PEABODY — Gene Sauers wasn’t expecting to talk publicly on Monday morning at Salem Country Club. It threw him for a little bit of a loop.
“Y’all are so quiet,” he said to the room of a few dozen representatives from the media and the US Golf Association. “I’d rather be hitting golf balls out in front of a million people than up here talking.”
Sauers, 54, is not your ordinary defending champion of the US Senior Open. Not many people in the room Monday morning knew his story, and Sauers is still getting used to telling it.
Sauers, set to defend his title at this year’s US Senior Open, to be held June 29-July 2 at Salem Country Club, is just happy to be alive. In 2011 he was diagnosed with the rare Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a rare skin condition that causes peeling, burning and, in the worst cases, can lead to high fevers, organ failure, and death.
Doctors originally misdiagnosed Sauers with rheumatoid arthritis, and he contracted Stevens-Johnson after being pumped full of the wrong medication for six to eight months.
“I ended up getting burned from the inside out — both arms and both legs,” said Sauers, a native of Savannah, Ga. “I couldn’t get off the couch, I couldn’t do anything – just burning. They treated me like a burn victim. I was pretty much tortured — a morphine pump, epidurals in my back. I don’t think the morphine worked.”
Sauers pulled through after being given just a 25 percent chance of survival. But Sauers found a positive through his horrifying ordeal. Half a decade earlier, Sauers had tired of professional golf. He won three tournaments on the PGA Tour and finished tied for second at the 2002 PGA Championship, but 20 years of traveling and struggling to make it were enough.
“I didn’t touch a golf club for seven years,” Sauers said. “I got off the tour when I was 44-45, [and] I was frustrated with the game. I don’t have a teacher, did it all my own, and couldn’t get out of my slump as fast as I could have if I had a teacher.”
But lying in the hospital at Duke University, all Sauers could think about was his golf swing.
“I basically played golf for two to three weeks in the hospital in my head, and I said, ‘This is how I’m going to play when I get out. This is how I’m going to swing the club,’” Sauers said.
His first round back came at Ford Plantation Golf Club outside Savannah, and after seven years away from the course, Sauers birdied his last three holes to shoot a 71. “If I could shoot 71 after everything I just went through, not touching a club for seven years, near death, I’ve got to give professional golf another shot,” Sauers said.
Sauers has been playing on the Champions Tour since the end of the 2012 season, and finally broke through with his first major victory at last year’s US Senior Open, beating Billy Mayfair and Miguel Angel Jimenez by one stroke. The championship earned Sauers a spot in this year’s US Open as well, to be played next month at Erin Hills in Wisconsin.
And coming up to Boston to partake in the US Senior Open will be special for Sauers. His first professional win came at the 1986 Bank of Boston Classic, winning in a playoff at Pleasant Valley Country Club in Sutton.
The USGA presented Sauers with a pair of Larry Bird socks on Monday, with a gentle suggestion to wear them at some point during the Senior Open. He played a practice round on Monday with Bruins legend Ray Bourque and Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski.
“I used to sit and watch the Celtics every day with my dad,” he said. “I used to always watch Larry Bird hit those 3-pointers.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin