D.J. Gregory earns PGA TOUR Courage Award for his dedication to kids
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Gregory is a constant presence on the PGA TOUR as he walks for charity
Written by Helen Ross @helen_pgatour
D.J. Gregory honored with PGA TOUR Courage Award
For the first five years of D.J. Gregory’s life, he had to “army crawl” between the rooms in his parents’ home. He couldn’t stand upright on his own, and he couldn’t walk.
He was born 10 weeks premature with cerebral palsy, which is a congenital disorder affecting movement, muscle tone or posture. Making Gregory’s life even more challenging, his legs were tangled together at birth, and his eyes were crossed.
By the time he was in the first grade, he’d had five different surgeries, including one in which his abductor muscles, which help control balance, were cut to untangle his legs. The final operation left both legs broken and in casts, separated by a bar as they healed so they couldn’t cross over again.
The youngster, who also had six operations on his eyes, spent a month and a half in a wheelchair that time. Once the casts came off, though, Gregory started doing something the doctors had told his parents he would never do when he was born.
First, with a walker. Then, aided by two canes. Finally, now, with just one.
And since 2008, Gregory has been a fixture at PGA TOUR events, averaging between 45-48 tournaments each year. He selects a players and he walks all four rounds with them. Should that pro miss the cut, Gregory hooks on with another for the final two days.
All total, Gregory has covered more than 14,000 miles since 2008 and raised more than $1 million for his Walking For Kids Foundation, predominately through the donations of TOUR players like world No. 1 Jon Rahm, who is his pro at this week’s WM Phoenix Open.
On Tuesday in a surprise ceremony at TPC Scottsdale, Gregory received the TOUR’s Courage Award, presented to a person who has overcome personal tragedy or debilitating injury or illness to make a meaningful contribution to the game.
Gregory is the first person to receive the award who is not a member of the PGA TOUR. The award was introduced in 2012 and has only been given four times previously to Erik Compton (2013), Jarrod Lyle (2015), Gene Sauers (2017) and Morgan Hoffmann (2020).
“He's an inspiration to a lot of people,” Rahm says. “He was not dealt the best hand in his life, and he made something wonderful out of it and the fact that he goes out there and walks as much as he does with the difficulty he has to walk, it’s very, very impressive.
“He's captured a lot of hearts of us players -- definitely mine.”
PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan echoed those sentiments.
“Our players have embraced D.J. over the years and continue to be motivated by his dedication to the Walking For Kids Foundation,” he says. “We couldn’t be prouder of the impact he has made and the many lives he has touched in a positive way.”
Gregory has always been a sports fan, and he has a special affinity for golf. He began playing the game when he was 9 years old, swinging the club with one hand while steadying himself with the cane in the other.
When he was 12, Gregory’s father took him to what is now called the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, North Carolina. He met the late Ken Venturi on the practice tee at Forest Oaks Country Club, and the long-time CBS announcer invited him to come watch the tournament from the 18th tower.
That’s where Gregory met Venturi’s broadcast partner, Jim Nantz, who has become a lifelong friend and one of his biggest supporters.
“I had no idea that one day, this would actually be such a vital part of his life, going tournament to tournament and really embodying in so many ways, the spirit of the PGA TOUR, walking every hole for every round, and having a charity initiative behind it,” Nantz says.
“Who could have imagined when I met this young lad that one day he would grow up and be someone who would be in many, many ways one of the purest, greatest ambassadors for the PGA TOUR with every step he takes.”
After he graduated from Springfield College with two degrees in sports management, Gregory
began researching how much it would cost to travel the TOUR for a year so he could walk every hole and write a blog about his experiences. He also talked with Aaron Baddeley, whom he’d met at Bay Hill in 2003, about whether he’d be willing to let Gregory walk with him and be interviewed afterwards, and the Australian was more than willing to oblige.
“I wanted to get to know the players on a more personal level, other than their scorecards and stats and that was kind of the basis of the blog,” Gregory says. “I wanted to give readers the chance to get to know players more than just birdies and eagles and kind of allow people to get to know them off the golf course and stuff like that.
“But I also wanted to accomplish the personal challenge of walking every hole of every event.”
So, Gregory came up with a plan. He went to visit a college friend who lived in Dallas during the 2007 AT&T Byron Nelson, and he took the proposal with him when he went to see Nantz in the 18th tower.
“Jim actually read it while they were on the air,” Gregory says. “And after the Saturday show, Jim said to me, have you ever thought about getting the PGA TOUR involved? And I said, no, not really.
“And he goes, well, I think you should send this to the commissioner and see what happens. And I said, Jim, being the commissioner of a major sport, how in the world is he going to get what I send him?
“And he goes, because you're going to send it to me. And I'm going to hand deliver it to the commissioner and honestly that's exactly than what happened.”
The TOUR, as Nantz expected, was intrigued. Gregory did a trial run with five-time TOUR champ Mark Wilson at The Barclays and Tim Herron at the Deutsche Bank Championship the following week. At that point, he was given the go-ahead for 2008 and his weekly blog was published on PGATOUR.COM.
Interestingly, Gregory says he didn’t do anything special to prepare for the year on the road.
