SEARCHING: Small dog, 10 to 20 pounds, faithful companion, cute, curly hair, resembling Benji the canine actor. Full-time show business position, this dog must love the spotlight and excel at ball retrieval. It is important to recognize Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player on sight. Although the dog does not need to play golf, it helps.
On June 10, Dennis Walters will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. And, on the eve of this monumental event, what is he thinking about? His next dog, of course – a dog who will assist in the Dennis Walters Golf Show and will make friends throughout the world.
Four dogs have been part of the show, which has been performed more than 3,000 times over a span of 45 years. Walters is looking diligently for dog No. 5.
The show is aimed at adults as well as kids. Walters has a singular message: “Encouraging others to reach for their dreams became the foundation of my show and the hallmark of my life.”
A sensational young golfer who won the New Jersey Junior, New Jersey Caddie Championship and New Jersey Public Links, all in 1967, Walters accepted a golf scholarship to North Texas State University. Meanwhile, he finished 11th in the 1971 U.S. Amateur and lost a playoff in 1972 for the New Jersey Open title. He also reached the final stage of the PGA Tour’s Qualifying Tournament (Q-School) and was painstakingly preparing for a career as a touring professional.
“I still believe he is the best player, the most accomplished player, to come out of the state of New Jersey,” said his friend and PGA professional Wayne Warms. “He could hit the ball so far it was unbelievable. And he was Hoganesque in his course management. He was a brilliant golfer.”
Warms, a highly regarded golf instructor, should know. Both he and Walters are members of the New Jersey PGA Hall of Fame.
The career path for Walters didn’t exactly unfold the way he envisioned. Walters was driving a three-wheel golf cart down a hill when it flipped over and landed on him, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. That was in 1974, 45 years ago. Now, at the age of 69, Walters is attracting some of the biggest and most significant honors in golf.
In 2018, he received the U.S. Golf Association’s highest honor, the Bob Jones Award. He was recognized for his tireless efforts to spread the gospel of golf and to encourage all golfers, male and female, to develop their talents and help others.
“I am ecstatic for you, Dennis. To be a member of the Hall of Fame is very, very special. And now I will get to see you hit a lot more shots and have a lot more fun – as a Hall of Famer, my friend.” – Jack Nicklaus
Inclusion in the World Golf Hall of Fame seemed to be a logical step. Clearing his path to the Hall of Fame were his friends Nicklaus and Player. In addition, Nicklaus’ wife, Barbara, has been instrumental in honoring Walters for his life’s work.
It was Jack and Gary who organized a conference call to inform Walters of his Hall of Fame selection. Said Player: “We’ve got great news for you, Dennis. Jack and I went to bat for you very strongly because we really did believe you deserve it.”
At that point, Walters burst into tears. And so did Gary. And so did Jack.
Added Jack: “I am ecstatic for you, Dennis. To be a member of the Hall of Fame is very, very special. And now I will get to see you hit a lot more shots and have a lot more fun – as a Hall of Famer, my friend.”
The Dennis Walters Golf Show is a showcase of spectacular golf shots, all performed by Walters from a specially modified cart in which he is strapped. He travels with an array of custom-made clubs. Some are ordinary, while others are wildly unorthodox. Pick any club, Walters will hit a perfect baby draw. Player marveled recently as Walters hit three identical drives, each finishing inside a small circle.
“Maybe the most accurate player in the history of golf,” said Player. “Every golfer should see Dennis and his show.”
And, yes, Walters does play golf. Plays it remarkable well, in fact. Despite the obvious obstacles, he can break 80. His tee shots travel 230 yards or so. He drives around the course in his custom cart with a swivel seat (Walters designed this seat after observing a number of bar stools). When putting or hitting out of a bunker, Walters engages his leg braces and balances himself with a crutch.
Back to the dogs, who have all been integral parts of the show. They all came from shelters or rescue groups. Muffin was the first.
Here are some of Walters’ anecdotes and reflections from life on the road:
BOB HOPE’S DOGS
Muffin didn’t bark at people, but she did bark at other dogs. On a walk one day, Muffin began barking at two dogs. “Do you know who your dog is barking at?” the dog walker asked. “No, we do not,” Walters replied.
“These are Bob Hope’s dogs,” she sniffed, “and I am the dog walker. You might say I am their nanny.”
Walters’ father, Bucky, interjected: “This is Muffin, he’s Dennis and I’m Bucky. This is a low-budget operation. We walk our own dog.”
Then came Mulligan, Benji Hogan and Bucky.
THE WORST DAY OF MY LIFE
The last shot in the show is the rapid-fire machine gun shot. Walters hits five balls in succession as they roll down a ramp onto a board. On this particular day, as the last ball rolled down the ramp, something in the audience must have scared Mulligan because she began to run toward Walters. He was already into his downswing. Walters swung the club, and Mulligan was struck in the head.
