About five weeks into a seven-week trial by hospital in Savannah – doctors having finished a series of skin grafts, all the while informing his wife in hushed tones that survival was going to be his toughest par save yet – the oddest thought occurred to Gene Sauers.
I want to play golf again.
Dropping that on Tammy, his wife, “Her eyes got really big and she said, ‘I just hope you’ll be able to walk again,’” Sauers remembered. “’Maybe you’ll play golf again – on the weekend with your buddies at the muni course.’
“It has been amazing.”
On Friday, they begin play at TPC Sugarloaf in the Mitsubishi Electric Classic. Sauers, who after overcoming an exceedingly rare syndrome called Stevens-Johnson has played five years on the over-50 PGA Tour Champions, will be in the field. He has played a great deal of golf since that revelatory day in the hospital in 2010. Even won a major – the U.S. Senior Open – in 2016. And, yes, it has been amazing.
Any gathering of those on the far side of 50 is bound to be accompanied by a chorus of creaks and groans and other bodily complaints. Rusty hinges abound among this particular sect of golfers. Sauers, 55, is there to provide proportion to all ailments.
“They always come up to me say, oh, this is hurting, that is hurting – but it ain’t nothing compared to what you went through, Gene,” Sauers says.
Not to spoil the payoff of the book that may yet come out all this, but Sauers is doing pretty well these days. His arms still bear the scars of the grafts from where his skin, deprived of blood by the Stevens-Johnson, essentially burned away from the inside. He’ll always have the memory of looking into his wife’s eyes one day in that Savannah hospital and asking, “I’m not getting out of here, am I?” (Unbeknownst to him at the time, doctors initially had given him a 25 percent chance of recovery).
But here he is now enjoying the pleasures of fishing off the Georgia coast (he’s a Georgia Southern grad and a Savannah resident). And spending empty-nest time with his wife, who he said, unequivocally, “saved my life.” And playing golf at a level unimaginable just a few years ago (last year, for instance, he was the oldest player in the U.S. Open field).
“I’ve seen my body deteriorate, and I’ve seen it come back to life – the same thing with my golf game,” he said.
About any golfing award you can win the hard way – that is through doubt and pain – Sauers has won. The Ben Hogan Award from the golf writers, recognizing perseverance through illness, injury or disability. The Courage Award from the PGA Tour, for, well, it’s rather self-explanatory.
The current state of his golf hasn’t been half bad either. Sauers, who has three victories on the PGA Tour between 1986-2002, and the one big career win on the over-50 Tour, has four top 10s in six starts this year. That includes a second and a third. He said he’d like to be putting a little better now, but, hey, who doesn’t want that?
Sauers’ second life on the PGA Champions Tour is making up for seven years lost on golf. Not all of it was health related. In fact, the bulk of the time between 2004-11 that he spent divorced from his clubs was just stubbornness and frustration. Unable to get himself out of a competitive funk, he just quit the game in his early 40s. And didn’t seem to miss it all that much.
Then his body turned on him. At first, his pain was misdiagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis. The medications he took for that only set up the Stevens-Johnson Syndrome to suddenly break out in ugly dark blotches over his body.
Only after his health bottomed out did Sauers have the revelation about playing golf again. “I saw the light in that tunnel. They say before you die you see that light. And I saw that light. I realized that light wasn’t the end, it was the beginning,” he said.
Additionally, as he neared 50, the prospect of playing on the PGA Champions Tour was a tempting financial lifeline. To meet all the expenses during his illness, Sauers said he was forced to raid his retirement fund, pulling more than $1 million from it.
Hello, new income stream.
His first over-50 event was in Seattle, 2012. “When I came out on the putting green that first day, I didn’t know what to expect. And everybody came up to me said good to see you, glad you’re alive, good luck out here. I think that took a lot of burden off me,” he remembered.
He finished 21st that week and earned $21,142.86. “Biggest check I’d made in seven years. It has been off and running ever since,” Sauers said.
He has earned more than $5 million thus far on the second-life tour. Figures he has maybe five more good years in front of him, if all goes well.
If not, he can still count himself wealthy.
“I’m just sucking it all up,” Sauers said at Sugarloaf. “Like I said when I first came back, a bogey doesn’t mean much anymore.”
Pause for effect.
“But I really hate the double bogeys.”