PORT ARTHUR —
Editor’s note: The following column from the Best of West collection was first published in the Port Arthur News on Dec. 3, 1997.
ORLANDO — Spend a few minutes watching William Rockwell roll in 10-foot putts and your jaw drops. Then spend some time talking with Rockwell about his unique technique, about how he happened to be a participant in the Compaq World Putting Championship by Dave Pelz and your eyes begin to mist.
Pelz certainly knows the feeling. The world’s foremost authority on putting, the man whose competition brought Rockwell to Disney World this past weekend, has a difficult time speaking about the 27-year-old Californian without losing control of his emotions.
But then so did just about everybody else he touched in some way.
William Rockwell, you see, has made a mockery of the word handicap. Both in golf and in life. Rockwell, as the result of a devastating motorcycle accident eight years ago, has only one arm and it doesn’t function. It’s mangled, withered and no wider than a twig. So he putts with his right foot.
No, he putts extraordinarily well with his right foot.
Rockwell putts so well, in fact, he beat about half the field in the 300-player competition. He didn’t putt well enough to make the cut, but his inspirational presence completely upstaged the event.
By the time he left, he’d been hugged by virtually every participant. And he’d made an impact like nobody these eyes have ever witnessed at a sporting event anywhere.
“This young man has changed my life forever,” said Pelz, a former NASA scientist who goes about 6-4, 250. “I have never been so humbled as when I first met him on the putting green last Wednesday. Watching him, talking to him, brought me to my knees. I couldn’t stop the tears. I can’t discuss him without getting emotional.”
Pelz, frankly, never had a chance after Rockwell’s first words to him.
“Thank you for putting meaning back in my life,” Rockwell said.
Later, Rockwell would elaborate on the statement for a writer’s behalf.
“All my life I have wanted to do something that really meant something,” he explained. “In my condition, that didn’t seem possible. Then, last December 1, I saw this competition on ESPN. I said to my grandmother, ‘I can do that. I’m going to be the World Putting Champion. Along the way, I’m going to inspire people, especially handicapped people.’
“So it was the challenge of this putting competition that gave me my life back.”
Getting to Orlando did not come easy. Nothing does for someone who has been through the personal hell that began for Rockwell when his speeding motorcycle crashed into a Cadillac. He would die three times — once at the scene, once in a lifeflight helicopter and once on the operating table.
God, though, had a plan that included Dave Pelz and a putter.
“The doctors told me it was like putting Humpty-Dumpty back together,” Rockwell says, with a shake of his head. “They operated from noon to midnight. I have wires in my chest, 12 screws in my shoulder, a rod down my left leg and scars everywhere. I look like a road map.”
One part of Rockwell apparently undamaged was his heart, which seems to be about the size of Texas. After initially saying he wished he had died in the wreck, Rockwell vowed to inch his way up the jagged mountains blocking any sort of life.
It took him six tedious, frustrating years to learn to feed himself, bathe himself and shave himself. Now, with the use of his toes, he’s become a computer whiz. Of late, though, the computer has given way to the putter.
Rockwell, after seeing the ESPN telecast, went to K-Mart and purchased a $26 Ray Cook model. He developed a technique of gripping the putter between the toes on his right foot, bracing the shaft with his upper thigh and balancing on his left foot.
Hundreds of practice hours later he’d become a putting machine, and a celebrity of sorts in San Diego County.
He began participating in the club-level qualifiers that are the first step toward the World Putting Championship. Rockwell went anywhere and everywhere there was a WPC qualifier. In six tries, he finished in the top three each time. Twice he tied for first, then lost in playoffs. But his confidence, his self esteem and his reputation were mushrooming.
So was his ability to inspire.
“I will never forget one day I was practicing at Torrey Pines,” he recalls. “This little boy walked by, watched me for a minute, then turned to his mother and said, ‘Hey, mom, look at the way he’s doing it with his leg.’ You can’t imagine what that meant to me.
“I still get tears in my eyes when I think about that. It was the greatest thing I’d ever heard. I knew then I truly was going to be able to inspire people.”
So he has. Among those inspired at Disney World were a couple of the biggest names in golf — former U.S. Open champ Lee Janzen and former PGA champ Paul Azinger. When Janzen, stunned by what he was seeing, didn’t seem to know what to do or say, Rockwell said, “Hey, man, just give me a hug.” Janzen did.
Azinger, who won a courageous battle against cancer to return to the tour, asked Rockwell to take a photo with him.
“I will never complain about anything again in my life,” sums up Pelz. “Really, anybody who thinks they have problems should be exposed to this young man. He touched everybody here in a way, I would think, that few of them have been touched.
“He is so courageous and so determined. He told me he’s going to keep practicing until he’s good enough to win this event. I think it’s possible. I certainly wouldn’t bet against him.”
Nor would any of the rest of us blessed enough to cross William Rockwell’s path.
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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