Mulligan was taken to the nearest animal hospital. Mulligan had not been responsive, but when she heard the tapping of Walters’ crutches on the floor, she started to wag her tail.
But she would not recover. Walters wasn’t sure he would resume his career, but eventually he did. “That experience was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” Walters said, “far worse than my own paralyzing accident.”
Walters had become close to Ben Hogan, so he decided to write a letter to Mr. Hogan, asking his permission to name his dog Benji Hogan.
In addition, Walters and his sister, Barbara, wrote a poem for their friends:
To all our friends who shared our blues
We want to tell you our good news.
The very creature that you see
Was found by Pets in Distress just for me.
He spent some time at the Miami pound
But now every day will include an 18-hole round.
Since golf is definitely his game
We chose Hogan as his name.
BENJI BEATS TIGER
At a junior golf clinic organized by the Tiger Woods Foundation, an impromptu foot race was taking place inside the hotel. Benji Hogan was undefeated in these races, although a new contender stepped off the elevator. It was Tiger Woods.
In their first showdown, Tiger slipped coming out of the blocks. Benji won easily.
So they ran a second race. Tiger did not slip this time, but Benji won anyway. “How about a do-over?” Tiger asked sheepishly. The response was predictable: “How many do-overs do you get on the PGA Tour?” Meet Benji Hogan, still the undefeated champion of the world.”
BUCKY (MY DAD WOULD BE PROUD)
“My Dad’s name was Arthur, but everybody called him Bucky. When I first saw the dog that we would name Bucky, I knew immediately he was the one. He loved to play with his ball, and the woman at Canine Castaways of Arcadia (Florida) called him a ‘ball fanatic.’ ”
Everybody loved Bucky the man and Bucky the dog. Even Woods himself had a soft spot for the Bucky Brothers.
After Tiger turned pro in 1996, he formed his foundation to provide motivation and guidance for youngsters. The foundation still exists. Some of these kids are golfers, some are not.
Walters always liked to refer to himself as Tiger’s “opening act,” because the two of them staged 30 clinics around the United States. United by their love for golf, and they became close friends.
DAVE HILL VS. J.C. SNEAD
“I was doing my show one year at a Senior PGA Tour event (now the PGA Tour Champions) at Silverado Resort in Napa, California. Suddenly there was a commotion at the end of the driving range. Two golfers were fighting. I mean, it was a regular brawl.
“I quickly realized that the two men were Senior Tour players J.C. Snead and Dave Hill. When fellow players and onlookers finally broke up the fight, the much bigger J.C. had his foot on Dave’s throat. Unfortunately for Dave, J.C. was still wearing his golf shoes – with steel spikes.”
“Yogi Berra was known for taking liberties with the English language. Once, at a charity golf tournament, I asked him to autograph a golf ball. As he started to sign the ball, he seemed to be having some trouble. When he finished, he said to me, ‘Gee, Dennis, it’s really hard to write on these pimples.’ ”
CHI CHI UPSTAGED BY DENNIS
“The first show I ever did with Chi Chi Rodriguez was at the Canon Greater Hartford Open. Chi Chi asked me to go first, so I did. After I performed, there was a short intermission. It was a hot and humid day, and about 90 percent of the gallery left before Chi Chi took the stage.
“After it was all over, Chi Chi laughed as he said, ‘The next time we do a show together, Dennis, I’m going first.’ ”
One day, out of the blue, Walters received a phone call from someone on the television show That’s Incredible. He was invited to go to Hollywood and appear live with the show’s hosts – Fran Tarkenton, John Davidson and Cathy Lee Crosby.
As Walters tells the story, “I was supposed to pretend that I had a new trick shot called the ‘watermelon shot.’ They teed up a golf ball on a watermelon, which flew all over the place when I intentionally smashed it. For my next shot, I hit a ball that was teed up in John Davidson’s mouth.
” ‘I’m only human and every once in a while I miss one,’ I joked. John looked petrified. Never fear, because I hit a perfect shot.”
MUHAMMAD ALI’S MAGIC SHOW
“One year, at Senator Orrin Hatch’s golf tournament, Muhammad Ali was the honored guest. Mulligan and I were invited to Ali’s room. Mulligan did his tricks for Ali, and naturally the champ did his magic tricks for us. Not only that, but he showed us exactly how he did all the tricks. For example, he placed a scarf in one hand and made it disappear. He did this with a fake thumb that was large enough to hold the scarf.”
Traveling with Walters, Barbara, Bucky I, Bucky II, Muffin, Mulligan and Benji Hogan was always an educational experience.
Dennis Walters whacks a trick shot off of a tall tee. Photo: Steve Gibbons, Copyright USGA
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