Staying the Course

Despite abuse, depression and a life-changing injury,  Ken Green keeps on swinging

By John Torsiello  /  Photography courtesy of Ken Green

Ken Green chuckles at the possibility of having a movie made out of his life.

“I don’t think anyone would believe it,” he quips.

Indeed, the Connecticut native and part-time resident has led, let’s just say, one heck of a tumultuous life. As colorful a character on the golf course as his last name, he ran afoul of the lords of golf more times than one can count on two hands and both feet. Yet, he was a five-time winner on the PGA Tour, capturing 11 tournaments worldwide, and played for the United States in the 1989 Ryder Cup. He reportedly jumped into a canal near his home in Florida to save his dog, Nip, from an alligator that was looking to make the canine his dinner.

And Green’s life has been filled with tragedy and pain: a childhood he says was marred by sexual abuse by his father’s friends; a nasty divorce as an adult; money problems; gambling; battles with alcohol abuse; thoughts of suicide; the death of one of his sons from a drug overdose; and a horrific traffic accident that took the lives of three people, including his brother and girlfriend, and cost Green his right leg.

But Green is alive and standing tall, thanks to the use of a prosthetic right leg. He vowed after the accident, which occurred in Mississippi in 2009 while he was travelling to and from golf tournaments, that he would once again swing a golf club in earnest, even as he lay in a hospital bed after doctors had removed the lower portion of his right leg. He made good on that vow and built himself physically and mentally to return to competitive golf, playing in Champions Tour (for players over the age of 50), as well as regional and state tournaments. And, playing well, we might add, with his low score being a 69 on the Champions Tour – a laudable score for any golfer, let alone one playing with a prosthetic leg – to go along with the physical and emotional scars that Green carries with him every day.

“I’ve have had so many crazy things happen to me,” says Green, who splits his time between West Palm Beach, Florida and New Fairfield. “I guess it’s the Ken Green reverse one percent law. I don’t think many people have had things happen to them, good and bad, like I have.”

Green was born in Danbury and later moved with his family to Honduras, where his father Martin, who Green claims was an alcoholic, was principal of the American School in that country. Forced to choose between soccer and golf, young Green chose the latter and wound up quitting school at age 16, telling his mother he wanted to pursue his dream of playing professionally.

It seemed a long shot at the time, but he wound up finishing his high school education and attending Palm Beach Junior College in Florida for a year before he was recruited to play for the University of Florida, earning second team All-Southern Conference honors in 1979. Green turned professional in 1979 and joined the PGA Tour the following year.

He became a proficient player, known for his all-out style of play and fierce competiveness. He had five wins on the PGA Tour, lost two tournaments in playoffs, and captured five international events. His selection to the U.S. Ryder Cup team in 1989 was a highlight of his career. Even after his life and golf game began to break down in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Green could occasionally rise up. He posted a seventh-place tie at the 1996 U.S. Open.

“I had a great run during the 1980s and I felt like I was getting better every year,” says Green, now 61. “I was winning tournaments on the PGA Tour, was on the Ryder Cup team, and winning overseas, which I am equally as proud of as my wins in the States. I would love to have been able to see what I was capable of if I didn’t lose my focus. I was still young and probably had another six or seven really good years ahead of me when things broke down.” Green’s sister, Shelley, caddied for him for several years while on Tour.

“Things broke down,” he says, because of a nasty divorce from his first wife and losing custody of his children. He began drinking more than socially, gambling, falling into the deep hole of depression, and started missing cuts and continuing to pile up fines from the PGA Tour. He had more than two dozen fines levied against him, some of them for seemingly rather silly and harmless antics – like sneaking friends into The Masters (of all places) in the trunk of his car, swearing on the course, burying or flinging into the water several putters, and signing autographs for fans while playing.

Perhaps his most famous thumbing of his nose at the PGA Tour and resulting punishment was when he had a friend grab him a beer during The Masters in Augusta, Georgia in 1997 while playing a tournament round with the legendary Arnold Palmer, his childhood hero.

“I had injured my hand and shot an 87 the first day and knew I wasn’t going to make the cut,” Green recalls. “Here I was playing with Arnie and I just decided to toast him as we were walking down the 15th fairway. It was a spur of the moment thing. He smiles and said to me that he wished I had brought him one. I knew that he and I would never share a beer together, so I just decided to go with it. All in all, it was a great day.” Green missed the cut and was duly fined for his impromptu celebration of the life and career of “The King.” But really, what could we all have expected from a man who sometimes played tournament rounds dressed in green from head to toe, shoes included?

David Barrett, a writer and author and former senior editor at Golf Magazine, shared some thoughts on Green. “He was certainly not your typical buttoned-down tour pro. He had no filter when he spoke. At times, he rubbed people the wrong way; then again, at times he was refreshing. He was someone the average Joe could identify with. From what I’ve read, his attitude and spirit in the wake of losing loved ones and his determination to play golf again are admirable.”

