Savannah, Ga. – From the time he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as an infant, doctors painted a negative prognosis for D.J. Gregory and his parents.
Would he ever walk? No, they said.
Could he ever participate in sports? No.
“We were told I would be in a wheelchair the rest of my life,” said Gregory, the guest speaker at the players’ dinner for the 2011 USGA Women’s State Team Championship at The Landings Club.
That was an answer that never sat well with Gregory or his parents. The family researched his illness and did everything possible to find a way for D.J. to stand up on his own and eventually walk.
|A Women's State Team participant gets an autographed copy of D.J. Gregory's book. (Ellen Broce/The Landings Club)
Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the motor control centers of the developing brain and can occur during pregnancy, during childbirth and up to about 3. The condition can affect movement, hearing, seeing, sight and cognitive skills.
Since childhood, Gregory, whose parents reside in The Landings, has endured six surgeries on his legs and five on his eyes. One of those surgeries involved cutting the abductor muscles in his legs, which controls your balance.
“I have no balance, hence why I walk with this,” said Gregory, pointing to his cane.
But that doesn’t mean the 33-year-old Savannah resident has allowed his disability to stop him from fulfilling his dreams.
An avid sports fan, Gregory fell in love with golf 21 years ago when his father, Dan, took him to the Greater Greensboro Open (now Wyndham Championship). While walking in the gallery, Gregory met CBS golf analyst and 1964 U.S. Open champion Ken Venturi. But Venturi, who overcame a stammering issue as a child to enjoy a fine PGA Tour career and later a long broadcasting tenure with CBS, did more than just sign an autograph for Gregory. He took him up to the television tower and introduced him to Jim Nantz.
A friendship was forged that day, which led many years later to an idea that seemed almost unfathomable.
Gregory wanted to walk 18 holes of every round at every PGA Tour stop. Considering D.J.’s physical challenges, the idea might have sounded preposterous to some.
Nantz suggested that Gregory write a letter to PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem about his proposal. The plan, through the help of Nantz, the tour and sponsors, was for Gregory to walk with a different player each week and then write a blog on pgatour.com about the experience, which would include thoughts from the players he walked with.
“I didn’t do what I did in 2008 for media attention or to be read about on the Internet or newspapers,” said Gregory during his speech at the players’ dinner. “I did it for ‘selfish’ reasons. But I quickly realized what I was doing could inspire others. I can motivate them to achieve their own goals and inspire them to set goals.”
From infancy, Gregory had always been determined to overcome his physical limitations. He would crawl around the house Army style on his forearms, which led to his upper body being much stronger than his lower extremities.
After attending his first PGA Tour event, he started playing the game, learning to swing a golf club with one arm. He typically shoots between 105 and 115 from the forward tees. Golf has given Gregory an activity in which he can compete, not just watch.
He also earned a master’s degree in sports management from Springfield (Mass.) College.
Yet his true calling would come in following the world’s best golfers from outside the ropes.
In January 2008, the journey began in the idyllic setting of Maui at the Mercedes Championships (now the Hyundai Tournament of Champions) and ended 11 months later, perhaps appropriately at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., with the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic.
Along the way, Gregory walked 3,256 holes covering more than 900 miles and 180 rounds. He consumed 330 bottles of water, 270 sport drinks and 350 sodas. He traveled some 80,000 miles through 23 states and two countries, and went through five pairs of golf shoes.
“The pressure on his feet was unbelievable,” said Dan Gregory, D.J.’s father. “We were putting on seven to eight band-aids every day on his toes to minimize the blisters.”
Amazingly, Gregory fell just 28 times. His goal at the outset of the journey was to average one fall per tournament. He easily surpassed even his own expectations.
Through it all, Gregory developed friendships with most of the PGA Tour’s rank and file. He became very close with Kenny Perry, who treated him like a member of his family.
“How can you see a kid struggle around a golf course and then you’re out there complaining playing golf,” Perry told ESPN’s E:60 during an interview for a Tom Rinaldi story on Gregory. “It’s really changed my perspective about my life and about my golf game.”
When the year concluded, Gregory chronicled the year in a book entitled “Walking With Friends.”
But the journey didn’t end with that season. Gregory has continued to walk and walk and walk. Since that magical year, Gregory has formed a nonprofit foundation called Walking For Kids to raise money for children’s charities. Each week, different PGA Tour players donate the amount of money of their choice for each birdie or eagle at that tournament.
During its initial campaign in 2010, the foundation raised $83,000. This year, the amount has already surpassed $100,000.
“I love what I do now more than what I did in 2008,” said Gregory. “I have the opportunity to help others achieve their own goals.
“If my parents took the advice of doctors, I wouldn’t be standing up here right now, and I sure wouldn’t have talked to you about what I have done the last four years. My message to you is don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. If you are willing to work hard, anything is possible.”
The Landings gave each competitor at this year’s Women’s State Team Championship a copy of Gregory’s book. After his speech, competitors, guests and officials stood in a long line to meet Gregory and have him sign copies of the book.
During the dinner, only two people received a standing ovation. One went to Hall of Famer Carol Semple Thompson, a seven-time USGA champion who has competed in more than 115 championships, along with 12 Curtis Cup Match appearances.
The other was for D.J. Gregory, who has shown that extraordinary adversity can be overcome.
And that yes can be an answer to tough challenges.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer/championship content manager with the USGA. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.