How Dennis Walters, PGA, Turned Adversity Into a Hall of Fame Career
By Brendon Elliott, PGA
Dennis Walters was born in 1949 in Neptune Township, New Jersey. The golf bug bit him early in life, as is the case for many people who love the game.
“I stumbled on a golf course right near my house when I was about eight," remembers Walters, now a World Golf Hall of Famer and Honorary PGA of America Life Member. "I was coming home from school one day, and I decided to go over there to check it out."
It didn’t take Dennis long to fall in love with the game, and eventually he became one of the best junior golfers in the state of New Jersey. In 1967, during his senior of high school, Walters won the New Jersey Junior Championship, Public Links Junior Championship and the Caddie Championship. At the time, Dennis was the first golfer to win all three prestigious amateur tournaments in New Jersey.
Dennis went on to North Texas State University on a golf scholarship. At North Texas, he captained his team which won the Missouri Valley Conference for four straight years. In 1971, he participated in the U.S. Amateur and came in eleventh place.
Walters then turned professional soon after graduating from North Texas but failed to earn his card at PGA TOUR Q-School. He traveled to South Africa and began competing on the South African Tour.
“I played with a lot of world-class players," says Walter. "Gary Player, the Henning brothers, Bobby Cole, and more. All those guys were household names. They were really good, and I learned a lot from them.
"When I finished up playing in South Africa, I was going to try again at Q-School. But then I had this accident.”
"I'm never giving up"
In July 1974, Walters became paralyzed in a golf cart accident. The budding young professional golfer, with dreams of playing on the PGA TOUR, was now paralyzed from the hips down at only 24 years old.
“Everyone said it would be impossible for me to play golf because I couldn't stand up and, of course, I didn’t like the sound of that at all,” says Walters.
Initially, Dennis seemed to buy into what people were saying about his future.
“I never actually thought I was getting out of that hospital bed," Walters remembers. "I said, 'man, if I ever get out of this thing, it's going to be a miracle.' "
Dennis spent four months in the hospital and then did months of intensive rehab. He was committed to finding a way back to the game he loved.
“When I got out of that bed, I promised myself, I said, 'I'm never giving up, I'm never quitting.' And I'm going to figure out a way that I can play golf," Walters says. "And, of course, I had no idea how to do that, but I was determined to figure it out.”
Figure it out he did. But it was, by no stretch of the imagination, an easy task. Many tears were shed along the way. But, with the constant support of his parents and friends, Dennis Walters forged a new path.
“In February 1975, I was watching the Bing Crosby Tournament at home. Many of my college friends were playing in it," he remembers. "I thought I should have been there, too. I started crying my eyes out. My dad then said, 'come on, champ, let's go hit some golf balls.' "
Finding a way to play golf again
Yet Dennis said he wasn’t quite sure how that was ever going to happen.
“After my dad said that, I asked him how. He said, 'By getting out of that blankin' wheelchair.' If you knew my dad, you could guess the descriptive adjective he gave to the wheelchair.
“Anyhow, right down the street, there was a little building, and inside the building, they had a net. I brought along a Byron Nelson 3-wood; it was my favorite club. I took that with me and a few golf balls. When we got there, my dad said, go ahead, take a swing. I said, Dad, my legs are in the way, I can't swing. He says, 'Alright, I'll be right back.'
He went home and got this big pillow. It was a pillow that had arms on it. He took the arms, stuffed them underneath me, and got me propped up higher. That was good in one respect. Still, I lacked the balance I needed due to being paralyzed from the waist down. I can't feel or move anything below my hip bone. So, my dad stood there thinking and then said, 'Alright, I'll be right back.'
"He went back home again and got this big wide strap. He tied it to the back of the wheelchair, then said, 'Okay, now make a swing.' So, I took a swing, but as I did, I almost tipped the wheelchair over!
"Once again, my dad said, 'Don't do anything, I'll be right back.' This time, he came back with a rope and tied it to a pole and used that to help steady me. 'Okay, go ahead,' he said. I started swinging. After a while, I was actually hitting it solidly in the back of the net. I did that for the next three weekends.”