Green has been called by former PGA Tour player and Massachusetts native Paul Azinger, “One of the most courageous men in the world.” Mark Calcavecchia, a friend, 13-time winner on the PGA Tour and 1989 Open Championship winner, said of Green, “Ken has been dealt some brutal cards over the years. I admire the fight that he continues to show us all every day. Ken will tell you the truth no matter what.”

In June 2009, Green was seriously injured in a motor vehicle accident when his motor home left the road. Green was in his RV traveling on Interstate 20 near Meridian, Mississippi when the right front tire blew, causing the vehicle to veer off the road and go down a deep embankment before hitting a tree. The accident killed three passengers: William Green, his brother; Jeanne Hodgin, his girlfriend; and his dog, Nip. The following year his estranged son, Hunter, died of a drug overdose in Dallas.

Stunned from two horrific incidents within a year, Green used golf as a way to keep himself going, although his journey back to the golf course was one filled with pain and long hours of therapy and rehab. But back he came, the guy whose life has had more twists and turns than a double dogleg hole. He was fitted with a prosthetic and basically taught himself how to play the game again. He began hitting balls on the range, playing practice rounds and then got himself fit enough that he was able to play several events on the Champions Tour, as well as local and regional events. He finished fourth at the Connecticut Senior Open at Shennecossett Golf Course in Groton in 2019, and tied for second at both the 2018 and 2016 Connecticut Senior Opens.

“The nerve damage to my right leg was very intense after the operation and I had 11 years of pain. It was constant. It was like the feeling you’d get if you put your finger in a light socket. I had surgery to correct the nerve damage and that has helped alleviate the constant pain. But I still get these tremendous shocks going through my leg to my body, and sometimes it’s so bad it almost knocks me to the ground,” he says. “It’s funny; when it was constant, I almost got used to it. Now, it seems more bothersome at times because it comes and goes and it is really bad sometimes.”

But Green sees his new reality as one more challenge in a life filled with challenges. “I went from a good player to a whole new world. I’m trying to get better at the game and I think I can, which a lot of people can’t say at my age. I still love to play, mainly for social reasons now. I’ll play every day if I can.”

The golf course has, admittedly, always been for Green a refuge from harsh realities, even as a child growing up in Honduras.

Green authored a book released last year, entitled, Hunter of Hope: A Life Lived Inside, Outside and on the Ropes, in which he details his life in honest fashion, the good and the bad.

“The book gave me the opportunity to show what I went through and maybe it can help people out there that have gone through, or are going through, similar things as I have – the loss of a son, a nasty marriage and divorce, depression, and the tragic accident. I can give my point of view and maybe help people and get them back on the right track. If I can do it, then people reading the book may say that they can do the same thing,” he says.

He talks openly about sexual assaults he experienced as a pre-teen while in Honduras, abuse that only ended when he was sent to live with his mother in the United States.

He also does a podcast titled “Sportsballs” (of course), during which he dishes on golf and other issues, holding true to his shoot-from-the-hip approach and willingness to tell the truth as he sees it. He also enjoys spending time with his son Ken Jr.’s family, which includes two children.

When at his home in New Fairfield, Green spends much of his golfing time at Danbury’s Richter Park Golf Course and Ridgewood Country Club, “courses that I grew up playing.” He adds: “The pros around the state are very kind to me, probably because I was a former Tour pro, and I can play pretty much anywhere I’d like.”

He even proposed to the city of Danbury that he be allowed to manage Richter Park Golf Course, considered one of the finest municipal courses in the country but one that has fallen on some hard times in terms of conditioning.

“I had what I thought was a good plan for the course and club that involved improving conditions and the practice facility, and engaging the community to a great degree,” says Green. “But they turned me down. Maybe because, well, I’m Kenny Green. Who knows?”

Oh yeah, that baggage he carries from being perceived as one of golf’s bad boys for so many years? He’s okay with the way some people still perceive him.

“I think we all have regrets about some of the things we have done, thinking about how we could have handled things better,” he says. “People love me and people think of the stupid things I’ve done and said on the course, and I’m okay with that. But people can change.”

“I actually received a letter from a guy after saving my dog in 2003 from an alligator, stating that he never really liked me because he thought I was bad for golf. [But] he said that anyone that would jump into a canal and save his dog from an alligator had to be a good guy.”

Green does other admirable things in his “second life” – for instance, meeting with a young boy suffering from brain cancer to give him a pep talk, to tell him to keep fighting as he has tried to do.

Like the gentleman who wrote to Green after he saved his dog, many people don’t know the real Ken Green – the guy who has faced and battled more than his share of adversity – all the while, as Frank Sinatra sang, doing it his way.

 

 


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