A place to heal

The golf course management industry lines up to support a Tacoma, Wash., golf course dedicated to military veterans.

By Stacie Zinn Roberts
Read this story in GCM's digital edition

Aaron Boyle lines up his shot on the first tee of the American Lake Veterans Golf Course, just south of Tacoma, Wash. As he takes position to begin his round, his father, Ed, balances a ball on top of a tee. Boyle swings and the ball arches into the air, landing in the middle of the fairway.

On any other golf course, this simple act would be inconsequential. But not at this golf course, and not for Boyle, who lost an arm and a leg while serving in the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, a specially designed golf cart allows him to balance his body upright, grip it and rip it. It’s all at once heartbreaking yet incredibly inspiring to watch. It’s a miracle, one of many miracles performed here daily at this place where wounded warriors come to play golf, and through the game, to be healed, to be with others who’ve been there and understand, to be made whole again.

“This place was very good to my dad when he needed help. It’s payback time.”
— Theron Kirby

Situated on the grounds of the American Lake VA Hospital, the nine-hole American Lake Veterans Golf Course was built in 1955. Over time, the course has been altered to become 100 percent ADA accessible with flat tee boxes, shallow sand traps and level greens that allow disabled veterans to drive modified golf cars around the course without impediment. The facility also hosts First Swing (golf instruction programs for amputees and disabled players) and blind rehabilitation clinics to help veterans who have lost their sight retain their ability to play golf. American Lake Veterans Golf Course serves not just local veterans, but also those who come to the facility from all over the country for rehabilitation.

The golf course receives no funding from the VA. The course is run, maintained and fully staffed by volunteers. The superintendent, the maintenance crew, all of the facility staff, rangers and operations managers are all volunteers, mostly retired U.S. military or family members of those who served.

Theron Kirby volunteers as the head librarian at the facility’s lending library. “This place was very good to my dad when he needed help,” she says. “It’s payback time.”

'This golf course is a blessing'

Gary Sawaska, a veteran who served overseas from 1971 to 1973 and volunteers at ALVGC, helped build some of the accessible elements into the course structure. His work at the course is both a labor of love and part of his therapy for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. The experience of working alongside other veterans for a common good, Sawaska says, has changed his life.

“My ability to deal with people and be around them is the biggest benefit I receive,” Sawaska says. “Before I came here, I had no one close to me. Now I know 500 people and have 50 friends. This golf course is a blessing.”

Bruce McKenty, golf course manager, served 21 years in the Army and retired as a lieutenant colonel. Roger K. Gatts, assistant manager, retired as a master sergeant from the Army after more than 18 years. Bill Dick, operations manager, served 28 years in the Air Force medical service corps. They could spend their days playing golf as retirees. Instead, each of one of these dedicated men devotes 40-50 hours at the course each week, not playing, but running the place with the help of 250 volunteers.

How does a group of volunteers run a golf course operation?

“We managed people all of our lives as army officers,” McKenty says.

Gatts adds, “We’re officers and NCOs. We figure it out.”

The power of volunteers

And it is quite an operation. Last year, some 37,000 golfers, all veterans, signed in to play the course. For a sign-in fee of $12, golfers may play as long as they like. There’s no limit to nine, 12 or even 36 holes played in a day over the nine-hole course.

To keep the course in playing condition, the superintendent, Jeff Clark, also a volunteer and retired military, works 30 hours a week. Thirty-five volunteers perform maintenance duties at the course. Five foremen oversee one of five crews. Each crew is made up of three to seven volunteers who work one day each week, Monday through Friday.

Golf legend Jack Nicklaus has given more than playing tips to the players and patrons at American Lake Veterans GC, south of Tacoma, Wash. He has also donated his design talents in the creation of the course’s new nine holes.
Photos courtesy of ALVGC

Clark, who began volunteering on the grounds crew and was elevated to superintendent, had no previous experience in the position. He says he relies heavily on the maintenance schedule written by the previous volunteer superintendent, Jim Jackson. He also gleans tips from the GCSAA website and counts on the help and guidance of local superintendents and industry members. Clark works on Mondays as a starter at Riverbend Golf Complex, a municipal course about an hour away in Kent, Wash. He says he often asks questions of Pete Petersen, a 19-year GCSAA member who is the course’s Class A superintendent. He says he also depends on the guidance of John Ford, CGCS, a 35-year GCSAA member who is the superintendent at Eagles Pride Golf Course, which is located nearby on adjacent property at the Fort Lewis military base.

A marker at American Lake Veterans GC honors the military service of the wounded warriors who play the course.

Clark says much of the equipment, fertilizers, chemicals and supplies needed to maintain the course are donated by the industry.

Mike Cavanaugh, co-owner of Floratine, a manufacturer of foliars and biostimulants, first heard about ALVGC from one of his distributors, the late Bill Myers. Cavanaugh and his brother, Kevin, grew up on military bases and are both retired military, so the story of the facility quickly struck a chord. “I just felt like my brother and I immediately had an affinity for it,” Cavanaugh says.

With the help of Richard “Stretch” Strautman, the Floratine distributor in the Northwest, and his sales consultant, Mike White, Floratine put together a greens program for ALVGC and donated $9,500 in products to take the course through the season.

Since he began the Floratine program, Clark says “the yellow on the greens disappeared.” He’s not the only one who has noticed the difference. “The greens never looked so good,” Roger Gatts says.

Cavanaugh says, “It feels great, especially when Jeff calls me out of the blue and thanks me. It’s kind of embarrassing. It feels good to be able to help.”

