The golf ball bounced off the dog’s head, sailed over the fence and plopped into the canal that spilled out into Lake Okeechobee, 25 feet from the property. The dog obediently looked at her human playmate for a signal. “Okay, go get it.”
Chasing golf balls. It’s what professional golfer Ken Green has been doing since he was 12. And it’s also what Nip, his two year-old German Shepherd loved doing. Chasing and retrieving the golf balls Ken would throw during their playtime. She was good at catching them in mid-air too.
Nip was a constant companion as Green traveled the PGA and Nationwide tours during the 2002 golf season. She’d sit by the practice range. Waiting. Jumping into water hazards after the balls was no big deal to Nip. Jump. Splash. Retrieve.
On this particular day in 2003, Ken barely got the words, “Okay, go get it,” out of his mouth before his athletic beauty-of-a-dog was already scaling the fence. Splash. But the second splash, coming from Ken’s right side from behind the tree, made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. He knew instantly what it was and jumped over the fence to see the alligator cutting through the water. It was heading straight toward Nip.
Clueless of the impending doom behind her, Nip was swimming happily with her prized golf ball. Ken stood helplessly at the shoreline. “The gator and Nip were on a collision course. I was hoping the gator would make a move, miss and give Nip time to get closer to me and out of the water,” said Ken.
Suddenly, Nip yelped as the gator grabbed her and went underwater with her. There was complete silence except for the pounding inside Ken’s head as he was thinking, “Am I really going to do this?” And before he knew it, Ken was neck deep in the dark, murky water, groping for something. Anything. The gator’s tail popped up out of the water, but his mouth was still submerged in an effort to drown Nip. Ken grabbed the gator’s tail and tried to pull him back. At first, the gator wouldn’t budge, but he soon released his grip on Nip.
Ken describes what followed next: “Up comes the rest of the gator, and now everything’s moving toward me. So I take it, and I fall back, all the way in the water, over my head. Now the gator can do anything he wants, right? If he had grabbed me, I’d have been at his mercy. I’d have been done. I mean, I’m not afraid of dying. But not like that.” As the hunter became the hunted, the stunned and disoriented gator swam away, allowing Nip and Ken to get safely to shore.
Ken quickly drove to the emergency veterinary clinic where Nip received 25 stitches in her left front leg and shoulder. Ken sustained bruised ribs from his roll with the gator, estimated to be a seven footer weighing in at about 150 pounds.
“People have asked me, ‘What in the world were you thinking?’ And, ‘Are you stupid?’ Not one person said, ‘That was the right thing to do.’ But, I couldn’t just sit there and let that happen to my dog,” said Ken.
Ken Green and his sister Shelley, his caddy in the 1980s. Photograph from the Akron Beacon Journal.
Ken Green turned professional in 1979 and joined the PGA Tour in 1980. By the late 1980s, he had $2 million in the bank, endorsement deals and a line of golf memorabilia. He had already won five times and played on the 1989 U.S. Ryder Cup team. During his time in professional golf, Green earned a reputation for being rebellious, cantankerous and colorful (often wearing green from head to toe, including fluorescent green golf shoes). He amassed more than 24 fines levied by the PGA for stunts like sneaking some buddies into The Masters in the trunk of his car, and signing autographs while playing in a tournament. His stunts pale in comparison to today’s bad-boys-of-golf antics, including drinking beer during the 1997 Masters with Arnold Palmer. Paired with Palmer that day, Ken asked a buddy to bring him a beer at the 15th hole so that he could forever say, “I had a beer with Arnie.”
It was Ken’s personal life that began to take its toll on his playing time and quality of play. The usual suspects: divorce, gambling, alcohol abuse and clinical depression. He lost his Tour Card in 2000 and coped with financial problems.
In 2008, the year he turned 50, he vowed to make a comeback, setting the over-50 Champions Tour as his goal. In 2009, he was 54th on the money list with $123,906 in 11 appearances. On June 7, 2009, Green tied for 37th in Austin. Halfway through the schedule, it was already his best season since 1996.
Aside from the golf course, Ken’s second favorite place to spend time was in his 40-foot Holiday Rambler motor home. It literally had been his home for four years through mid-2009, often found parked on a friend’s lot in West Palm Beach. He traveled the Tour in his Holiday Rambler with longtime girlfriend Jeannie Hodgin, his older brother and caddie Billy, and Nip.
“I was at my happiest in the RV, traveling. All of us, driving around, talking a lot and having fun,” said Green.
Billy Green was 57 years old when he joined Ken to be his caddie in May 2009. They traveled to Birmingham, Cleveland, Des Moines and Austin. That Sunday evening of June 7 in Austin, Green loaded up the motor home and the four of them headed east into Louisiana for the night. The plan was to get to North Carolina for a week of rest at Jeannie’s home, then head north to upstate New York.
On the morning of June 8, Team Green left Shreveport. About 40 miles from the Alabama border, something went terribly wrong. Going about 70 miles an hour, the right-side tire of the RV blew out, causing it to veer off the road, slamming into a large tree. The impact was so hard that it knocked the tree down. Jeannie, Billy and Nip died instantly, Ken was told.
“The next thing I know, I’m in the hospital,” said Ken. Upon seeing his sister Shelley and her husband Slugger White, he said, “What are you guys doing here?” He didn’t know where he was. The last thing he remembers is leaving Shreveport. Ken suffered injuries to his left eye, his jaw, torn ligaments in his left ankle and a badly damaged right leg. After conferring with his doctors, Green concluded amputation would be his best bet. His contemporaries called him at the hospital: Arnold Palmer. Jack Nicklaus. Mark Calcavecchia. Fred Funk. Mike Reid. Greg Kraft. Gary Player.
