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John Engler's Slow Walk Back

When all your dreams are nightmares, the world can be a dark and frightening place. John Engler knows the agony of a life burned to the ground and rebuilt an endless day at a time with two excruciating steps forward and one torturous step back.

But there’s nothing sweeter than redemption and Engler has started that tenuous journey toward a life without competitive golf at its all-consuming center. Engler is a contestant in this week’s U.S. Mid-Amateur at Atlantic Golf Club on Long Island in New York and it is there that he faces his next big test as a golfer.

Engler, 31, is light years away from March 23, 2003, when his world blew apart, incinerating in the flames of his Chevy Tahoe with two people dead in the horrific wake. Engler had been a three-time All-American at Clemson with the PGA Tour figuratively tattooed on his forehead. He was full of promise, rich with potential and he was about to break through at any minute.

But a late-night drive home from a hunting trip on a rural Georgia highway resulted in a head-on crash that killed Bryan Rampey and his wife, Lesley, and left Engler dazed on the side of the road with his foot literally hanging off his leg. Engler doesn’t remember to this day what happened and he wasn’t charged in the wreck, deemed an accident, by police. But the investigation concluded that Engler crossed the centerline, which resulted in the crash.

Suddenly and without warning, not only did it look like Engler’s golf career was over but his life was held together by a slender thread. Fortunately, neither of those scenarios played out to their seemingly obvious conclusion. Engler is indeed alive and playing golf. Both those outcomes were nothing short of miraculous.

If Carl and Angie Claxton hadn’t happened along moments after the crash and pulled Engler from his SUV, he’d likely be dead. And if not for Lonnie Hergott and Todd Anderson, Engler’s golf career would have died a quiet death. Thanks to Hergott’s physical therapy and Anderson’s golf instruction, not only did Engler walk again, he achieved his dream of playing the PGA Tour.

In 2005, Engler made it through all three stages of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, a feat that no one, not even Engler, thought possible. But the dream shattered less than a year later through the course of an arduous few months on Tour.

“I was in Reno and the Reno-Tahoe event (in the fall of 2006) and my ankle was so bad that I was icing it three hours a night just to keep the swelling down,” Engler remembers. “I simply couldn’t do it any more. My doctor was honest with me and told me that if I was to play 30 weeks a year on Tour, it would blow my ankle out and impede my day-to-day ability to walk and have a life.

“I thought about it and decided to walk away from the game. I had to think about it a good bit. I wanted to walk away and have a good memory. And I wanted one day to be able to play golf casually with friends or someday with my children. But it was clear that I couldn’t compete on Tour.”

Engler went to work in his mother’s construction business in 2007 and prepared for a life without competitive golf. But Anderson, who is the director of instruction at Sea Island in Georgia, got in Engler’s ear and further into his head.

“I give Todd all the credit,” Engler said. “He encouraged me to get my amateur status back and play competitive amateur golf.”

In 18 months, Engler’s amateur status had been reinstated by the USGA and this summer, he teed it up in the Azalea Amateur at the Country Club of Charleston in South Carolina. He got in contention in the first two rounds, fell by the wayside in a windy third round and shot a final-round 68.

“The competitive juices started flowing again and I was inspired to get in the moment,” Engler said. “And I was playing in the first two rounds with my college roommate, Brennan King, and we had a great time.”

Engler played in the Southeastern Amateur and the Palmetto Amateur in Aiken, S.C., and almost won, which did wonders for his confidence. At the U.S. Mid-Amateur qualifier at Deerwood Country Club in Jacksonville, Fla., he shot 71 to get one the four available spots.

On Saturday and Sunday, Engler attempted through stroke-play qualifying to reach the match play portion of the Mid-Am, which begins today. The challenge for Engler will be to face the physical task of walking through two rounds of qualifying and the two days during match play when competitors will be required to play 36 holes if they keep winning.

“If I get tired, I get a little limp,” Engler said. “Going 36 holes in one day is going to be a tough grind. If I overdo, [the ankle] starts to swell and I get some pain.”

Beyond the physical limitations, Engler has a leg up on most of the rest of the competitors. “Mentally, I’m better off than a lot of guys here because of my past experience and how much knowledge I’ve gained through playing on Tour,” he said. “I have been fortunate enough to play all over the world and play and compete on a high level.”

For those who don’t believe in coincidence, Engler’s hometown is Augusta, Ga., and the U.S. Mid-Amateur winner receives an invitation to the following year’s Masters. Reality won’t allow Engler to go there just yet, but for the first time in ages, he is allowing himself to tuck the idea somewhere in a back corner of his mind.

Yes, it’s against the odds, but Engler has been nose-to-nose with the insurmountable. Besides, isn’t that why we dream?


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