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
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
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
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
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.