After three years of fundraising, golf legend Jack Nicklaus’ company is designing nine more golf holes to complete the only golf course in the country fully accessible to disabled veterans.
These veterans, many with prostheses and many in wheelchairs, love teeing up on the course just south of Tacoma, Washington. The project, which started off as a simple favor to a friend, has become a passion for Nicklaus. Ken Still, a former PGA Tour player and member of the board of directors of the Friends of American Lake Veterans Golf Course, called Nicklaus in 2009, and asked his help designing a golf course.
Says Nicklaus, “I really didn’t know what I was getting into at the time, but when I came out here and met the people, I knew I made the right decision. I didn’t have the privilege to serve my country when I was younger, and to be a part of this is special.”
The golf course was already a passion for Still, who has seen how the sport has aided veterans with injury-related disabilities. At the course, all of the greens and bunkers are available and accessible to veterans with disabilities, and special carts are available to aid those who have difficulty walking, or who cannot walk at all.
With only nine holes available and a lot of demand for play time, the course was having a lot of trouble meeting its patrons’ needs, but with Nicklaus’ company stepping in to design the remaining nine holes for free, there are high hopes that will change soon.
Over the past three years, Nicklaus’ foundation has raised $2.5 million, but still needs another $2.5 million to obtain equipment and make minor adjustments on the first nine holes. Still, the money raised has been enough to lead to a groundbreaking ceremony to begin the work needed.
According to Nicklaus, many veterans who play at the course have stories about how the place saved their lives through rebuilding their confidence or just finding a place to get support from others in similar situations.
24-year-old Army Sgt. Aaron Boyle, who lost his left leg and right arm to a land mine in Afghanistan, remembers playing at the course often in his youth alongside his grandfather, but after his injury he wasn’t sure he would ever be able to bring himself to play again. However, after his father took him out to play, he says, “All these great memories came back.” Now, he tries to play at least three to four rounds per week.
Boyle says that he considers himself lucky to be left-handed, but acknowledges that it’s been difficult learning a one-handed golf swing. Boyle joined another veteran, Vietnam War vet Jim Martinson, in hitting ceremonial shots from specially designed carts to allow veterans with disabilities to participate in the game.
Among those sinking the ceremonial first shovel was a 2011 Medal of Honor veteran of the Afghanistan conflict named Leroy Petry. Petry lost a hand to a 2008 grenade explosion but still plays the course as often as he possibly can. His son Austin is the youngest volunteer at the course, which is staffed entirely by more than 150 other volunteers ranging from college freshmen to one volunteer who is 94 years old.
Of Nicklaus, Petry said, “Mr. Nicklaus said he didn’t serve his country, but this serves so many. What he is doing will serve generations.”
We think this is Jack’s very special way of thanking our disabled veterans for their service.