Tom Depue stands 3 feet off the practice green and chips the ball, which rolls about 20 feet and drops into the target cup at Bend’s Lost Tracks Golf Club.
Then he moves on to putting, sinking three 10-footers in a row with ease.
On the driving range, he hits his 8-iron straight and true, about 150 yards.
At first glance, Depue is just another dedicated golfer in Central Oregon who cleans up in men’s club tournaments.
But a closer look reveals that he is playing the game he loves — and playing it better than most — on just one leg.
Depue, a 71-year-old Air Force veteran who has lived in Bend for six years, lost his right leg last September to soft tissue sarcoma, a rare type of cancer that begins in the tissues that connect and support other body structures.
“It just circled my leg, all the way around my calf and all the blood vessels and all the nerves,” Depue says.
His leg was amputated at about mid-thigh by an orthopedic oncologist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Portland, and he now wears a prosthesis that locks and unlocks in the knee area. The prosthesis, which he received in December, stays locked when he swings a golf club. If it unlocks, he will fall, so he parks a golf cart close by on each swing. If he loses his balance, he can grab onto the cart. On the putting greens, he uses his putter as a makeshift cane for balance.
“Doctors told me it would be a year before I even started thinking about things like golf,” Depue recalls. “I said, ‘No it won’t.’ ”
Depue, who did not take up golf until he was 45, says he was about a 7 to 9 handicap before he lost his leg, often shooting in the low 70s. These days, he routinely shoots in the mid- to high 80s. Last month, he shot a 78 in a men’s club tournament at Lost Tracks. Of the 49 players in the event, only two finished with lower scores than Depue.
“He has come really far,” says Depue’s wife, Barbara. “It’s hard to believe he had the surgery in September. But I think golf is the thing that’s really motivating him. Tom’s mission is golfing. He’s going to go and keep doing the thing he loves and just keep improving every day. What’s really kind of a hoot is the people he beats who have two legs. It’s a little awkward.”
But the guys in the men’s club at Lost Tracks love it — and they love Tom, who amazes them every time he plays.
Depue was home for just one day after the amputation before he called his friend and men’s club president Wayne Johnson.
“He said, ‘You playing tomorrow? Come pick me up, I’m gonna ride around with you guys,’ ” Johnson recalls. “That was THREE DAYS after he lost his leg. He was sitting in the cart and chipping balls up onto the green while we played. He should be a model for anybody that loses a leg. I’ve never seen him with a frown. Just 100 percent, I’m gonna beat this.
“I got two good legs and I can’t shoot 78!”
Depue was raised in the Bay Area and came to Oregon when he received a basketball scholarship at Linfield College in McMinnville. After graduating from college he joined the Air Force, with which, he says, he remained from 1970 to 1980 as an instructor pilot and a pilot of the KC-135 refueling aircraft.
After his time in the military he moved into a career as a personnel manager, and was the director of business and management programs at Chemeketa Community College in Salem. He retired at age 55 and it was not long before he and Barbara — who between them have four grown children and three grandchildren — moved to Bend for the golf and other outdoor opportunities.
Depue says he never flew a plane in combat in the Vietnam War, but he spent lots of time on the Western Pacific island of Guam, where, he says, highly toxic Agent Orange was stored by the U.S. for use as a tactical herbicide during the war. Soft-tissue sarcoma is on the long list of veterans’ diseases associated with Agent Orange, and Depue says his doctors suspect that is how he developed the cancer.
In late 2017, Depue was painting a wall in his house in Bend. He says he came down off the ladder awkwardly and bent his right leg back, resulting in lingering pain.
He let it go for nine months and finally decided to go see his doctor in midsummer of last year.
“They did an ultrasound,” Depue says. “The lady looked at it for about 30 seconds and said, ‘I’m gonna call your doctor.’”
Depue went to the VA hospital in Portland for a biopsy. He says his doctors there knew it was cancer but they were unsure what kind until shortly before the amputation. The Depues learned about the doctors’ recommendation to amputate during a sobering phone call about two months before the surgery.
“It (keeping the leg) would have disabled my foot so much they would have had to take muscle from someplace else and try to build a calf muscle,” Depue explains. “And they were concerned about the cancer spreading. At a certain point … I knew they would have to amputate.”
Barbara says that Tom was more prepared for that phone call than she was.
“I was stunned,” she remembers. “It was scary, you know? And it still is a little because of the type of cancer it is and where it can go next. But you just have to take one day at a time and follow what doctors tell us to do.”
After the amputation, doctors told Depue that he was cancer-free. He returns to Portland every three months for a chest X-ray, as the chest is a typical area for soft-tissue sarcoma to spread, according to Depue. His latest scans, taken just this week, showed no sign of cancer, he says.
“It’s kind of like I’m writing a new chapter in my life,” Depue explains. “There have been so many times I could have been killed flying. So I’m OK with this. Everybody says, ‘I can’t believe your attitude.’ But the biggest thing is to set goals. I set a number of them, and one of them was to be as good a golfer as I was before this whole thing happened. That one I wasn’t so sure I’d ever accomplish.”
He admits he is not quite there yet, and he might never be. He is unable to walk into a sand trap, so when he hits into one, his playing partners will retrieve his ball for him and allow him to take a drop. (Depue says he adds a penalty stroke on such occasions.) They allow him to drive his cart up onto each tee box because those hills are often too steep for him to walk.
What were once simple tasks, like walking his dogs, are now complicated. Depue recalls that, in the days following the surgery, it took him an hour just to make his bed.
But ever since that day that all he could do was chip from the cart, he has continued to work. He even made the annual Las Vegas golf outing with his men’s club buddies this past February, playing golf all five days of the trip. By April he was golfing three days a week at Lost Tracks.
“When I started going out and chipping, I would go out and work on certain things,” Depue says. “One of them was to build up my strength. That’s taken quite a while. When I first started playing again I’d go out and play nine holes, and I’d be so darn tired I could hardly drive home. (He operates both his car and a golf cart using his left foot on the pedals.) I started logging games toward the end of April.”
Depue says that before the amputation he could drive the ball about 270 yards. He can no longer drive as far because his prosthesis remains locked (straight) throughout his swing. In a typical golf swing, both knees are somewhat bent in order to create loft and distance.
“If I try to twist the leg it will unlock and I will fall,” Depue says. “And I’ve fallen a few times. It’s not so bad on the grass. But out in the street it’s kind of a problem.”
He adds that about 90 percent of the time he can steady himself after a swing without grabbing a hold of the cart.
Depue could soon get a new prosthesis, he says, complete with two computers, a pneumatic system and a gyroscope. The new prosthesis would essentially allow him to twist his leg, and possibly allow for greater distance on his golf swing.
He says he hopes his positive attitude and his quick recovery and adjustment following the loss of his leg can help inspire others, namely veterans who might be enduring something similar.
“At the VA in Portland, some of these guys have it a hell of a lot worse than I do,” he says. “I’ve had a wonderful life. I said if I could ever help anybody, that (disabled veterans) would be the group. I’ve met a lot of them.”
Depue admits that some days he can barely get out of bed. And climbing in and out of the cart close to 100 times during an 18-hole round can be “unbelievably tiresome.”
“But every time I go out I get stronger and I get a little more confidence, and I’m a little better golfer,” he says. “That’s what keeps me going.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0318,