Fifteen minutes. Ken Green's fifteen minutes came in 1997, at the Masters, when he arranged a little prank that made him famous. He was a decent pro golfer who won two Ryder Cup matches in 1989, and he wanted to have a beer with Arnold Palmer. So when he found himself paired with the King at Augusta, Green asked a buddy to slip him a beer on the 15th Hole. The crowd loved it. The media loved it. Ken loved it. Golf needed a guy like that – a regular guy with a little bit of attitude. Golf still needs a guy like that. But Ken probably can't be that guy -- not anymore.
Fifteen minutes. Everything changed for Green in fifteen minutes. On a Monday after a Champions Tour final round in Texas, almost two years ago exactly, Green's RV headed north for a tournament in upstate New York. As it coasted through Mississippi, the RV careened off the road, down an embankment, and straight into a tree. No one inside was wearing a seat belt. Ambulances arrived at the scene – a mess of wood, brush and shrapnel. Green had hurt his right leg so badly that he would need it amputated. His brother, Billy, was dead. Green's girlfriend, Jeanne Hodgin, was also killed. So was Ken's dog, Nip.
Those fifteen minutes have been chasing Ken Green ever since.
Fifteen minutes. That's what Ken Green talks about now. He imagines fifteen minutes free of pain. Not the emotional kind, though there’s that too. Green wonders what it would be like to have fifteen minutes of his life when he’s not in writhing, paralyzing, physical pain. He'd use those fifteen minutes to sleep, or to play with his dogs, or maybe even have a beer. He's got a few in the fridge, but he can’t drink even one, because he says they make the pain worse.
"I can't tell you how many times," he says, sitting at his cluttered dining room table, "if there was a pistol in my bedroom, I would have used it."
Ken Green could get a reprieve from some of this anguish. His plight is not totally out of his hands. But he wants something more than fifteen minutes without pain. He wants fifteen more minutes of tournament golf.
He lives in a world of gates and mansions. West Palm Beach. The Gold Coast. But Ken Green has a modest, low-slung house on a quiet side street. The only gate out front is a fence keeping his three dogs from roaming too far. It's Saturday night, but Green has no plans. He's got four red velvet cupcakes on the counter, but he has no appetite. He says he hardly eats anything these days.
"The jolt can last four or five hours," he says. "It's the physical pain that’s ripping me apart. Day after day, it wears you down."
Green has had several procedures to get his right leg fitted to his prosthetic. As any amputee knows, there's no such thing as a good fit. The skin and the nerves fray against the socket of the prosthetic leg, no matter how soft the fabric inside. It’s hard enough to avoid the pain of friction if an amputee is sedentary. But Green is a professional athlete, who needs to twist and pivot and thrust in a way no modern-day artificial limb can. He knows that compared to the war veterans and those born without limbs, he’s "lucky." But the intensity of the pain ratchets up with every swing of the club, to the point where he wonders if it's eroding his mental faculties.
"My memory is shot," he says. "There are times I have no clue who someone is."
The mental hardship might be worse than the physical challenge. Even though the police report said he was driving the RV, Green insisted it was his brother. But now, he can’t help but say, "I'm not 100 percent sure." The last thing he remembers, he says, is boarding the RV that morning. He says he’s not scared of his future. But then he describes his life, one of withering away physically and emotionally. And it’s terrifying.
Green cries at night, clutching his pillow because his girlfriend is dead and so is the dog he still calls out for every now and again. He’s been to the hospital four times in the last year, just because everything hurt so badly. One night in November, he was in so much pain that he took pill after pill until he became scared that he’d overdose. He wrote out a note, to whoever might find him dead in the morning, explaining that he didn’t do it on purpose.
He looks down at his severed leg. He starts to cry.
Green's old fans would be shocked and saddened to see him now. The old Ken Green was a spitfire out of a country music song. He wasn’t always happy, but he sure was lively. Green battled through divorces, gambling problems, financial trouble, and play so poorly he landed on the Nationwide Tour for a brief time. The beer with Arnie was charming, but there was also the swearing on the course, the berating of officials, and the chipping of balls through sliding glass doors. Green was fined a lot more often than he drew a Top 10 paycheck. He was a live wire and a third rail: crafty and irreverent and smart.
Is that Ken Green still there? Was he able to withstand the crumbling of his career and his life? Early in 2010, he lost one of his two sons, Hunter, to a drug overdose. Green's ex-wife refused to give Ken details about his son’s death. Ken says he was making progress bringing Hunter back into his life after a messy divorce. But Hunter's half-sister, Brooke Baker, wrote an obituary in Ken's local paper, the Palm Beach Post, saying Hunter was "lacking an earthly dad." (A call to Ken Green, Jr. was not returned.) If you include Ken's dog -- and he does -- he's lost four loved ones in less than two years. "Whether there is a God or there isn’t," he says, "I'm being tested."
But despite the tears that don’t seem to stop -- despite the eerie quiet of his personality and his house -- there are flashes of the old Ken Green. They show up subtly: When his three German shepherds act up, his eyes flare and he scolds them with a shout. And they show up overtly: When he talks about the PGA Tour:
"The Tour has thrown me out the window," he says. "They've stuck a knife in one of their own."
