EDMOND — Gene Sauers found a small sliver of shade on the far side of the practice range at Oak Tree National, getting a respite from the heat.
Not so long ago, relief wasn’t so easy.
Only a few years have passed since the longtime professional golfer lay in hospital bed clinging to life. He was suffering from a rare disease that was killing his skin cells, starting with the inner most layers and burning toward the top ones.
Sauers was burning from the inside out.
“The doctors said I had a 25 percent chance to survive,” he said while sitting in that cooling shade Wednesday after his final practice round for the U.S. Senior Open.
He chuckled softly.
“Yeah, so, I’m lucky to be hitting the ball, lucky to be playing.”
During a week in which high temperatures have already been a major storyline — and are sure to be again as the four-day tournament starts Thursday — no one has experienced heat the way Gene Sauers has. Yes, he sweat through his baby blue polo on the eve of the Open. Yes, he was worn out after sweltering for three days in the Oklahoma sun.
But really, this is nothing.
That is evident from Sauers’ arms and legs. He pulls up his slacks to reveal a patchwork of skin on his thighs and shins. He turns over his forearms to show the same hodgepodge. Some of the skin is bumpy. Some is it is shiny and smooth.
These are the skin grafts of a burn victim.
Sauers’ trouble began in 2009. Four years earlier, he had walked away from professional golf after two-plus decades because he wasn’t enjoying the game or the grind anymore. He was enjoying life when he started having pain in his right shoulder. Pain in his left shoulder soon followed. He was diagnosed with arthritis.
But the joint pain multiplied and intensified. Soon, doctors diagnosed him with rheumatoid arthritis. Treatment followed, but no drug seemed to give him any relief.
He shuffled around his Savannah, Ga., home, unable to pick up his feet.
“Luckily, I had hardwood floors,” Sauers said. “With socks on, I could slide.”
After six or eight months, he went to the Duke Medical Center in Durham, N.C.. Sauers was tested for all sorts of nasty diseases, but the specialists turned up nothing definitive. They searched as he suffered.
Finally, they sent him home. The pain continued until one morning when he raised his left arm, and his wife noticed something black on the underside of his forearm.
“What is that?” she asked.
He rubbed at it, but there was nothing on his skin. The skin itself was black.
“I have no idea,” he said.
Within a few hours, similar patches of blacken skin started popping up all over Sauers’ body. On both of his arms. On both of his legs. His wife took some pictures on her cell phone and sent them to the doctor, who called soon after.
“Be here tomorrow morning at 5,” he told Sauers.
By the time Sauers got to the hospital the next morning, most of the skin on his thighs was black. Same for his upper forearms and biceps.
The diagnosis: Stevens-Johnson Syndrome.
It is an extremely rare condition that kills off skin cells. The vessels carrying blood and oxygen to the skin get clogged and die. The disease essentially burns through the layers of skin.
Sauers’ blackened skin was like that of a burn victim because that’s what was happening to his skin, only the fire was internal.
“I was burned from inside out,” he said.
Painful treatments followed. The blackened areas had to be cleaned of all the dead skin, then allowed to bud before being cleaned again. Sauers doesn’t know what all the doctors used in those procedures, but he knows what it felt like.
“Cheese grater,” he said.
Skin grafts followed. Good skin was taken from various parts of his body and attached with staples to the areas that had been left as raw as freshly butchered meat. Sauers had more than 300 staples in his body.
Pictures that he keeps on his iPhone show limbs that look like they’ve been mangled by a shark attack.
Sauers was in the hospital for seven excruciating weeks, and somewhere along the way, he decided that if he ever got out of that bed he was going to play golf again. He spent hours at thinking about his sport, picturing his swing.
“When I get out,” he told himself, “this is what I’m going to do.”
It was his light at the end of the tunnel.
“And it worked.”
On June 1, 2011, he was released from the hospital. Soon after, he picked up a golf club for the first time in almost seven years. He was hunching over and taking baby steps because his skin grafts were still so taut, and when he took his first swing, it wasn’t pretty.
“I couldn’t hit a pitching wedge from here to that bucket,” he said pointing to a five-gallon bucket not even 5 yards away on the practice range.
But every day, he hit a couple more balls a little farther. He eventually went from his wedge to his 7-iron to his longer irons to his driver. And three months after leaving the hospital, he played 18 holes.
He birdied the last three holes to shoot 71.
“You know,” he thought, “if I can do that, I’ve got to give this a shot.”
The next year, he played a couple of events on the PGA Tour, then joined the Champions Tour last year. He made the cut in all 22 events that he played, finished top-10 in seven and won nearly $900,000.
This year hasn’t been quite as good with no top-10 finishes in 11 events, and while Sauers isn’t immune to frustration, he is quick to find perspective even on the worst of days. He doesn’t let poor shots or bad scores linger.
Making a birdie is great, but just being here is pretty grand, too.
“It damn sure is,” Sauers said.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.