For 35 years, Dennis Walters has been traveling around the world, enthralling and inspiring audiences with the messages of hope and perseverance that are at the heart of his one-hour clinic.
Walters, who lost the use of his legs in an accident in 1974, brought his show last week to the headquarters of the United States Golf Association, where he entertained an audience of more than 120, including youngsters who participate in various New Jersey chapters of The First Tee, LPGA/USGA Girls Golf and U.S. Kids Golf, their parents and USGA employees.
“I’ve always enjoyed my association with the USGA,” said Walters, who also performed at the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open and U.S. Women’s Amateur. “I’m thrilled to be here, and it’s nice to see some of my old friends.”
On a warm summer afternoon, the group gathered behind the USGA Research and Test Center as Walters hit trick shots while buckled to a seat attached to the side of a cart. In addition to hitting with normal clubs, Walters used seemingly ill-suited implements such as a gavel, a mobile phone and a club with a radiator hose for a shaft.
With each, Walters hit a high draw, the ball tracing a soul-pleasing parabola across the clear sky. It was the kind of shot that everyone who has ever picked up a club has etched in his or her mind’s eye and strives to achieve.
It was the kind of shot that one of the audience members, Zakki Blatt, used to envision as he watched golf from his hospital bed several years ago.
At the time, the prospect of actually hitting any golf shot was a distant dream for Zakki, now 18. Born with a heart defect, Zakki suffered a stroke before he was one month old that shut down half his brain. Zakki underwent 12 heart surgeries and battled numerous other complications such as hemorrhaging lungs, spending more than half his childhood and teenage years in Philadelphia-area hospitals and medical facilities.
Not only was Zakki defying the statistics with each day of his life, he lived with another lingering trauma, one induced by his father, an alcoholic who had suffered a brain injury that caused him to repeatedly threaten Zakki’s life.
Zakki’s first love was baseball, but he became smitten with golf while watching it from cardiac rehab. He told his mother, Stephanie, that he wanted to play golf before he died, and he pestered her to find a place for him to play.
That search led to The First Tee of Greater Philadelphia’s facility at Walnut Lane Golf Course. When he started in the fall of 2009, Zakki was on oxygen continually and needed more than 50 doses of medications daily. He had stopped growing and couldn’t take more than a few steps without becoming exhausted.
Nearly three years later, Zakki is no longer on oxygen and has cut his medication by more than 50 percent. He regularly plays nine holes in a cart – often in fewer than 50 strokes – at FDR Golf Club and can walk up to five holes. He has grown 11 inches in 21 months, and there is a smile on Zakki’s face that makes him nearly unrecognizable to those who saw him before he took up golf.
The golf course is Zakki’s refuge, and the game has taken him to San Francisco, where he attended the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club, met four-time U.S. Open champion Jack Nicklaus, and was honored as a First Tee RBS Achiever of the Year. In his essay for the award, Zakki explained golf’s significance in his life.
“I learned immediately that the First Tee facility would be a safe place to be for me and I was able to enjoy just being a kid and having fun,” he wrote. “Best of all, the coaches and directors believed in me. I vividly remember the first time I felt well enough to go out on the golf course, without my mom. This was so significant because I had never been out of sight or sound of her, because I was considered medically fragile and she was my lifeline, medically.
“Life feels almost perfect when I get to hit golf balls or play golf, or teach golf skills to other kids. Each ball I hit, each hole I play and each person I teach what I know about golf, allows my heart and mind and soul to heal a little bit more.”
Zakki was one of the few people watching Walters who could fully appreciate the performer’s misfortunes and triumphs, and Zakki also would like to use golf to inspire other youngsters to overcome their obstacles. For the first time in his life, he is making plans for tomorrow instead of struggling to survive today. After graduating from high school in two years, Zakki plans to enroll in a professional golf management program before earning a psychology degree.
“His platform is that he found healing on the golf course through golf,” said Stephanie. “He would like more kids to experience that. You don’t have to be able-bodied yourself to bring golf to other lives.”
Walters is the foremost embodiment of that message, and his show capped an exciting day for Zakki and the other youths visiting Golf House. Prior to the clinic, they visited the Research and Test Center, played the Pynes Putting Course and toured the USGA Museum.
Zakki’s favorite artifact was the club used by Alan Shepard on the moon. He liked seeing some of the remembrances of older golfers, but admitted that he most appreciates the modern players.
His favorite player is Phil Mickelson, who is as gifted physically as Zakki is challenged. But the qualities that appeal to Zakki are neither Mickelson’s power nor touch, which he can never hope to possess, but rather a joy of spirit that Zakki long had found elusive but is now beginning to embrace.
Said Zakki: “He knows how to be happy and how to have fun.”
Hunki Yun is a senior writer for the USGA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.