A little help from their friends

Cooperation from the community and the industry is a necessity to run this kind of a volunteer operation. McKenty says the course’s operational budget is raised through three revenue streams — sign-in fees, cart rentals and range balls. Last year, according to McKenty, the total revenues raised at ALVGC were $170,000.

Nicklaus (front row, yellow sweater) poses with a group of volunteers and golfers at American Lake Veterans GC. The new nine holes he designed for the course has been dubbed the “Nicklaus Nine.”

It’s not inexpensive to maintain the course, not to mention keep the lights on at the new Rehabilitation & Learning Center with a training facility and meeting rooms for the players and volunteers. To make ends meet, the facility relies on donations of cash and in-kind materials.

“What touches me is how golf, the same game that has brought my life so much happiness, can be a part of our wounded veterans’ regaining some of their lives and happiness.”
— Jack Nicklaus

In order to accept charitable donations, ALVGC is supported by a non-profit organization called the Friends of American Lake Veterans Golf Course.

Jim Sims, a retired Marine colonel, serves as president of the Friends. Sims has drawn on all of the training he gained in the military to muster one of the most ambitious projects attempted yet at the course — adding a new nine holes. To double the size of the golf course, and accommodate another 50,000 golfers per year, the Friends have reached out to some of the biggest names in the golf industry.

Jack Nicklaus was approached by his friend and former Ryder Cup teammate, Ken Still, a director on the Friends board, to become involved in the project. Nicklaus immediately signed on to contribute the design services for the new nine, dubbed the Nicklaus Nine.

“Golf has been such an amazing part of my life, and the game has given me and my family more than I could ever give back to it. What touches me is how golf, the same game that has brought my life so much happiness, can be a part of our wounded veterans’ regaining some of their lives and happiness. I was moved to see the amazing efforts at American Lake Veterans Golf Course where our wounded warriors learn to play golf with an incredible army of volunteers,” Nicklaus said in a provided statement.

Xylem, which is staffed by many retired military, provided a Flowtronex pump station to ALVGC, which relies on donations from the golf course industry to provide excellent playing conditions for the disabled golfers.

Jon Scott, the vice president of agronomy services for Nicklaus Design, says the first time he visited the ALVGC site following a fundraiser at Big Horn in Palm Springs, he “fell in love with the place.”

“It’s kind of overwhelming when you get there, how dedicated these people are to helping the veterans,” Scott says. “It brings tears to your eyes.”

Scott has seen the course twice since that initial visit three years ago. He’s done the typical soil testing, water testing, grass selection and other design-related tasks that he does on other courses. Each time, Scott tells more people about the facility, recruiting friends and colleagues in the industry to get involved and donate to the cause.

When asked the dollar value of the services donated by Nicklaus Design to ALVGC, Scott says, “We’re not counting.”

Scott’s also consulted with the former superintendent, Jackson, and Clark to improve the maintenance program at the existing course.

“This is their home. Nobody looks at them because they’re different. If they play slow, nobody is going to tell them to speed up.”
— Jim Sims

“It’s beyond the scope of what I‘m supposed to do, but it’s what I want to do,” Scott says.

The birth of a new nine

In the military, Jackson served in the Army Corps of Engineers, building airbases. In his civilian career, he was the director of operations for the Port of Olympia (Wash.) and volunteered for four years as a greens committee chair for another golf course. This combination of experience serves Jackson well as he now oversees the on-site project coordination for the new Nicklaus Nine as the special project manager for the Friends. Jackson has worked diligently to get the first, and perhaps most critical, piece of the new nine in place — the irrigation system.

In the first week of October, the infrastructure for the new irrigation system and pump station was tied in to the new irrigation pond. Electricity was hooked up and ready to go. Flowtronex, Xylem’s brand of packaged pumping systems for turf irrigation, donated the pump station, which was built by employees in Dallas, many of whom are veterans. The system was displayed at the 2012 Golf Industry Show in Las Vegas prior to being shipped to ALVGC.

“I feel a great sense of pride that our company is willing to provide such a vital piece of equipment for such a worthwhile cause,” says Boyd D. Rose, key accounts manager for Flowtronex.

Jackson says he has two goals: “I want to complete the irrigation system and I want to see the completion of the back nine, the Nicklaus Nine. I’ll be 79 in January, so I want to get as much of this finished before I have to retire.”

Sims says the Friends hope to begin construction on the Nicklaus Nine in March 2013. Landscapes Unlimited will be the general contractor (donating their services at cost), in coordination with Nicklaus Design.

The total cost of construction is $4.5 million. Sims says the Friends need about $1 million to break ground this spring, $2 million total to complete the project. “We’re optimistic that we are going to make our fundraising goals,” Sims says.

Rehabilitation through golf

Sims says he believes the golf industry has gotten behind the project for many reasons. “Certainly the Nicklaus name helps,” Sims says.

But it’s more than that.

“I think they’ve embraced the idea of these young men and women who have given so much to the country,” he continues. “This is their home. Nobody looks at them because they’re different. If they play slow, nobody is going to tell them to speed up. Guys are out there with service dogs playing golf. It’s pretty darn impressive, and there aren’t many places where that can happen. Para-golfers can drive in and out of all the traps. They can drive up on all of the greens. Somebody who can’t walk can go out and play on this golf course. It shows the recognition of the rehabilitative qualities of golf.”

Stacie Zinn Roberts is the president of What’s Your Avacado?, a writing and marketing firm based in Mount Vernon, Wash.