“When I heard about the leg, I just lost it,” Calcavecchia said. “But as it turned out, Ken asked the doctors what he had to do to possibly play golf again, and when they said the leg would have to go, Kenny said ‘Cut it off.’ That’s Ken.”
Ken spent the next three months recuperating at the Ormond Beach home of his sister Shelley and her husband, PGA Tour official, Slugger White. It was a good environment to be in, surrounded by three active kids and five dogs. “She would have more dogs if her husband would let her,” said Green, who added, “Seriously, I would have been lost without her.”
Having just lost his home, his brother, girlfriend and dog, golf was all this man had left and he was determined that he would play again. That was his promise to Jeannie, Billy and Nip. Minus his lower right leg, Ken set his sights on being the first professional golfer to play with a prosthetic leg. In August 2009, Ken was fitted for a prosthetic leg and began learning how to walk with it. A month later he was on the course again, playing for the first time since the accident. He shot a three over 39 for nine holes, but had to quit, exhausted after 11 holes. The constant pain he struggles with can be pretty debilitating.
“Kenny Green, regardless of what you say about him, has a huge heart,” said long-time supporter, West Palm Beach Dodge dealer Jimmy Arrigo. “He was the kind of guy who, if he had a lot, he’d make sure the people around him had what they needed. Over the years he was never portrayed that way.”
In September 2009, 100 golfers played in a charity event at Ridgewood Country Club in Danbury, Connecticut. The Friends of Green Golf Tournament raised money for the Ken Green Living Trust Fund, established by the PGA to assist with Green’s medical bills. PGA players voted to donate half of all 2010 Pro-Am purses to Ken and equally hard-hit fellow pro Chris Smith, who lost his wife Beth in a tragic auto accident that also critically injured two of his children.
Ken Green in his West Palm Beach home with his dogs Black, the Labrador Retriever and Munch, his German Shepherd Dog, a six-month-old puppy at the time of the photograph.
Not quite a year after Ken’s accident, my publisher and I are sitting in his West Palm Beach home. He is surrounded by dogs; some by his feet, a couple on the couch. Two of the dogs belong to a visiting friend, and one of them belongs to his son, Ken Green, Jr. Sitting right next to Ken is Munch, a six-month-old German Shepherd Dog and most recent addition to the Green household.
About 20 years ago, Ken had played the Pro Am with an individual who loved German Shepherds. After hearing about what had happened to Nip, he called Ken to tell him a friend’s dog was having a litter. “He wanted to give me the pick of a most recent litter. I turned him down at first. I just didn’t think I was ready for another dog, especially a German Shepherd. Nip and I were just so tight,” said Ken. “You know, Nip could tell where I was going and whether or not she was going to come with me by the clothes I was wearing. She was an amazing dog.”
Ken eventually called the guy back and soon found himself on his way to Dallas to pick up his new puppy, whom he would name Munch. “The feeling was just so strong. Something told me to go get this dog,” said Ken. “Munch gives me another boost to live. I’ve got someone to take care of,” Ken said.
In addition to the pain, Ken struggles daily with the loss of his loved ones. And as if all that wasn’t enough, in early 2010, his younger son Hunter was found dead in his college dorm room at SMU. How much can one human being endure?
Ken rubs Munch’s big, soft floppy ears and reflects. “You’ve got to keep moving forward. That’s the only way.” Ken continues to be an inspiration to those on and off the golf course. And despite the physical and mental pain, his sense of humor is intact. “Ken Green and inspiration were not exactly synonymous,” he said in March after playing 36 holes at the Coors Light Open at Fort Myers Country Club. “It’s a wonderful feeling when people that you don’t know come up and just say that you’re really giving them hope and joy. As men, we don’t like to admit that it hits us, but it does. It’s a great feeling when that many people care.”
Ken’s first public comment after the accident: “I have a pretty good faith in God and my belief is that if you believe in God, you shouldn’t be too upset over the fact that you’ve lost three of your best friends on the planet. They’re having a hell of a lot more fun right now than I am, I can tell you that. I know that He’s kept me breathing because I have to do something. One, I have to go figure that out, and two, I have to go do it. I’m assuming that it’s through golf that I have to go out and try to accomplish some things that haven’t been done and make people aware of certain things. So, in that sense, it’s given me a desire and a motivation to do it and I have to do it. And as far as I’m concerned, if I don’t do it, I’m a complete failure.”
Ken is scheduled to play the LEGENDS in Savannah, April 23-25 (2010) with Mike Reid. “I’m so psyched about playing with Mike. I will have enough time to bring my game up a notch or two. I am currently at level two with only three to go before I can honestly say it’s time to go play out there. I don’t want to play out there if I can’t compete. I will not to be a “show and tell.” Munch, having settled comfortably into Ken’s side on the couch now, has a calming effect on Ken. The bond is already clearly a strong one in this relatively new partnership. “Dogs won’t let you get in a rut. Munch just won’t allow me to. Dogs need to be exercised and they need to play. There is no time to feel sorry for yourself with a dog around. Munch is a constant joy to me,” said Ken.
This story by Anna Cooke first appeared in the Spring 2010 edition of The New Barker dog magazine. To learn more about what Ken Green is up to now (including rescuing homeless dogs) visit his Facebook page and let him know The New Barker sent you.