APPLETON — Bob Burns didn't think he'd ever give another golf lesson after undergoing surgery last winter for prostate cancer, which had gone undiagnosed for too long and "got out of control." He spent months in a wheelchair, then had elbow surgery, with knee surgery delayed but inevitable.
At 68, he'd had a long and distinguished career as the only PGA Master Professional in Wisconsin. He is among the game's foremost club builders and his shop once was one of two entrusted by the great Ben Hogan to repair equipment manufactured by Ben Hogan Golf.
Burns crafted beautiful persimmon drivers back in the day. He made the first metal woods for close friend Gary Adams, who'd founded a fledgling company called TaylorMade. His own "No Bananas" anti-slice driver made Golf Digest's "hot list" in 2006 and is in the hands of thousands of golfers worldwide.
As a teacher with few peers, he gave lessons to Ernie Banks ("the worst slicer you've ever seen"), Tony Kubek, Mike McCarthy and many other athletes and celebrities in addition to countless recreational golfers.
Burns came from nothing, having grown up poor in Gary, Ind., and accomplished things beyond his or anyone else's wildest dreams. So when he was in a wheelchair last winter, yes, he thought long and hard about hanging it up.
But then who would help golfers like little Audrey Crowley of Grafton, born with a right arm that ends at the elbow? Or Tom Scruggs of Cecil, who suffered a catastrophic stroke? Or Bob Murkley of Berlin, born with deformed fingers?
If Burns retired, who would work with the dozens of veterans who came to him with brain injuries, missing legs and severe burns -- brave men who had all but given up hope they would ever play golf until Burns showed them there was a way? It all started with a seminar he gave at Walter Reed Army Hospital in 2007. Burns, who chokes up talking about it, came home a changed man.
And so, he got up out of the wheelchair, worked with physical therapists and personal trainers and got back to helping people enjoy a game that has given him everything.
"It's my mission in life," he said. "It's amazing that at this time in my career, I really know what my reason is to be on this earth."
The Bob Burns Golf Learning Center has become a mecca of sorts for golfers with disabilities. They come from all over the country for lessons from Burns, a soft-spoken, devoutly religious man who is "held together with duct tape."
"PGA professionals, I think, all have a passion for the game," said Steve Crowley, who has made the nearly four-hour round trip from Grafton dozens of times with Audrey, his 9-year-old daughter. "You can't stand behind a counter all day long and deal with people if you don't have a passion for the game. This guy bleeds that passion. He really does. It comes out of every pore in his body."
In addition to the lessons, Burns builds custom clubs that enable golfers with prosthetics or disabilities to hold onto and swing them. Together, teacher and student improvise, tinkering with equipment and swing until the ball takes flight and the golfer stares in wide-eyed wonder.
"He was able to show Audrey things that no other regular instructor understood or could tell her," Crowley said. "A regular instructor walks up to a one-armed kid and says, 'What do I do?' Bob made clubs for her."
Audrey, an accomplished downhill skier, was frustrated with golf until she started working with Burns. Under his guidance, she experimented with swinging left-handed and right-handed and with and without the prosthetic. Finally, they decided she did best swinging left-handed, without the prosthetic.
"He's had more exposure to people who have one arm like me," she said. "He has helped me a lot."
Murkley, 47, is a certified golf nut who plays daily in the summer. Because his fingers are deformed as a result of amniotic band constriction, a congenital disorder, he uses a special glove designed by Burns to help him hold onto the club.
"My goal is to become a 40 or so golfer consistently," Murkley said. "My best score was a 41 at Mascoutin."
Could he have done it without Burns' help?
"No, there's no way," he said. "I'm guessing I would have probably been in the 60s, at best. I can actually beat my buddies now."
Joel Schultz, 65, of Green Lake, whose right arm was amputated after he suffered from compartment syndrome following heart surgery, regularly shoots in the mid-40s. He and Burns teamed to build a hose-like attachment which screws into his prosthetic and acts as a forearm, wrist and hand.
"I came up with the hose thing and Bob perfected it," Schultz said. "I hit my 8-iron 120 yards. My driver has crept up to 170 and I've hit several 200."
Asked to describe Burns, Schultz used one word: "Genius."
Then there's Ricky Kaufert of Appleton, born with deformed arms that end at the elbows, from which extend hands with three fingers. Burns built extra-long clubs for Kaufert, who grips them between his fingers instead of in his palms. His amazingly effective swing produces soaring 200-yard drives.
"Ricky came in here one day and we talked," Burns said. "He said, 'I don't think you can help me.' I said, 'I think I can. As long as we can connect you to the club, I'll teach you how to swing.' "
And here's the kicker: Burns does not charge these students, either for his time or for the clubs he painstakingly builds. Instead, he asks their permission to be used as case studies in an instructional book he is writing to help other PGA professionals teach people with disabilities.
"It's not what you take with you, it's what you leave behind," Burns said. "I don't care to make a penny off the book. I just want it as a reference to be in every golf professional's library and to have anybody be able to pick it up and say, 'Hey, I can do this.' "
It's a good thing Burns didn't retire. He has done plenty, but there is much to be done. So you'll find him building clubs in his shop a mile off I-41 or giving lessons on the practice range until, as he said, the angels call him.
"With any of the people I work with, especially the soldiers, it's more therapeutic for me than it is for them," said Burns, who won the 2014 Patrick Henry Award for exceptional service to the U.S. Armed Forces. "I'll say, 'Are you having fun?' And they'll say, 'Yeah, I'm having a lot of fun.'
"And I'll say to them, 'Well, I'm having more fun than you are.' "
This article was written by Gary D'Amato from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.