Planet Golf — 23 August 2012 by Jim Street
Sauers has a sweet return to golf

SNOQUALMIE, Wa. – When Champions Tour newcomer Gene Sauers says he’s glad to be here, he really is glad to be here. . .or anywhere.

A rare skin disease, called Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, nearly killed him two years ago, and just being able to walk and talk, let alone play golf, makes Sauers appreciative for a new lease on life.

“It’s great to be here,” he said after a Pro-Am round on Thursday at TPC Snoqualmie Ridge. “I’ve heard a lot about this place and it’s everything I’ve dreamed it would be. I’m just glad to be here and glad to be able to be able to play golf again, especially to be out here on the Senior Tour and to be out here with all my friends.”

It has been a long road back from a rare ailment that left him hospitalized for nearly two months.

Doctors initially diagnosed him with rheumatoid arthritis, but they were wrong and the medication he was taking did more harm than good.

Finally, after months of extreme pain and watching the skin on his arms and legs turn black without knowing why, Sauers’ illness was diagnosed correctly by doctors at Duke University.

“A few months down the road, I get burned from the inside out, both arms and legs,” Saueres said. “It was pretty painful. It was kind of like riding a motorcycle down a highway naked, falling off and getting all skinned up.”

Sauer’s skin was eating itself from the inside out. He spent seven weeks in the hospital while wound specialists performed skin grafts on his arms and legs to replace seven layers of damaged skin.

Sauer’s arms and legs still show scars from the skin grafts.

Asked  if there was a time when he doubted his future in golf, he said, “Pretty much so. When I was in that hospital for those seven weeks, I said, ‘Man, I’m getting close to 50 (years old) and I know I’m going to have two years to get out there. (But) I don’t know if I’m going to be able to play and it was just a depressing thing.

“Of course, I was already depressed on all that medication. It was awful. I can’t even begin to explain how bad it was.”

The bad days outweighed the good ones. And it wasn’t close.

But he had help along way.

“My wife was always with me,” he said. “I remember being in the hospital about the fourth week and I said, ‘Tammy, I don’t think I’m coming out of here.’ She jumped right back. ‘Yeah, you are. You have to fight.’”

Sauers fought back, conquered the ailment, and his comeback from the life-threatening disease reaches a new high on Friday morning when he tees off for the first time on the Champions Tour. He celebrated his 50th birthday on Wednesday, qualifying for the Boeing Classic with one day to spare.

He played the difficult, hilly course for the third time on Thursday – in a Pro-Am — and came away with mixed feelings.

“I didn’t play that well today,” he said, “but other than that, like I say, I’ve had some illnesses the past couple of years. I’ve only been playing golf for a year now and I’ll tell you what, I’m hitting the ball really good, hitting the ball almost as good as I hit it on the regular tour.”

His putting stroke is not so good.

“When you take five years off,” he said, “your short game kind of almost disappears. The other part is like riding a bike.”

A four-time winner on the PGA Tour, Sauers began dreaming of a comeback soon after being discharged from the hospital. He shot a 71 on his first round and decided to give the sport one more chance.

The illness put everything in perspective and although he remains competitive and wants to play well, there are a lot worse things than a dubbed chip or missed putt.

“I’m just glad to be here, happy to be here living and breathing,” he said. “I came that close.”

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Jim Street

Jim’s 40-year sportswriting career started with the San Jose Mercury-News in 1970 and ended on a full-time basis on October 31, 2010 following a 10-year stint with MLB.com. He grew up in Dorris, Calif., several long drives from the nearest golf course. His first tee shot was a week before being inducted into the Army in 1968. Upon his return from Vietnam, where he was a war correspondent for the 9th Infantry Division, Jim took up golf semi-seriously while working for the Mercury-News and covered numerous tournaments, including the U.S. Open in 1982, when Tom Watson made the shot of his life on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach. Jim also covered several Bing Crosby Pro-Am tournaments, the women’s U.S. Open, and other golfing events in the San Francisco area. He has a 17-handicap, never had a hole-in-one, although once he came within two inches of an ace, and witnessed the first round Ken Griffey Jr. ever played – at Arizona State during Spring Training in 1990. Pebble Beach Golf Links, the Kapalua Plantation Course, Pinehurst No. 2, Spyglass Hill, Winged Foot, Torrey Pines, Medinah, Chambers Bay, North Berwick in Scotland, and Princeville are among the courses he has had the pleasure of playing. Hitting the ball down the middle of the fairway is not a strong part of Jim’s game, but he is known (in his own mind) as the best putter not on tour. Most of Jim’s writing career was spent covering Major League baseball, a tenure that started with the Oakland Athletics, who won 101 games in 1971, and ended with the Seattle Mariners, who lost 101 games in 2010. Symmetry is a wonderful thing. He currently lives in Seattle and vacations in Arizona (and other warm climates) as much as possible.

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