Program uses golf to support Veterans
Many veterans find they miss the camaraderie of military life when they leave the service. Some also have physical or psychological challenges to overcome. A study by the Rand Corporation found nearly 20% of Iraq or Afghanistan veterans struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and other research has found even higher rates among Vietnam veterans.
There is no single answer to dealing with the obstacles many veterans face, but for some Kentucky veterans, one innovative program provides comfort and connection in an unlikely place: The golf course.
Louisville is home to Kentucky’s chapter of PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere), a program of PGA REACH, the charitable foundation funded by the Professional Golfers Association of America. In Kentucky, PGA HOPE is administered by Golf House Kentucky.
“The PGA of America established PGA HOPE to introduce golf to veterans with disabilities to enhance their physical, mental, social and emotional well-being,” says Jeff Adkerson, CEO/executive director for Golf House Kentucky, which also manages the Kentucky PGA, Kentucky Golf Association and the Kentucky Golf Foundation.
“We felt this to be such a great cause, and it perfectly aligned with our mission as an organization, that we brought the program to Kentucky.”
PGA HOPE has been operating in Kentucky for about four years, he says. Golf House Kentucky’s website calls the program “a therapeutic rehabilitation tool for all military Veterans.” Participants in the free, six-to-eight week program receive lessons from a PGA-certifified golf pro and access to clubs and courses.
PGA HOPE has primarily been offered in the Louisville market, but Adkerson says there are plans to expand to northern Kentucky this year, and the organization “will look to expand to other markets across the commonwealth in the years to come.”
Fellowship and support
Years after his service, Gregory Mack of Louisville, a combat veteran and retired Marine, was recovering from torn quadriceps when he joined PGA HOPE, in part to jump-start his recovery.
“It was a sight to see, this Marine with two full-length braces on both legs walking uphill to the clubhouse with a golf bag on his back,” he says. Mack’s tenacity is helpful on the course, where he describes himself as an “unskilled novice at best.”
The best part of golfing is playing with his fellow veterans, Mack says, explaining, “Military members share a common character; no matter the background, color or religion, we have this bond.”
Ted Palmer agrees that golfing with other veterans through PGA HOPE isn’t exactly like the service, “but the camaraderie is almost the same. We work with one another and it feels so good helping others with some of the same things you went through.”
Palmer has developed low vision in the last few years. “I can see the golf ball,” he says, “but I can’t track it or see where it goes.” He’s able to play golf because as part of PGA HOPE, either a pro or another veteran rides with him to find the golf balls throughout the course. Palmer also appreciates getting free golf lessons. “It changed me from a person who could hit a golf ball to a person who could be good at it. The PGA professionals are so good,” he says.
COVID-19 has, of course, interrupted those conversations between holes. In the early stages of the pandemic, the program scheduled weekly virtual meetings so participants could keep their connection strong by talking about their lives and their golf games. Once they returned to the course, the program reduced the number of participants in each program and took additional steps to accommodate social distancing guidelines.
Unlike some PGA HOPE participants, Vietnam veteran Jim Rollins of Louisville didn’t need any introductory lessons to the game. He’s been playing since he was 9, is a former PGA member and taught golf in high school for 35 years. “Sometimes I enjoy watching others more than playing,” he says. It’s a great outlet and can be good therapy.” Plus, he says, “You can do it all through life. I look forward to playing forever.”
Class A PGA professional Bruce Nall has been a golf instructor with PGA HOPE since 2018. He says he’s found working with veterans extremely rewarding. “They have been gracious to include me in their conversations many times with dialogue about family, or whether it’s an issue about something they are coping with or celebrating the birth of a new grandchild,” he says. “Much more than golf is discussed during the HOPE program sessions.”
A conversation Adkerson had with the spouse of one of the golfing veterans was especially meaningful to him. He says she “shared that golf has given her husband a reason to live and that they now have their husband/father back in their lives.
“I have always appreciated the sacrifice our military heroes and their families make for us to have the freedoms we have in our country. It was not until that moment that I realized the true sacrifice these heroes have made. Anything we, as PGA professionals, can do to show our appreciation for these sacrifices, we are honored to do so.”
The Kentucky PGA HOPE program is free to all veterans, with the Kentucky Golf Foundation and Kentucky PGA covering all costs associated with the program. To help support the efforts of the Kentucky PGA HOPE, please contact Jeff Adkerson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For questions about participating in PGA HOPE, contact Richard Praszkier at Golf House Kentucky, (502) 243-8295 or visit www.kygolf.org.