Just over three years ago, Gene Sauers couldn’t hit a wedge shot more than 10 yards. But at least he was alive, which was far from a foregone conclusion as he lay in a hospital bed in Georgia continuously replaying his golf swing in his head and praying he would have a chance to display it to the world again.
It’s amazing what the mind can do, Sauers said wistfully. It can make you or break you, you know? So, the body, too. I've watched this thing go south and then come back. I'm just proud to be here.
Proud. And blessed.
Sauers, 51, is on the brink of his most meaningful victory since he began playing golf at age 9 by trailing his father and brother. Despite battling the high heat at Oak Tree National and flu-like symptoms (comparatively minor inconveniences to a man with his health history), Sauers carded a 3-under-par 68 and seized control of the 35th U.S. Senior Open after Round 3. He leads 2010 champion Bernhard Langer and Scott Dunlap by three strokes with a 54-hole aggregate of 7-under 206.
You know, being a U.S. Open champion is a dream for everybody, even as a senior championship, Sauers said.
Three years ago, it was a dream just to be able to pick up a club again. Sauers spent seven weeks in the hospital in 2011 when he developed Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a potentially fatal skin disorder usually caused by an adverse reaction to medication. In Sauers’ case, he was misdiagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and the medication triggered the outbreak on his arms and thighs. Sauers describes it the pain he felt as burning from the inside out.
Doctors gave him only a 25 percent chance of survival. And once his prognosis turned upward, Sauers still had to undergo painful reconstructive surgery that included scraping off the top layers of his skin, then grafting skin from the backs of his legs to his thighs and forearms.
He was released from the hospital June 1. That golf served as a powerful motivator is a surprise, because Sauers walked away from the PGA Tour in frustration in 2005. The last of his four victories was in the 2002 Air Canada Championship.
I was kind of playing bad and wasn't having a good time, pulling my hair out and going crazy, he explained. I stepped away from it for awhile and then 2009 came and I started feeling bad. Then all that stuff progressed and that's what happened to me.
When I quit the regular Tour I was pretty much done. Something hit me in the hospital. I told my wife, after about a month being in the hospital, ‘I think I want to play golf again.’ But I hadn't played in seven years. I wondered what it would be like.
After going through his rehabilitation, it was like he never left. Always a solid ball-striker, Sauers shot 71 his first time out on a golf course. Birdied the last three holes, he recalled. I said, if I can do that, I can sure give it another shot out here.
Armed with a two-year exemption from his success on the PGA Tour, Sauers made his Champions Tour debut at the 2012 Boeing Championship and finished tied for 21st. Last year, he had a pair of second-place finishes in 22 starts.
I’m a survivor, he said.
And he’s not alone in that regard out on the course. His caddie, Tim Thalmueller, has been through his own travails, surviving three motorcycle accidents, a mugging in Miami in 1990 while caddieing for Tom Watson and the 2005 tsunami in Thailand that killed thousands. His most recent motorcycle accident, in Jacksonville, resulted in a mangled lower right leg. He needed five surgeries to ensure that he would not lose his foot.
We both have been through a lot, said Thalmueller, who latched on with Sauers at the beginning of last season.
Thalmueller didn’t want to say much more. I don’t want to jinx anything, he said. Besides, Gene is the star.
An unlikely one at that. To give up golf, the game you have played nearly your whole life, and then to be saved by it, and now to find yourself with a chance to win a national championship, is a script that can only be described as miraculous.
You know, all that I've been through the last three, four years is remarkable, the position I'm in right now, said Sauers. I didn't touch a golf club for seven years after I got off the regular Tour and then I got sick and … I never thought I'd be playing golf again. Like I told everybody else, a bogey doesn't matter much anymore. The good Lord touched me and said, ‘I'm going to give you another chance.’ Hopefully I can play good tomorrow and pull it out.
He’s seen much worse odds in more important contests.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work previously has appeared on USGA websites.