Gene Sauers wasn’t quite sure how he would be received when he joined the Champions Tour at the end of August.
After all, the Savannah native hadn’t been on golf’s radar for quite some time. A bout with Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a rare and painful skin disorder, had left doctors puzzled and Sauers frustrated until he finally got a proper diagnosis.
But when he teed it up in the Boeing Classic outside of Seattle, Sauers found he was still one of the guys.
“I think they saw that piece on me they did on Golf Channel,” Sauers said. “The first one is Seattle and everyone came up to me. All the big-name guys were like, ‘Gene, it’s good to see you. Welcome out here.’ I think that helped me a lot, too. It was a sigh of relief. At least they accept me out here.”
Sauers turned 50 on Aug. 22, and he has a two-year exemption on the Champions Tour. So far he’s making the most of his opportunity.
He fired three consecutive rounds of 71 to tie for 21st at Seattle, then backed it up with a pair of top-10 finishes in his next two starts. In nine official rounds, he has only once been over par.
“When I turn 52, if I’m not in that top 30, I’ve got to do that Monday qualifying,” said Sauers, who will tee it up this week in the Greater Hickory Classic at Rock Barn in Conover, N.C. “I’ve got to work hard to finish in the top 30. It’s not going to be easy, but if I stay confident and do what I’ve been doing, I shouldn’t have any problems.”
That Sauers is even playing is a miracle by itself. The skin condition, which he likens to burning from the inside out, kept him off the golf course for five years.
Doctors thought at first he had rheumatoid arthritis, but eventually he wound up at Duke University’s medical center and doctors put him on the right course. He was released from a Savannah hospital on June 1, 2011 after a seven-week stretch.
“It took me about two months before I could swing a club,” Sauers said. “When I first got out I couldn’t hit a pitching wedge 15 yards. I said I’m never going to be able to play again.”
Sauers would hit balls into the marsh in his backyard, eventually building up strength and flexibility that he had lost while in the hospital.
“Two months of doing that and I finally went out and played, and I shot 71,” said Sauers, who birdied the final three holes. “I said if I could shoot 71, I need to try it again. I think the Lord’s telling me something.”
Sauers has won three times on the PGA Tour, but his last win came a decade ago at the Air Canada Championship. His play earned him three Masters Tournament appearances between 1987 and 1993, but his best finish came in 1987 when he tied for 33rd.
“I’d love to get back there one day. It’s going to be tough,” he said. “Back when I was a kid playing at Augusta, I knew a little history. Looking back, I should have focused on that more.”
Sauers will have his oldest son, Gene Jr., serve as a caddie this week. And while the courses on the Champions Tour are new to Sauers, that does not deter him. Not after all he’s been through.
“I’ve been hitting the ball real good. Almost as good as I did on the regular tour,” he said. “The bad part of my game was putting back then. I guess it still is. I tell you, if I get a hot week with the putter, they won’t touch me. That’s the way I feel.”