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"I've Got an Idea"
Sometimes I have to pinch myself. Could I really be this lucky? Not only do I have the love and support of a great family; I am an entrepreneur who has experienced the thrills and perils of being self-employed and I'm in great health. I am eternally grateful for all those things. But that's not why I feel so privileged; that's not why, over the course of one extraordinary year, I woke up every morning laughing and shaking my head, knowing that I had to be the luckiest man alive. During an eleven-month stretch, beginning the first full week of January and going through the second week of November, I lived out a dream that would turn every die-hard sports fan green with envy. Even when my year was all but over, I would look at myself in the mirror and ask: Is this really happening? Am I really doing this?
The "this" was travel with the PGA Tour, not just to an event or two, but to all of them. From the first event of the year on the island of Maui through the season-ending tournament at Disney World, I lived out a sports fantasy unlike any other. Every week of the PGA Tour, I traveled to a golf tournament where I walked every round with the greatest golfers in the world, many of whom I am fortunate enough to call my friends.
On a crisp November Sunday in Orlando, my journey came to a close. I had walked every round of every event, a total distance of almost a thousand miles. As I walked around the back of the eighteenth green and toward the scorer's trailer, one of the first people to speak to me was Rich Beem, the man who had danced his way into history when he'd held off Tiger Woods to win the 2002 PGA Championship.
"Congratulations," Rich said as we hugged. "I'm proud of you."
It was hard to respond to that. Having someone who makes his living grinding out shot after shot in one of the most demanding sports ever invented, a pro I had admired for years, tell me he was proud of me was overwhelming. My voice caught as I thanked Rich, not just for his kind words but for his friendship.
Davis Love III also congratulated me, which was more than a little ironic since Davis had just won the Children's Miracle Network Classic at Disney World. It was Davis's twentieth career win, a milestone that earned him a rare lifetime exemption on the PGA Tour, meaning he could never lose his card for the rest of his life. It also got him back into the Mercedes-Benz Championship, the tour's "tournament of champions," an early-season event reserved for the previous year's winners. Disney was his first win since 2006 and only his second since 2003, so Davis and his family were thrilled to be returning to Maui. The fact that he would take a moment to congratulate me was a little overwhelming.
You'd think I would have been used to it. I had been on the receiving end of congratulatory hugs for the better part of a month, starting at the Tour Championship presented by Coca-Cola in late September. That tournament, held every year at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta (the home club of Bobby Jones), was the finale of the season-long FedEx Cup, and the last time I would see a number of players. Some of the friends I'd made -- guys like Kenny Perry, who became an unlikely Ryder Cup hero at age forty-eight, and Camilo Villegas, who won that week at East Lake -- made a point of finding me and wishing me well. Kenny put an arm on my shoulder and said, "You're my hero. God bless you, man."
Words can't describe the feeling you get when a man you have looked up to for years, as I have looked up to Kenny, calls you his hero. I felt humbled and wholly undeserving.
After all, these were the guys who hit the shots; these were the players, the globe-trotting athletes who pounded 300-yard drives and sank 10-foot putts for a living. These were the men who earned their paychecks by making cuts, the real stars of the PGA Tour. All I did was walk around and watch them. Granted, I walked a lot. A thousand miles is no small feat; in fact, it would be like walking from Midtown Manhattan to Daytona Beach, Florida. But I never had to hit a single shot, make a single putt, or post a single score. I walked, and I watched, which was all I'd ever wanted to do.
Unlike a lot of other golf fans, I never had any ambition to play professionally, even as a kid. I never saw myself standing on the eighteenth green with a putt to win the Masters. I never even thought about being a ranked amateur. Nor did I ever consider being a tour caddie, a profession that attracts some of the game's most colorful characters. Even though I love sports, and hold a master's degree in sports management, those jobs were not just outside my consciousness, they were beyond my abilities.
You see, I am one of 760,000 people in America who have cerebral palsy.
Thirty years ago I was born ten weeks premature. My lungs were not fully developed, and during my time in the neonatal intensive care unit nurses put too much oxygen into my body, which burst the capillaries in my brain that control my lower extremities. As a result, I have a noncontagious, nonprogressive disorder that affects my motor centers.
