BERNARDS – Scoring a hole-in-one in making a difference, the PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere) program is introducing golf to thousands of veterans with disabilities nationwide with impressive results.
With PGA HOPE, wounded veterans learn and play the game of golf from Professional Golfers Association (PGA) professionals and enhance their physical, mental, social, and emotional well-being with every stroke.
Considered the flagship military program of the New Jersey Golf Foundation (NJGF), the charitable foundation of the New Jersey section of the PGA of America (NJPGA), PGA HOPE aims to help veterans assimilate back into their communities through the social interaction the game of golf provides — at no cost. The program — PGA HOPE — is part of PGA Reach, the charitable arm of PGA of America.
PGA HOPE programs are currently being offered in 62 locations nationwide, impacting more than 2,500 veterans with disabilities. The goal is to have a PGA HOPE program in all 50 states by the end of 2016.
PGA HOPE at MAVERIC
Located on the grounds of the Lyons Campus of the VA New Jersey Health Care System, MAVERIC Driving Range and Learning Center is home to a weekly PGA HOPE program. MAVERIC is one of three social enterprises under the MTI Integrated Business Development umbrella as well as a peer vocational case management program known as Jobs4Vets and a non-profit organization Friends4Vets. Besides MAVERIC, MTI owns Foxhole BBQ and Catering and Veterans Greenhouse. All of the ventures of MTI are devoted to creating employment opportunities for veterans with barriers.
Executive Director of the NJGF Chris Hunt said the PGA HOPE program began in the state in the spring of 2014. What started as two six weeks sessions — spring and fall — at MAVERIC became the first in the country — thanks to successful fundraising — to be offering the program year-round, with a weekly session every Wednesday.
“Golf is used as the outlet to get the veterans away from some of the things their dealing with in their everyday lives," Hunt said. "Away from the hospital care and the therapy the VA is providing. It just gets them outside with one another, camaraderie. And it allows them to work on their physical, social and mental well being."
Well established, Hunt said said the programming in the state is often used as a pilot and even copied by other sections.
“This is one of those programs where we’re sort of taking the lead out in front for what the rest of the country is trying to establish in their own area,” he said.
VA research and clinical experience verify that physical activity is important to maintaining good health, speeding recovery and improving overall quality of life. Participants of PGA HOPE include military veterans living with physical or cognitive challenges such as Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and amputees, among other challenges. While other parts of the country have dealt with amputees, Hunt said this area has dealt "100 percent with PTSD or TBI (traumatic brain injury)" veterans.
It is also believed that programs such as PGA HOPE help reduce the high rate of suicide among the military veteran population. Suicide is a major issue among veterans, with recent statistical studies showing that rates of veteran suicide are much higher than previously thought — 5,000 to 8,000 veteran suicides year or approximately 22 per day. The PGA is committed to helping make a difference — through the game of golf — one veteran at a time, Hunt said.
Relationships between PGA pros and veterans
Hunt said he has witnessed uncomfortable first meetings between pros and veterans blossom into meaningful friendships.
"We’ve seen the interaction between the PGA professionals and veterans start off very stale and nobody really knows what to say," Hunt said. "The relationships that have evolved in the last few years where some of these pros are inviting some of the veterans out to their own golf courses to play and they’re really making life long friends out of this which is really one of the great aspects of golf. It’s more than just golf lessons. It’s becoming an outlet to integrate back into society.”
Involved with PGA HOPE for two years, Walt Baker understands the veterans from both their golf and military stance. One of the golf pros helping the vets, Baker also is a veteran of the Vietnam War, having done two tours.
"I do whatever I can to help the veterans," Baker said. "When we got home from Vietnam — it wasn’t very popular and we weren’t treated very nicely — so anything I can give back I do. I know they appreciate our efforts and I’m happy to do it.”
Since he has been in their boots, Baker has "seen what they have seen," so he understands what they are going through.
“I can see on their faces that they’re very happy to learn something new and most of these guys I think are PTSD guys, so if we can make their life a little more happier and fill their brain with something else other than thinking about their past history I’m happy to do that," Baker said. "As a veteran, I just feel not just obligated, but I’m a very patriotic guy and it’s the least we can do. We can’t do enough for the veterans. And I’m not talking about myself. I’m talking about these poor guys who come back from the wars that we’re in.”
The benefits of golf for veterans
Baker believes the activity helps them cope with any issues they may experience. Those issues generally do not get discussed on the range. Whatever difficulties they may be having, the range is a safe space and Baker said he does not think of the veterans issues. He is there for therapeutic reasons that golf brings.
“I’m only with them in the recreational situation, not the medical situation," Baker said. "We don’t talk to them about anything like that. This is an escape probably from what’s bugging them I imagine. I would say anything we can do — they smile, they’re happy to learn, that’s for sure. None of them had played golf and you see them hit a good shot for the first time and they sort of get it and that’s always been one of the motivations that has kept me as an instructor for 40-plus years. So just to see the progress and the happiness in their faces. And they’re willing to come back. We see the same guys each week, so they’re enjoying it and we enjoy them…They’re very upbeat. There’s no one down and out — at least when they’re with us. They’re very grateful and I’m grateful for them.”
At MAVERIC for 13 years, head teaching professional Bill Spicer said PGA HOPE has been his first experience teaching members of the military. Spicer, a PGA member for 42 years, said that the program started with only a "couple guys," but after two years, they see upwards of 14 on any given Wednesday.
“It’s very rewarding for us as professionals to be able to help these guys," Spicer said. "They are all good guys. And it’s tremendous that they can be outside here and enjoy the fresh air."
A few of the veterans even come for more than a lesson.
A self-taught golfer before he came to MAVERIC, Eugene Lee, 56, of Morris County can attest to the benefits of the program.
"The clinic has been wonderful," said Lee, a combat engineer from 1981 to 1988 who currently resides at the VA. Since coming to Lyons in February, he has been working at the driving range since March.
“Personally it’s given me more insight," Lee said. "I thought I knew I was doing it the right way, but once I was informed by the pros, it was like an eye opener. It’s really improved my game.”
The first annual PGA HOPE Secretaries Cup
Come July 24, five teams made up of four veterans each will participate in the first annual PGA HOPE Secretaries Cup. As a kickoff to the official PGA Championship Week, three teams from New York, one from Pennsylvania and one from the Garden State will come together to play a nine hole scramble at Fiddler’s Elbow Country Club in Bedminster.
“The idea through the PGA of America and PGA Reach is that each year the event will go to the area of where the PGA Championship is and the event will continue to grow," Hunt said. "Other states will bring teams and sooner or later we will have 20 to 30 foursomes competing on an annual basis for this secretaries cup.”
Like many others, Lee is "looking forward" to the upcoming event.
Correspondent Matt Sugam contributed to this report
Staff Writer Cheryl Makin: 732-565-7256; email@example.com