Savannah golfer overcomes rare skin disease to receive Hogan award

In 2008, Gene Sauers’ doctors didn’t know what he had, but it wasn’t good. His skin started turning black and was burning from the inside out.

“Everything was dying,” Sauers said. “It was everywhere; something every day. It started with a black spot on my right arm.

“I couldn’t even get off the couch,” said Sauers, who was sick through 2008 and 2009. “People would have to come over and pull me up and get me started.”

He was first diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, then a plastic surgeon in his native Savannah, Ga., found his problem. He had Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare skin condition that destroys blood vessels.

Sauers, who won the U.S. Senior Open last year, received the Ben Hogan Award from the Golf Writers Association of America on Wednesday night during the group’s annual awards banquet.

The award goes to someone who continues to be active in golf despite a physical handicap or serious illness.

“It’s awesome to win something like this after going through what I went through,” said Sauers, 54. ” It’s pretty amazing I’m here today.”

He cherishes every round he plays now, good or bad. Last week at the Champions Tour’s Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic, it was good. He ended up losing in a playoff to Miguel Angel Jimenez.

“I’ll always appreciate it,” Sauers said of being able to play pro golf again. “I don’t take anything for granted like I did when I was on the PGA Tour. If I have a bad week, I say, ‘Look where I was six years ago.’ I’ll never forget where I was.”

Once he was properly diagnosed, Sauers spent seven weeks in a Savannah hospital, the first one in ICU.

“After the second week, my wife walked in the door and I said, ‘I’m not going to make it.’ She’s a positive person and got me through it.”

After he recovered, Sauers was told there had been only a 25 percent survival rate for him.

Before his illness, Sauers had given up on golf in 2005 because of a bulging disc in his neck and because he just “got fed up with it.” He played on the PGA Tour for 16 full seasons with three wins. He played the Masters Tournament in 1987, 1989 and 1993 making the cut twice.

“I was just a kid back then,” he said of the Masters. “I just wanted to play golf. I wish I knew what I know now. I didn’t know too much of the history of the tournament.”

Once he became eligible for the Champions Tour when he turned 50 in late 2012, he decided to give golf another shot. He played the final five events. In his first round back, in high humidity in Seattle, he birdied the final three holes for 71. He had two more 71s and finished in a tie for 21st.

“I thought maybe I can do this, I should give pro golf another shot, and here I am today,” he said.

Hogan, a winner of 64 PGA Tour events, including nine majors, died in 1997. During the mid-1980s, Sauers played Hogan brand irons. Sauers was among a group of about 12 pros who played Hogan clubs that were invited to a dinner with him at his home club, Shady Oaks Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas.

“He introduced himself to me,” Sauers said. “He said, ‘Hello, I’m Benny Hogan,’ and said he was happy I was keeping his name going. Now I get to look at the award with his name on it every day.”