I have trouble controlling my feet and legs, and I don't walk like everyone else (unless by everyone you mean an eighty-year-old guy with two broken hips), but I get along fine. It was a tough break. I had to have surgeries just so I could separate my legs. I also had five eye surgeries, because I was born cross-eyed. No big deal. Some premature kids have long-term respiratory problems; some have learning disabilities; some who end up with cerebral palsy can't stand or speak; and some are incapable of feeding and caring for themselves. I was fortunate enough not to have any of those problems. I just walk with a cane.
I feel lucky to be able to walk at all. When I was an infant, my parents were told that I would probably spend my life in a wheelchair. In addition to my legs contorting so that my feet almost pointed backward, my toes stacked on top of each other until my feet were taller than they were wide. It took five surgeries to straighten my legs out enough for me to stand. But that didn't stop me from being mobile. I started belly crawling at age two and refused to slow down. Even with my legs in casts or braces I figured out a way to move. Once the surgeries were completed and I was able to get up on my feet, I quickly learned how to get around with a walker, one of those aluminum support devices you see at nursing homes and hospitals. Before my parents knew it, I was moving so fast they had to put wheels on the frame. From there I progressed to crutches, then two canes, and finally, after years of practice and thousands of falls, I got to the point where I could walk with a single cane.
It's not pretty. As is true for a lot of people with cerebral palsy, my walking is a model of function over form -- a halting, jerky gait that has all the fluidity of a car running out of gas. I can't watch video of myself walking. It's not that I'm embarrassed; somehow, in my mind, my movements, while not graceful, don't stand out in a crowd. But seeing myself on video reminds me that I am different, at least in the way I get from one place to another.
Walking also takes a lot more effort for me than it does for most people. The energy I expend walking a mile is equivalent to what you would use running two miles. So walking a thousand miles is like you running from Savannah to San Diego. Plus, I still have to deal with my feet, which aren't perfectly suited for walking. They still curl toward the instep (like someone with a cramp), and my big toe stacks on top of the others. In the beginning of my journey, in order to walk any distance, I had to put numerous bandages on my big toes.
None of that presents a problem when I'm walking a mile. But the average PGA Tour course, when you measure all the distances between holes, is between five and six miles long over some interesting topography. When you walk those distances for four straight days, plus at least one practice round, bandaged toes can get a little sore. By May I had blisters on top of blisters, and by August, the calluses were bulging against the sides of my shoes.
Those were minor annoyances, though, little bothers hardly worth a quibble when you consider I was getting to live out my dream.
Every week, I worked with the tour and picked a player to focus on and interview. Once the player agreed, I followed him during every round, watched him on the range, got to know his caddie and any family members who were out with him, and talked to his fans. Then I spent time with the player, asking questions for my blog on PGATour.com.
What I found interesting were the questions I got asked in return. "How hard is it for you to walk eighteen holes?" was standard, along with, "Do you play golf, and if so, how?" But by far the question I got most was, "How did you decide to do this?"
I always smiled as I answered that one. It was a story in itself.
I've always loved sports. I can barely tear myself away from a good football or basketball game. I even watch badminton during the Olympics. But golf has always been my favorite, in part because of how beautiful and poetic I find the swing when it is executed by a great player, and also because golf was the only sport I could play. Holding myself up on my cane with my left hand, I swing the club one-handed with my right. I play from the forward tees and get around the course without much trouble. I'm not good -- far from it -- but like millions of amateurs, I don't have to play well to enjoy the game.
Plus, I can play with my dad and mom, the people who have always been there for me, supporting everything I want to achieve. My parents decided early in life that they weren't going to treat me differently from other kids. I went to public school and was expected to do everything the other boys did. If there were places I couldn't go or things I couldn't do, I simply had to adapt. Golf was one of those things.
My father and I had watched golf on television together for as long as I could remember. Once I could get around on a single crutch, I begged him to take me to the golf course. My swing looks more like a tennis player hitting a low forehand ground stroke than anything you might see on tour, but, like everything else, I've learned to adapt. I'll never be a great player, but I have my moments. Like all golfers, I feel a warm satisfaction when I hit a solid shot, and I get a tingle when I feel the buttery soft click of a ball connecting with the sweet spot of a club. I experience the same thrills as any other golfer when a long putt finds the bottom of the hole, and I am just as disgusted with myself when I chunk a shot in the water. I love the smell of freshly mowed greens in the morning and the sounds of irrigation heads clicking to life at dusk. Like a lot of men my age, I am, for lack of a better term, a golf nut.
