Former U.S. Ryder Cup Team Member Ken Green Competing in 5th U.S. Disabled Open at PGA Golf Club
By Craig Dolch
Ken Green at the 2019 KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship.
Ken Green won five PGA Tour titles, played on the 1989 U.S. Ryder Cup team and earned almost $4 million as a professional golfer.
But when he leans on his good left leg May 8 to tee it up in the first round of the 5th United States Disabled Open Golf Championship at PGA Golf Club, he’s not thinking about winning a large paycheck.
“I am just playing for personal pride,” Green said.
Green’s world changed in 2009 when the RV he was traveling in blew a tire and slammed into a tree off a Mississippi highway. Green’s brother, girlfriend and dog were killed in the crash. Ken survived but had to have his lower right leg amputated.
He has spent the past 14 years adjusting to a new life filled with pain and adjustments. While golf can no longer provide him with money and fame, it has allowed him to keep a piece of his former self.
He’s still a golfer, albeit a disabled golfer. And you will see him smile through the pain during the 54-hole tournament, especially when he looks at the other players in the field.
“The biggest thing is how competitive they are,” Green said. “They’re here to play, to do the absolute best they can, not just to show up. I’ve got the utmost respect for seated players and how hard they are grinding it out.
“Golf is the hardest game on the planet when you’re healthy. Try to be a seated player. They don’t moan, they don’t groan. They have a different respect for life as hard as they are trying. They know there are worse things (than a high score).”
This will be the Green’s third start in a disabled golf tournament in the last year. He finished sixth in the U.S. Adaptive Open Championship at Pinehurst last year, then won the Eastern Adaptive Open.
Green’s goal is to lift another trophy, but he knows what he wants is usually out of his control. It’s not that he’s nervous; it’s the nerves that sometimes shoot blood-curdling pain throughout his body.
“I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be bummed if I don’t win,” Green said. “But you have to be sharp to win, and that depends on where my pain is that day. I know I’m going to make some dumb mistakes. Just try to make at least two or three birdies to even it out.”
When Green was in his prime, there wasn’t a pin he wouldn’t aim at or a long putt he wouldn’t try to make. That confidence erodes over time to healthy, aging players. For the 64-year-old Green, it’s a hard habit to break.
“I’m trying to understand that I can’t go at certain pins even though my brain still thinks I can,” he said. “That’s the hard part. I shouldn’t be going at any pins unless I’m 140 yards or less. The tricky part is understanding what you can consistently do.”
Green has gotten only a handful of starts on the PGA Tour Champions since his injury, needing to rely on sponsor exemptions. He will again play in the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship in Frisco, Texas later this month, with his status as a former Ryder Cup player.
But even though Tiger Woods showed the golf world differently at the 2008 U.S. Open, it’s virtually impossible to beat good players on one leg.
“The hardest part is having a repetitive swing,” Green said. “Distance control is a big thing. I’ll hit one swing 150 yards the next 158 – that’s a big difference. Plus, it’s hard to concentrate with all the (pain) meds I’m on. ”When asked what’s the easiest part about playing golf with one good leg, Green said it was hitting drivers.
“At our age, you don’t have the clubhead speed you used to have, so I think that’s about the same,” Green said.
Green may be playing for personal pride this week, but he insists there’s a bigger issue here: Making golf more accessible for disabled persons. To be eligible for this event, players must have physical, sensory or intellectual disabilities.
“You have to look at the bigger picture,” Green said. “Hopefully, with events like this, we can start making dents into the golf community to get more corporate involvement. This game means so much to people who have greater problems in their lives.”
Other notables in the field include: World Golf Hall of Famer, PGA Honorary Member and Bob Jones Award winner Dennis Walters, who won the Seated Division in last year’s inaugural U.S. Adaptive Open Championship; Jeremy Bittner, one of the U.S.’s top-ranked disabled players after losing part of his right leg when he was 4; Amy Bockerstette, who has Down syndrome, and burst onto the golf scene in 2019, when she made a par during a practice round at the 17th hole of the Phoenix Open. Also in the field is Chad Pfeiffer, whose lost his leg in an IED explosion in 2007, when he was an Army paratrooper in Iraq.
Last year’s tournament was won by Eliseo Villanueva, of Fayetteville, North Carolina (Mens); and Deborah Smith of Rockford, Illinois (Womens), among 61 golfers in the field at Laurel Hill Golf Club in Fairfax, Virginia.
The 54-hole event runs Monday through Wednesday on the Ryder Course at PGA Golf Club. The United States Disabled Open Championship is conducted by the US Disabled Golf Association with the PGA of America serving as Presenting Partner of the Championship. Click here for the entire field list.