The real Team USA: West Point’s golf team from ‘Class of 9/11’ answers nation’s call

Mark Erwin

The real Team USA: West Point’s golf team from ‘Class of 9/11’ answers nation’s call

College

The real Team USA: West Point’s golf team from ‘Class of 9/11’ answers nation’s call

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Sept. 20, 2008, issue of Golfweek.

Pete Phipps was in the pool when the first plane hit. The West Point freshman, weighed down by heavy gear, was coming out of the water during a survival-swimming class Sept. 11, 2001, when someone ran in to deliver the news that would change a nation.

Phipps had been at the U.S. Military Academy all of two months when the World Trade Center towers fell.

“When those planes hit the Pentagon, you knew damn well (we were going to war). Now just happens to be my time,” Army Capt. Phipps said by phone from Fort Riley, Kan., shortly before deploying to Afghanistan last month.

Recruited by West Point to play golf, Phipps didn’t know a private from a general. His military knowledge was limited to the celluloid wars of “Saving Private Ryan” and “Born on the Fourth of July.” Phipps’ friends in Hudson, Ohio, were taking the typical college route. He wanted to take a risk.

During spring break 2003, Phipps and his teammates were practicing at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club in Orlando, Fla., alongside Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia, when they saw TV news reports of the Iraq invasion. Phipps knew “that was our calling.”

Time magazine dubbed Phipps and his friends the “Class of 9/11.” Remarkably, 911 cadets graduated from West Point in May 2005. Among those graduates were five members of the Army golf team and one dedicated team manager. All have served overseas, five in combat zones. Capt. Bryon Vincent, an engineering major from Texas who spent one year in Iraq, will be medically discharged from the Army later this month. Vincent was twice knocked unconscious by roadside bombs that exploded under his vehicle. He received the Purple Heart for his injuries and the Bronze Star for “meritorious leadership in combat’’ during his tour. Vincent is interviewing for a civilian job.

“I think Geraldo (Rivera) was the only one who had been to our area,” said Vincent, who returned to U.S. soil in December 2006, “and he said it was the worst place he’d ever seen.”

Most of the players who enrolled at West Point in 2001 chose Army for the chance to play Division I golf. They stayed for the chance to serve their country.

“My view of them changed so much,” coach Jimmy Ray Clevenger said of his wartime athletes. “These guys are very special because they know what’s ahead of them, but they still go out and do the job at a high level.”

The Class of 2005 won three Patriot League championships while at West Point, and, more importantly, broke a six-year losing streak against Navy in 2004. Feelings of patriotic fervor bubble up in the golf community when the Ryder Cup rolls around, but it’s nothing compared with the annual Army-Navy match.

“It’s the pinnacle here,” Clevenger said.

Army’s connection to the Ryder Cup began in 1995, when Clevenger’s team served as color guard. Peter Jacobsen approached Clevenger after the opening ceremonies and asked to meet his team. After an encouraging exchange with golf’s future soldiers, Jacobsen paused and said: “Would you like to meet my team?”

As Clevenger and his players entered the room, the U.S. Ryder Cup team stood and applauded.

“We actually looked behind us to see who they were clapping for,” Clevenger said with a laugh. “We spent an hour with them. It was just us and the Ryder Cup team.”

The 2005 graduates won’t be able to attend this week’s Ryder Cup in Louisville, Ky. They’re scattered around the world on tours of duty, left to imagine the game that had united them at West Point.

Capt. Mark Erwin could tell his buddies how he hit golf balls at night into the Tigris River during the PGA Championship last year while an Iraqi civilian looked on.

“I was just sitting there by myself, thinking ‘Tiger Woods right now is addressing the ball at the same exact moment,’ ” said Erwin, who served a 15-month tour in Iraq. “I can’t imagine how polar opposite our circumstances were. It was a pretty surreal moment.”

Vincent found a discarded iron at his Baghdad base. He’d use it to hit rocks in the dust when he wasn’t sketching golf holes back in his tent.

Phipps took his clubs to Japan, where he was stationed for 22 months.

“It’s a noncombat deal,” he said. “I was able to have some weekends off and hit the ball around.”

Of all the golfers from the class of ’05, none showed more promise than Scott Manley, who won the conference championship as a freshman in a three-way playoff against teammate Kevin Lee and Navy’s Billy Hurley. But while Manley proved the ultimate competitor at West Point, he never considered turning professional. Manley’s father played golf at West Point and later taught there. Scott’s first round of golf was at the academy’s course.

“I sort of mirrored his path,” Manley, a captain, said of his father. “I think we both did relatively well as players at West Point. But (there was) no real thought of either of us playing professionally.”

