Golfer Gene Sauers' resilience makes him winner before he tees off
Champions Tour rookie Gene Sauers survived painful skin disorder that kept him from swinging a club for five years.
Seattle Times staff columnist
SNOQUALMIE — A moment will come in Friday's first round of the Boeing Classic when Gene Sauers misreads a makable putt, and it lips out of the cup. Or he'll hit an approach shot fat and it will bury in a trap.
And, for a few seconds, Sauers will grind his teeth and let off some steam before he comes back to the truth: He is lucky to be alive and is making the most of this second chance at life.
Just a couple of years ago, Sauers lay in a hospital bed, in the kind of pain that only burn victims understand. The pain and the futility of his situation became so bad he finally whispered to his wife, "Tammy, I don't think I'm going to get out of here."
"Yeah, you are," Tammy said to him, jumping out of her chair. "You have to fight."
That day, Sauers felt as if he was losing the fight to save his life. He was suffering from a rare skin condition called Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. His skin was burning from the inside out.
"For about a year, it was just awful," Sauers said after Thursday's practice round. "I didn't know what was happening. Nobody knew. Doctors didn't even know."
At first he was treated for rheumatoid arthritis, but the drugs he was given didn't work. The pain he didn't think could get worse, worsened. The blood vessels in his arms and legs were clogged. His skin was turning black.
Finally he was diagnosed with Stevens-Johnson. Skin was taken from his upper thighs and shins and grafted to the affected areas. He was stapled back together.
"It was brutal," he said, pulling up his pant leg and showing the scars from the grafts. "I still don't believe it happened. I really don't. I mean, I've been through hell."
Duffy Waldorf, who like Sauers is making his Champions Tour debut this week, sat alongside Sauers, wincing as he listened to the story.
"I'm glad he got through it," Waldorf said. "But I know it was a harrowing time and I'm sure all those bad days when you slam your club and are unhappy with your golf don't seem so bad anymore."
When he was in the hospital bed Sauers passed the time and tried to ignore the pain by playing his golf swing in his head.
"I really think it helped," he said.
For five years, Sauers, who won three times on the PGA Tour, never touched a club. Finally last August, he tried to hit balls. He barely could hit his pitching wedge 5 yards. His back hurt and he could feel the grafted skin pulling at his arms and legs.
"I'm never going to be the same," he mumbled to himself.
But he hit five balls the next day and seven the next and 10 the next. He practiced with his wedge and then a 7-iron, gradually working his way through his bag and slowly feeling his game returning.
At the end of August, he played his first round near his home outside Savannah, Ga., birdying the last three holes and shooting a 71.
He told himself he could play again. He could compete on the Tour. This season, he has played two PGA Tour events, making one of two cuts. He has also played several events on the Web.com Tour.
"He's happy to be here. I think that probably helps him. Golf becomes less worrisome," Waldorf said. "But five years off, that's a long time. There's a lot of learning. Even though you're an expert at it, you still have to get used to being in those situations again."
Sauers, who turned 50 this week, is a rookie again. A golfer again. A member of the Champions Tour, playing in a threesome Friday with Kenny Perry and Craig Stadler.
"I'm going to go out here and be a competitor," Sauers said. "That's the instinct in me. But I'm a little bit not as hard on myself now. I'm going to try to stay like that. To know where I've been and where I am now, it's night and day. I'm just so glad to be here, living and breathing.
"You tend to take things for granted like I did my golf game ... and now I'm not taking anything for granted. I've got a second lease on life. I'm a competitor and I want to do well, but I'll tell you what, I'm just glad to be here. I can't begin to explain how bad I was, but it doesn't matter. Now you know. I came that close."
When he stands on the tee Friday ready to make his Champions Tour debut, Sauers will understand how much he's already won and how far he's already come.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or email@example.com
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
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