And I've always been a huge fan of the PGA Tour. When I was twelve years old, Dad took me to my first golf tournament, the Greater Greensboro Open in Greensboro, North Carolina, to see my sporting heroes in the flesh for the first time. Walking the course was still tough for me in those days. Like most twelve-year-olds, I was at an awkward growth stage, which complicated things further for me. Dad and I positioned ourselves near the driving range so I could get autographs as players came out to warm up or came off after finishing their work.
About midmorning, veteran CBS analyst and former U.S. Open winner Ken Venturi saw me and gave me an autograph. He was obviously on his way somewhere -- television people don't amble around with nowhere to go -- but Ken took the time to speak to Dad and me. Then he did more than sign an autograph. After talking with Dad, Ken put me in the golf cart with him and took me around to get more autographs. He introduced me to players, all of whom took the time to ask questions and talk to me about golf. Then Ken asked if I would like to join him in the television tower behind the eighteenth green.
He didn't have to ask twice. With the help of a couple of volunteers and security personnel, I made it to the best seat on the course.
In the booth beside Ken sat a young Texan, a former college golfer who was in his fifth year working for CBS and seemed to be a rising star. His name was Jim Nantz. I had heard Jim broadcast before, especially during Masters week, but I'd never seen him. While I was intimidated in the beginning (as any twelve-year-old would be), both Jim and Ken went out of their way to make me feel comfortable.
From there, two lasting friendships ensued. Dad took me back to Greensboro every year, and every year Ken and Jim would invite me into the booth. I became a regular part of the telecast and great friends with two of the nicest men in the world. There are a lot of egos in television. As I've gotten older I've come to understand what Hunter S. Thompson meant when he said, "The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason." Ken Venturi and Jim Nantz are the exceptions. Television would be a shining example of all things good if everyone in the business were like Ken and Jim.
I kept in touch with Ken after he retired to his home in California, and I make it a point to see him whenever I travel to the West Coast. Jim and I have become great friends. It was he who said, "I've got an idea," as we were talking about how to make my dream of following the tour a reality.
"I know you want to follow the tour and write a book, which is a great idea, so why don't you write up a proposal for [PGA Tour commissioner] Tim Finchem," Jim said. "Outline what you want to do and how you'll go about doing it."
"Be happy to, Jim," I said, "but I'm sure Tim has better things to do than read a letter from me. I'm sure he has his mail screened. By the time he gets it, if he gets it at all, the season'll be half over."
"No," Jim said, "you're not going to send it to him. You're going to give it to me, and I'm going to hand-deliver it to Tim and tell him this is something the tour needs to do."
Jim was emphatic, so I did what he suggested: I wrote up the idea of walking every round of every event, interviewing players, and writing about it on the tour's Web site. Good to his word, Jim delivered the proposal to Tim Finchem and made a persuasive pitch. I've seen Jim do this kind of thing before. He has a hypnotic power of persuasion. His roommates at the University of Houston (one of whom was Masters winner Fred Couples) always said that if he didn't make it in television he could always run for president. By the time Jim finished, Commissioner Finchem probably would have bought whatever he was selling. Thankfully, he was selling me.
So, because of the random kindness of Ken Venturi, and the generous friendship of Jim Nantz, I was given the opportunity to live out the dream of a lifetime. For forty-six weeks I would travel with the PGA Tour and chronicle my experiences. I couldn't wait. I told my friends that, yeah, it was a tough duty, I would have to work weekends, but, hey, a man's got to do what he has to do.
But for all of my bravado and as thrilled as I was about the prospects of this incredible journey -- especially with all the fascinating people I was sure to meet along the way -- I was a little anxious about walking twenty to thirty miles a week for the better part of a year, especially along some of the terrain I'd seen on television.
Those concerns sailed away in the breezy thoughts of the year I was about to have. This was going to be the most spectacular season anybody would ever spend. I had to bite my lip when I told people about it. "Yeah," I said with as straight a face as I could muster, "I'll be working." Copyright © 2009 by D.J. Gregory