At the time, Dennis didn’t know it, but he was on the verge of starting his new journey within the game.
“That third weekend with my dad, I wanted to go outside and do this. It was about 38 degrees, but I didn’t care," remembers Walters. "My dad got everything set up outside. He tied the rope to a tree, and I started swinging. The first one I topped; I was not too happy. The second one, I hit the sole plate. Ugh! Then the third one I killed. It probably went about 130 yards right down the street. Didn't hit a car or anything. It was a perfect shot.
"My dad was jumping up and down, high fiving me like I won the U.S. Open. I realized at that very moment when I hit the ball right in the middle of the face, even though it still felt a little weird, I was going to pursue this.”
Turning the impossible into a legendary career
From that moment in time to today, the journey has been remarkable. Walters began using a custom-made seat strapped to a cart, which would allow him to swing more freely. Getting that seat just right allowed him to create his world-famous Dennis Walters Golf Show.
As you can imagine, Dennis has been recognized as one of the most important figures in the game for his work. In 1994, Dennis became one of only a handful of Honorary Lifetime Members of The PGA of America alongside U.S. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford. The group also includes Bob Hope, Gary Player, and Tim Rosaforte. The PGA of America also awarded Dennis with its Distinguished Service Award in 2008 and 10 years later, the USGA honored Walters with the Bob Jones Award.
In 2019, Dennis reached arguably the pinnacle in golf and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame alongside Retief Goosen, Billy Payne, Jan Stephenson and Peggy Kirk Bell. His biggest advocates for being selected that year? Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
"Listen, I never thought I was going to accomplish anything," says Walters. "But I've done over 3,000 performances. I’ve traveled over 3 million miles. I've done shows at St Andrews and Augusta National. I just did one at Augusta National this past Thanksgiving. I've met four presidents, movie stars, and famous athletes. I've done 30 clinics with Tiger. I've done shows with Jack and Arnie and Gary.
"In my Hall of Fame speech, I said, 'I've accomplished a lot of things that I've never thought I could.' I was not boasting but showing people what's possible in golf and in life."
Dennis Walters, PGA
Dennis was quick to point out, however, that the real stars of his show over the years have been his dogs. Muffin, Mulligan, Benji, Bucky and Gussie. Each of his dogs throughout his life has been by his side, day in and day out. They have helped him not only with his shows but also with everyday tasks.
“My dogs have always been the opening act," says Walters. "They can answer questions by barking out the answers. They’ve all been really good at math, general information, and golf trivia. And I’ve taught them to hit golf shots too.”
Dennis has had many dark days and low points. But he has offset those challenges by forging countless friendships with PGA Professionals and some of the game’s greats. He has traveled all over the world and has used golf as a vehicle of hope for many.
Against all odds, Dennis continues to play the game he loves.
“I’m not happy about what happened to me, but I'm happy that when I look back, this next year will be my 47th national tour," says Walters. "And when I look back, I’d say I’ve probably maxed out on what was possible. If you told me in 1974, when I was in the hospital, that I would do any of this, I would have said, 'You're out of your mind.' It sounded impossible.
"But I did it. It wasn't impossible. It seemed impossible, but it wasn't. And I'm glad that I stuck with it.”
For an inspirational look at Dennis’s life, check out “Get A New Dream, The Dennis Walters Story” streaming on Peacock.
For more on Dennis Walters, and booking inquiries, click here.
Brendon R. Elliott, PGA
Brendon Elliott is considered by his peers in the industry as one of the top youth golf coaches in the world. He is a multiple, local, state, regional, national and world award winning instructor with a focus on junior golfers ages 3-18. With numerous appearances on Golf Channel's Morning Drive, local TV, nationwide radio and countless publications, Elliott is one of the foremost experts in the youth golf arena. His Little Linksters 501c3 nonprofit is recognized as an example for introducing children as young as three to the game as well as how to help introduce youth with disabilities to our golf. Elliott has been recommended by industry titian's such as Nicklaus, Player, Floyd, Sorenstam, Speith and more. Among his numerous accolades, Elliott was named the PGA of America's 2017 PGA National Youth Player Development Award Winner in 2017.