“I sat on the couch,” he says, laughing. “I don’t work out. I don’t life weights. But once I decide I’m going to do something and I put my mind to it, I’m going to do it no matter what.”
Gregory credits his determination – which he acknowledges might border on stubbornness -- to his parents, who didn’t treat him any differently than they did his brother and sister. He still had to do the dishes after dinner. He had to take out the trash and make his bed every day.
“I'm very fortunate because even though I have a disability, I don't look at it as having a disability,” Gregory says. “I look at it as I could do anything you could do. It might just take me a little bit longer.”
Gregory is a testament to that perseverance on the golf course. He walks deliberately, almost rocking from side to side with each step, always steadying himself with the cane. Early on, he’d go through eight bandages a day. Now his shoes are specially cushioned.
“When I walk all my momentum is in front of me,” says Gregory, whose balance was thrown off when the abductor muscles were cut. “So, it's easier for me to go uphill. … But when I walk downhill, sometimes I actually walk faster than I can move my cane. So that's how I fall. “
The competitive side of Gregory has prompted him to keep track of those falls, too. He fell 29 times in 2008 but only once last year. He remembers how that happened -- in the final event of the 2021 calendar year -- like the pros he walks with remember their club selections.
“When I fall, I'm the first person to say some choice words to myself, to be honest,” Gregory says. “… Last calendar year I only had one fall and it was actually at the RSM Classic in the second round when I tripped on the cart path which kind of stinks because if I would've gone three more rounds, then I would've had a complete no-fall year.
“It didn't quite happen. But still one fall for the year is pretty good.”
Gregory’s most challenging walk is the first of each calendar year on the Plantation Course at Kapalua during the Sentry Tournament of Champions – “there’s not even a close second at all,” he says. . The flattest, and therefore the easiest, is probably Colonial Country Club which hosts the Charles Schwab Challenge.
And his favorite? That’s easy. Pebble Beach.
“But honestly it's not for the golf course,” Gregory says. “It's for the views around the golf course. Even on a cloudy, rainy day, the views of the Pacific Ocean and the rocks are amazing.”
The TOUR’s stat gurus estimate that Gregory has walked more than 42,000 holes since 2008. How would that compare with a TOUR pro? Well, Charles Howell III – who is making his 600th start this week at the WM Phoenix Open – has played more holes than any of his peers during that same time period and he clocks in at a mere 24,000.
In the beginning, the TOUR’s media staff helped Gregory find players to walk with and interview. Now, though, he has developed so many friends among the pros that he’s practically booked up in advance. Some like Zach Johnson (Masters and John Deere Classic), Rickie Fowler and Rahm are even on board for two weeks each year.
“A lot of guys like to keep the same tournaments and then there'll be other guys that come up to me and say, hey, when it's at my turn?” Gregory says.
When Jason Day didn’t qualify for the U.S. Open last year, Gregory asked Rahm if he could walk with him. That win at Torrey Pines was Gregory’s eighth with a TOUR pro and solidified their relationship in perpetuity.
“I always tell him any week you need me you got me, just let me know because it’s such a beautiful thing, right?” Rahm says. “To be able to help somebody else with somebody you love and on top of all of that, he is a wonderful person. It's incredible.
“I feel honored to have helped him any times but even more importantly to have won a U.S. Open helping him out and donating to his cause. We need more people like him in this world and he is great example.”
Gregory’s foundation was incorporated in December of 2009 and began work the next month. He estimates that 80 percent of the more than $1 million it has raised comes from the weekly player donations like Rahm’s – and he’s grateful to have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of kids.
“I have cerebral palsy and I'm very fortunate that my case is very, very mild,” Gregory says. “ … But there are people that have not just cerebral palsy, but other situations where they need help doing their daily activities, they need help getting dressed, they need help with communications.
“But no matter any of those things you need help with, no matter what, everybody still has a mind and they still have goals and dreams. And so, the whole mission of my foundation is helping kids achieve their goals and dreams one step at a time and that’s really what I wanted to do.
“Did I think that this would be year 13 for my foundation? Absolutely not. But I've been given a unique platform and now I'm just trying to do the best I can with it.”
So how long does Gregory see himself walking every hole on the PGA TOUR? Well, he’s thinking 50 will be a good time to “retire,” which gives him plenty of time to figure out a back-up plan. He’d like to continue to work in the sports industry but for now, he’s content to continue walking for his kids.
“I don't want to stop right now,” he says. “I think the foundation has so much great momentum and I have some of the best friends out here between players and staff and caddies and their families. I love what I do out here, but I also want to go out on my own terms. I don't want to be asked to leave.”
Nantz says he often sees Gregory in the gallery and thinks about how far he has come and how much he has accomplished since the two first met in 1990.
“I'm just so struck by it that I get tears in my eyes, because I know how much he wanted this, how hard it is for him to do it, how driven he is to succeed,” Nantz says. “And we all measure success in a lot of different ways. …
But to me, I look at DJ (and) that success is not about having the biggest home or having whatever it might be, the most money in a bank account. His heart is, it's so big. And it's infectious. His spirit, his personality, it moves us all.