Sauers' top win was not in golf

He overcame painful, rare skin disease

calexander@newsobserver.comOctober 6, 2012 

— Russ Cochran hadn’t played tournament golf since mid-July, shelved by a bad back.

Fred Funk has been playing but bothered at times by a sore knee and thumb.

Then there’s Gene Sauers.

“There were some very uncertain times for him,” Cochran said Friday.

Such is the life on the Champions Tour, where everyone is over 50 and many players have assorted ailments from a sport filled with big swings and much body torque. And so it is again this week in the SAS Championship at Prestonwood Country Club.

Cochran, the 2010 SAS winner, grabbed the opening-round lead Friday with a 6-under-par 66. Hitting 18 greens in regulation and steady enough with the putter, the left-hander took a one-shot lead over Funk, Andrew Magee, Jay Don Blake and Steve Pate.

Back problems forced Cochran off the tour this summer and kept him from defending his title in the British Senior Open. He says he plays with the lingering dread that any hard swing could cause his back to lock up again.

But no complaints. There is, after all, Sauers to consider.

Sauers, playing just his third career Champions Tour event, had a 4-under 68. He had five birdies and a bogey, but as he put it, bogeys don’t bother him as much anymore.

A couple of years ago, Sauers spent seven weeks in a hospital bed – first at Duke University, then in his hometown of Savannah, Ga. He was in constant pain and once told his wife, Tammy, he didn’t think he would survive.

Sauers, 50, suffered from Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. There are a number of ways to describe the rare disease that causes skin lesions, but it was as if Sauers’ skin was burning from the inside out.

“I was so depressed,” Sauers said. “I mean I was watching a cartoon on TV and crying, I was so depressed. It was bad. I couldn’t believe it.”

Sauers had won three times during a solid career on the PGA Tour and was a popular player.

“He’s got a game very similar to mine when we were playing on the (PGA) tour together,” Funk said.

Sauers dropped off the tour because of poor play and burnout and went five years without touching a club. Then came the day he lifted an arm and noticed a black spot. The spots began to spread.

“All of sudden, boom, boom, boom, it started going everywhere,” he said.

Stevens-Johnson has no known cause. Sauers initially was being treated for rheumatoid arthritis and taking multiple medications, and believes he could have suffered a bad reaction.

“I guess I had a gene or something,” he said.

Sauers was not diagnosed with Stevens-Johnson until March 2011 at Duke. He needed skin grafts on his arms and legs, noting, “Changing my bandages was the worst part of it.”

Sauers credits his wife for keeping his spirits up. He also said his competitiveness and a desire to play golf again kept him going.

“The whole time I was in the hospital I pictured the golf swing,” he said. “I think I got rid of a lot of the flaws I had.”

Sauers played a few Web.com events since his return. Turning 50 on Aug. 22, he made his Champions Tour debut in the Boeing Classic.

Cochran, 53, has won three times on the Champions Tour. In 2010, he beat Tom Pernice Jr. by two shots in the SAS, so he likes the feel, the layout, at Prestonwood.

The back strain has healed and he’s feeling good. So is Funk, who is healthy enough.

“On the Champions Tour, you do a checklist like a pilot on an airplane – you go through the flaps, wings, shoulders, back,” Funk said, smiling.

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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