Recruits know coming in that golf is secondary at West Point. The academic schedule is rigorous, and, as Vincent said, “every ounce of your time is allocated.” The summers are reserved for training camps and real-time internships. It’s a chance to put classroom theories into practice. There’s no time for amateur golf tournaments and swing lessons. As a result, Clevenger welcomes back golfhungry players to New York each fall.

The Class of 9/11 remains a tight-knit crew. Everyone who signs up at West Point has the chance to leave after two years, no strings attached. Clevenger’s recruits stayed.

“That class was a really strong class,” he said. “It’s been hard to replace them.”

Erwin and Vincent got together earlier in the summer to send off Dan Marques, the team manager who now serves in Afghanistan. Shane Mercer, an air-defense artillery officer, is in South Korea.

For four years at West Point, they heard talk of war. Erwin chose a combat branch (armor) and after graduation went to Fort Hood, Texas, because he knew the 1st Cavalry Division soon would deploy to Iraq. Like the rest of his teammates in combat, Erwin led a platoon of soldiers. Every day he was in harm’s way. Every night he lost sleep thinking about his responsibilities – the lives of men and women.

Erwin recalled the day his platoon came across 27 civilian bodies on the side of the road. It’s a gruesome memory that’s juxtaposed by the smiling faces of small children waving and giving thanks.

“They deserve a better life,” Erwin said. “Just seeing those kids, those are the images that will hopefully stick in my mind longer than the bodies and the bad situations.”

Vincent suffered his first serious injury in June 2006. The first five patrols that had gone out that day were hit by an improvised explosive device, or IED.

“We knew going out that it was a bad day,” Vincent said.

Riding in a new Humvee, complete with working air conditioner, Vincent and everyone else were knocked unconscious when the roadside bomb detonated directly underneath. Four days later, Vincent was back on patrol.

In October 2006, he was on his way back to the main base to drop off laundry and get a hot meal. Another IED explosion rendered him unconscious again, compounding his previous injuries. Vincent took a couple of weeks off but returned to duty at the request of his soldiers.

“In my platoon, everybody came home safe,” Vincent said proudly from his home in Washington state. “I feel very successful bringing my men back through some of the most awful things I can think of.”

The Class of 9/11 is committed to active duty service until May 28, 2010. West Point is a relatively small school and, as Phipps says, “everyone knows everyone.” A notice that a classmate has died hits home.

“It’s the worst thing when an e-mail pops up,” Phipps said. “Your heart just sinks, because it could be any of your 900 classmates.”

Phipps and his teammates look forward to the day they can reunite on American soil and relive their epic victory over Navy during their senior year. The Army captain first cheered for the red, white and blue in 1987 at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio. Phipps was 5 years old and has vivid memories of the Europeans dancing on the 18th green.

“Maybe that’s where my patriotism kicked in,” he quipped.

Phipps had tickets to the 2006 Ryder Cup at The K Club, but found out several weeks before the event that he was being shipped to Japan.

“Maybe in 2010 I’ll go to Wales,” he said. “The military always gets the final say.”

• • •

‘Star match’ makes or breaks a season

Nothing defines a season more than the annual Army-Navy match. Each player on the winning team receives a star for his varsity letter. The annual “Star Match” stands out on each academy’s schedule. And no one gains more respect than a four-star senior.

“When you beat Navy . . . it’s something you get to celebrate the rest of your life,” Army coach Jimmy Ray Clevenger said. “When you lose to them, it’s the worst feeling in the world.”

The two-day event each fall rotates between West Point, N.Y., and Annapolis, Md. The two academies – 260 miles apart yet virtual neighbors in mission – first met on the football field in 1890. Their golf rivalry began in 1939, and Navy leads the series 34-29-1.

What started as a match-play competition turned to stroke play in 1971. It continued that way until the Army golf team served as color guard at the 1995 Ryder Cup at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio. An inspired Clevenger suggested they change the “Star Match” to a Ryder Cup format, with four four-ball matches Saturday and seven singles matches Sunday.

The Navy athletic director at the time didn’t go for the idea, however, and it was contested as stroke play in Annapolis for several seasons, and a match-play event at Army. The schools finally got on the same page in 2002, and it has been match play since.

“I love it,” Navy coach Pat Owen said of the match-play format. “It’s so much more intense than watching the stroke-play event.”

Owen had three four-star seniors in the class of ’04: Lt. Billy Hurley, Navy pilot Lt. Rob Stochel and Marine Capt. Joey Kistler. Army broke its six-year losing streak in 2004, meaning senior Pete Phipps “could die a happy man.”

“Every building you see, every sign you look up at says ‘Beat Navy,’ ” Phipps said. “You can even get extra credit in some classes if you just wrote ‘Beat Navy.’

Clevenger recalls one season when his team won four tournaments, including the Patriot League Championship, and advanced to NCAA regionals. Later that year, he ran into some alumni at a get-together where they extended a hearty congratulations and then paused.

“But you didn’t beat Navy.”

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