Pro golfers, especially as they age, have every injury and ailment imaginable. Bad backs, sore knees, aching necks, you name it.
But Gene Sauers experienced a different kind of pain: he was burning up from within, like he had flames under his skin.
These days, Sauers will casually talk about a rare skin condition that nearly cost him his life. He’s playing on the PGA Tour Champions, in contention in this week’s SAS Championship after a first-round 62 and then a 67 on Saturday, closing in on $1 million in winnings this year. Life is good at 56.
And Sauers’ story is both a bit scary and inspirational. The former Georgia Southern golfer from Savannah, Ga., had played the PGA Tour, winning three times, but quit the tour in 2005 because of increasing joint pain.
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The doctors who first treated Sauers believed he was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. But as blood vessels in his arms and legs clogged, his condition worsened. The skin began burning from the inside and black lesions formed.
Sauers was taken to Duke University Hospital in 2011, where he said he was treated for four days. The diagnosis: Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a disorder of the skin and mucous membranes.
“When I left Savannah, I had a few black spots on me,” he said. “By the time I got up there, a five-hour drive, I was just covered. It was burning from the inside out, just spreading.”
Sauers isn’t completely sure what was done at Duke but said a doctor was able to stop the burning.
“I have no idea how he did it,” Sauers said. “I was out of it. I was on morphine pump and epidurals in my back. I don’t know anything. Just glad to be here, I know that.”
Sauers would spend the next seven weeks in a Savannah hospital. Multiple skin grafts were needed for his forearms and thighs, the pain nearly unbearable at times as Sauers, in his tour bio, said he was “stapled back together.”
Sauers said at one point during the long hospital stay he told his wife, Tammy, he wanted to play golf again, that he visualized himself playing golf as he tried to sleep.
“Her eyes got real big and she says, ‘I just hope you’re able to walk again or play golf at the mini with some of your buddies,’” Sauers said.
It took months of recovery but Sauers would walk again and he would play with his buddies again. It took a lot longer, almost seven years, but he did play competitively again. Turning 50 in August 2012, he joined the PGA Tour Champions.
Some call the senior tour a second lease on life for golfers. It was more than that for Sauers, as his peers know all too well.
“I think golfers, we’ve been doing this our whole life (and) you don’t realize how much you love it sometimes until it looks like it could go away,” said Tom Lehman, a former British Open champion and PGA Tour Champions member. “I’m sure that’s probably the way he was.”
But Sauers was determined to do more than play and compete. It was about winning again and in 2016 he won the biggest prize in senior golf: the U.S. Senior Open.
A final-round 69 at Scioto Country Club in Upper Arlington, Ohio, gave Sauers a one-shot victory over Billy Mayfair and Miguel Angel Jimenez. The payoff was $675,000, but being a major champion on the senior tour, holding up the silver trophy, thinking of where he had been and what he had overcome, of his family, made for an emotional moment.
The Senior Open has been Sauers’ only tour victory. He has been second twice this year and third in another tournament. He’s close.
Sauers’ 62 in the opening round of the SAS on Friday tied him for the lead with Lehman and Bernhard Langer. Sauers and Langer were tied for the second-round lead at 15-under 129, three ahead of Lehman entering the final round at Prestonwood Country Club.
“The Lord’s blessed me with some good golf lately,” Sauers said. “But like I said, I took seven years off. To come back and compete with all these guys right now, it’s amazing.”