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PGA of America President Brian Whitcomb (right) presents Dennis Walters with the 2008 PGA Distinguished Service Award. (Photo: The PGA of America)

PGA honors Walters with Distinguished Service Award

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A lesser man would have been bitter when his dream of playing golf was stolen by a crippling golf cart accident. But not Dennis Walters, one of the game's greatest ambassadors.

By Bob Denney, The PGA of America

DETROIT -- The PGA of America and Motown's legendary Four Tops combined to celebrate Dennis Walters on Wednesday night, an evening that hit all the high notes for a man who overcame tragedy to find a pathway to reconnecting to the game of golf.

Walters, 58, the 2008 PGA Distinguished Service Award winner from Jupiter, Fla., was honored at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Max M. Fisher Music Center. The ceremony attracted an audience of 1,200, featuring representatives of the nation's premier allied golf associations, manufacturers and professional colleagues -- all of whom Walters had touched in some way over a 32-year career as one of golf's most unique ambassadors.

"This is the greatest night of my life," said Walters, in an emotional address following his being awarded The PGA of America's highest annual honor. Walters, who was left a paraplegic following a golf cart accident in July 21, 1974, resurrected his dream of a "tour professional's life" by learning to hit golf balls on a seat that was designed for the side of a golf cart.

He developed a trick shot repertoire that has enabled him to perform in 49 states, traveling more than three million miles and covering more than 2,700 programs to audiences large and small, of all ages, among veterans returning home from war, among the seriously ill, underprivileged children and the physically challenged.

"I had my dream of being a tour professional end, but I learned that you can never stop dreaming," said Walters. "You just have to get a new dream. To have had the opportunity to influence others over these past 32 years has made it better.

"My goal is to hit great shots today and better shots tomorrow. Vince Lombardi once said in a speech to his players, 'We are going to relentlessly chase perfection. We will not catch it, but in the process we will reach excellence.' Those words have helped me know that I can improve every day."

The PGA of America video presentation honoring Walters included comments including those from Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, along with Walters' sister, Barbara Walters Herman of Davie, Fla., and PGA Professional Wayne Warms of Brielle, N.J., who became Walters' closest friend and counsel following that 1974 accident.

"There was no question that Dennis Walters would have been the greatest professional to come out of New Jersey,:" said Warms. "But, when he underwent his accident, he was forced to look to other means to achieve his dream. He did so, and remains one of the most remarkable people I have ever met."

Walters said that when the time comes that he must trim his exhaustive cross-country travels, he would like to ask the industry to allow him to help grow the game of golf.

"I would love to grow the game especially to those with disabilities," said Walters. "Golf has such wide-ranging ramifications in people's lives. I also am inspired as I travel, to have had a personal influence on junior golfers. I look forward to the coming years and what we all can do to help golf."

PGA of America President Brian Whitcomb said that Walters represents "the essence of this game and the spirit of man."

The Four Tops, with one surviving member from the original group that achieved 1990 induction into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, have not lost any of the style and energy that catapulted the group to Motown stardom in the 1960s.

Abdul "Duke" Farir, the lone surviving member of the group, opened the evening by addressing Walters and praising him for "touching both the young and the old," and dedicating the evening's repertoire of hits to him.

It wasn't a coincidence that The Four Tops led into one of their biggest hits, "Reach Out, I'll Be There," as that song could easily be a theme for Dennis Walters, who found salvation through golf and has spread his message so well over 30 years.

The PGA Distinguished Service Award, inaugurated in 1988, honors outstanding individuals who display leadership and humanitarian qualities, including integrity, sportsmanship and enthusiasm for the game of golf.

PGA Distinguished Service Award Recipients
Herb Graffis
Bob Hope
No recipient
The Hon. Gerald Ford
Gene Sarazen
Byron Nelson
Arnold Palmer
Patty Berg
Frank Chirkinian
The Hon. George H.W. Bush
Paul Runyan
Bill Dickey
Jack Nicklaus
Mark McCormack
Tim Finchem
Vince Gill
Pete Dye
Wally Uihlein
Fred Ridley
Jack Burke Jr.
Dennis Walters

Since 1916, The PGA of America's mission has been twofold:
to establish and elevate the standards of the profession and to grow interest and participation in the game of golf.

By establishing and elevating the standards of the golf profession through world-class education, career services, marketing and research programs, the Association enables PGA Professionals to maximize their performance in their respective career paths and showcases them as experts in the game and in the $76 billion golf industry.

By creating and delivering dramatic world-class championships and exciting and enjoyable golf promotions that are viewed as the best of their class in the golf industry, The PGA of America elevates the public's interest in the game, the desire to play more golf, and ensures accessibility to the game for everyone, everywhere. The PGA of America brand represents the very best in golf.

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