Green is dying to get sponsor's exemptions from the Champions Tour, so he can play without going through the extra agony of qualifying. But he says he’s gotten mostly radio silence. "I'm really pissed," he says.
The PGA Tour did not comment for this story.
He knows he may never get a sustained look from tournament sponsors. And he knows that even if he does, he probably won't sniff the top 10 in any tournament. Not with a prosthetic leg. He played in the Senior PGA Championship in May, but had to play 30 holes in the second round because of weather and finished in 146th place. Green’s barely hanging on to his career, saying he’ll give it only a few more months, but to hear him talk about the game is to hear a man spurned, not a man spent. Green looks beaten, but he sounds as if the fight is still ramping up.
"I have a history of depression," he says. "I'm not seeing anyone, though. I stopped taking anti-depressants. They keep you from killing yourself, but they don’t help in the athletic world. I've been fine. There are times when I’m slipping, but I won’t take 'em. If I want to have any chance to play, there’s no way.
"Am I risking my life for golf?" Green asks, "It’s possible."
A few months ago, Green flew to Bermuda for a tournament. His competition was a few Champions Tour members and some club pros. But his true opponent was his amputated leg.
Bermuda is hillier than Florida, and Green couldn’t easily bend or crouch to hit a ball below his feet. And he couldn’t pivot when on an upslope. His home course in West Palm is flat, and he says he can get around in a remarkable 2-under, but anything with undulation is almost too much to bear. "It's an issue I'll deal with," he says, "for the rest of my days." So he found himself flailing at the ball, almost as if he was playing a flop shot. He had to add two clubs to every shot. Yet despite all that, he shot 76 in each of the first two rounds. The third round went even better, as Green and his leg figured out a working relationship on the course. Then came the 15th hole.
Agony. All at once. Without warning. Green felt that electrical shock in his right leg again, and he started to shake. He wondered if anyone around him could tell. He went to the pills and kept taking them, even though every step and swing ravaged him. By the end of the day, he says, he took 18 capsules of Oxycontin. It didn’t really help that much. But the adrenaline did. Green shot a 71.
He emerges from pretty much every tournament with the same feelings: "I can't do this anymore," and "I have to keep doing this."
Not much has been written about it, but Green is the reigning Champions Tour comeback player of the year for 2010 -- even though he only played in three tournaments. "Not sure how I feel about that yet," he texted after getting word of the award.
On a warm weekday, Green stops at a Friday's in Orlando to grab a light bite on the way to Alabama to see an old friend. He's hardly basking in the glow of the recognition he wanted from the golf world. “All the players voted on [the award],” he says, “so I have to appreciate that. But I haven’t done anything yet.”
He was invited to Hawaii to accept the award. He didn't go.
"One thing golf has is integrity," he says. "For the last 20 years, [the PGA Tour] has been run by two men who don't believe telling the truth is the way we should go."
Then Green takes a shot at the players. "I don't have a lot of friends on Tour," he says. "I don't like the world they live in."
Everything about Green’s world has changed. He's gone from a modern-day PGA Pilate to a modern-day golf Job. But in his heart, nothing has changed. All the pain and suffering hasn’t so much as thrown a blanket on his smoldering desire to toss a Molotov cocktail onto his sport’s perfectly-manicured lawns.
So even though he knows he could rid himself of his physical discomfort by retiring, he won't. Even though he knows he could get some emotional stability by seeing a therapist, he won't. And even though he knows he could be less lonely by moving in with his sister in Daytona, he won't. Suffering feeds Green's sense of mission -– his push against the world. That's the old Ken Green. The rebel. "I do believe there is a path and a purpose to this," he says. "This is my job. This is what I'm supposed to experience."
If golf means risking debilitation, dementia, or death, sign him up. The real death for Ken Green would be the realization that he can’t compete anymore -- against an opponent, a course, the system, or physical torture. "I would have no problem taking the pain," he says, "if I knew I could come back." Maybe the pain is his reassurance that he’s coming back. When the pain stops, that means it’s over. Then he has to think about all he’s lost and can’t ever get back. "The person I hug the most is my dog, Munch," he says. "It's amazing when you talk aloud and he’s there to listen. You’re probably saying things to him that you can’t say to anyone else. The three people I really talk to are gone."
Just this week, Green has started to feel better. A lot better. The pain has subsided, albeit only for a few days. He’s thinking about getting another dog. He has a new girlfriend, who lives in Connecticut. He got an exemption to the Dick's Sporting Goods Open in upstate New York later this month.
"I can't tell you how much, in these last three days, how excited I am about going to play golf again," he says. "I'm just like a little boy at Christmas."
But behind that glimmer of hope is a shadow that will always trail Ken Green. He looks for it even when it might not be there.
"Part of me is scared to death," he says. "If the pain comes back, I don't know if I’ll be able to handle it. Is it over? Is it finally over?"
Terrible things have happened to Ken Green. Terrible things keep happening to Ken Green. But he still has his life, he still has his edge, and he still has golf. As long as he has all of that, he’ll still be sitting alone in the dark, clutching his dogs, fighting for fifteen minutes more.
Email Eric Adelson at email@example.com.