.  

- Dermot Gilleece

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