Long road to triumph for Walker's caddie
August 01, 2016
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
- Andy Sanders was an All-American at Houston and pro golfer until he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. (Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
SPRINGFIELD, N.J. -- Andy Sanders used to dream about winning major championships. Only he expected to be the one hitting the shots, not toting the bag like he did for Jimmy Walker on Sunday at the PGA Championship.
Golf doesn’t always turn out the way we plan, though. Sometimes life gets in the way.
Sanders was a two-time All-American at Houston when Walker was playing at Baylor. The two met and played a practice round during the 2000 U.S. Amateur at Baltusrol where, in an intriguing twist of fate on a marathon Sunday, the two men would team to give Walker his first major championship.
“I was like, wow, that’s Andy Sanders,” Walker recalled of the happenstance meeting on the 10th tee of the Upper Course. “And he tells me, wow, that’s Jimmy Walker. He hits it really far.”
A friendship began that day, born of a shared love of the game and their deep Texas roots. They both turned pro in 2001. They competed against each other on the Nationwide Tour for the next three years.
Walker and his wife even introduced Sanders to his future bride, flying Erin’s best friend in to meet him in San Antonio on the ultimate blind date.Andy Sanders and Jimmy Walker competed against each other on the Nationwide Tour until Sanders was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Then Sanders was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2004.
He woke up one morning before a tournament in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and couldn’t see out of his right eye. Sanders wore contacts, though, and thought he might just be having a reaction to the cleaning solution.
The optometrist Sanders visited didn’t raise any red flags, either, so he went ahead and played, missing the cut by a couple of strokes. But he knew something was wrong, very wrong, so Sanders headed to a local ophthalmologist.
Within 15 minutes the doctor delivered the bad news. “You need an MRI,” he said. “But I think you have MS.”
Sanders didn’t know how to react.
“I was like, oh, all right, I didn’t think I was going to hear that today,” he recalled wryly.
Doctors in Dallas confirmed the diagnosis. Steroids quickly fixed the vision problem while Sanders, basically in denial, continued to compete.
But the medicine he took to control the MS gave him vertigo, which is problematic for someone playing golf at the highest level. It made him feel like he had the flu, too, and basically “controlled everything that I did,” Sanders said.
Not to mention, the drug was administered by intramuscular injection and the needle used was several inches long. Sanders tried to give himself the shot once and passed out.
So Sanders, who only cashed seven checks in 2004 and ’05 for a little less than $15,000, made the difficult decision to quit playing. But he wanted to stay around the game so he took up caddying instead.
“I tried to play through it for a couple of years … and it was pretty pointless,” Sanders said. “I put that to bed a long time ago.”
Had the medicine he takes now been available, though, Sanders might still be able to complete. Once a month, he goes to a clinic, sits in a chair for an hour and waits for an IV drip to finish distributing the drug.
“I’m not a chemo patient, but (it’s) like a chemo patient,” Sanders said. “… I stay there to get observed for another hour and then when I leave I walk out and no side effects. …
“I can live my life on a daily basis and not have to think about caddying 36 (like he did on Sunday at Baltusrol). I can go caddie 36. I’m as healthy as anybody when it comes to that.”Some believe Andy Sanders got MS because of a car crash he suffered in 2003. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
No one knows exactly why Sanders got MS. But his doctor thinks it could be related to the head-on car crash Sanders was involved in the previous year, on January 10, 2003, to be exact, in Hillsboro, Texas.
Sanders, who was traveling 65 mph, remembers seeing the other car coming toward him -- but nothing else until he woke up in the helicopter airlifting him to the hospital.
‘The other driver had a seizure or something,” Sanders said. “He came across the median and drilled me.”
Miraculously, Sanders didn’t have any broken bones. He did leave the hospital with eight or nine staples in his head, which led Sanders’ doctor later to relate the accident to the MS diagnosis.
“He says he doesn’t have anything medically because you don’t have anything before the car crash to see what was going in your brain,” Sanders explained. “But afterwards, he says I’ve seen (MS) a lot in my patients that had serious head trauma.”
Several years later, Sanders was caddying for Jason Schultz at the National Mining Association Pete Dye Classic in West Virginia. Walker was playing well tee-to-green but he was having trouble once he got there. Knowing Sanders was a good putter, he asked his friend for help.
Sanders stops shy of taking any credit but Walker went on to win the tournament. At the Web.com Tour Championship later that year, his PGA TOUR card back in hand, Walker asked Sanders to come work for him.
“I’ve always known he was a great player and I think he’s always had respect for me as a golfer and my mind when it comes to playing golf,” Sanders said. “So I think it was a pretty natural fit.”
The PGA Championship marked the sixth time Walker had won with Sanders on his bag. That the two first met at Baltusrol was not lost on either man last week.
“I know it's special for both of us,” Walker said. “It's pretty emotional.
“He did a great job. Crowd control was awesome. He read putts great. Didn't let me hit a shot until I was ready. Made sure everything was good. I think we did a great job this week communicating and talking shots. We were just in sync.”
Sanders felt the chills – “one hundred percent” – as the two men walked down the massive par-5 18th needing a par to beat the No. 1 player in the world, Jason Day. He sensed the energy of the crowd and knew the magnitude of the moment.
Granted, it’s not the same joy as if Sanders had been the one who got up and down from beside the green for the par that won the Wanamaker Trophy.
“There’s no way it can be,” Sanders said in all candor. “But it’s great in its own way, there’s no doubt about it. When I’m up here and he’s got 30 feet, two-putt to win a major, the juices are flowing.
“So that’s the drug, that’s the thing that you want when you’re around this sport, that’s what you want, whether you’re a player or a caddie. Any caddie that tells you that he’s not fired up in a situation like that, I think he’s crazy.
“He’s not alive because if your heart’s not beating in a situation like that then you should probably find something else to do.”