Military veterans find focus, community as part of PGA HOPE programs

Michael Cohen/ Getty Images

Military veterans find focus, community as part of PGA HOPE programs

PGA

Military veterans find focus, community as part of PGA HOPE programs

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BETHESDA, Maryland — Golf can be a solitary game, and unlike team sports, it’s the independence, the quiet and the freedom to play and practice on your own that appeals to many.

But for some military veterans who come to the sport through PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere), it’s escaping the solitude and loneliness that’s often a draw.

“I was a real recluse for about 10 years,” said Randy Shack, who started with PGA HOPE in 2016 after retiring from the Army. Shack, who was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury after serving in the Infantry in Iraq, said he battled alcohol abuse in the past. “This game and this program has helped me get out and stay sober.

“I didn’t really want to talk to anybody. Now being out there, it’s more friendly. I see myself approaching other people, ‘Hey I’m Randy, it’s nice to meet you.’ You’re kind of forced to do it out on the golf course when I didn’t want to. It kind of helped me get back out there.”

Shack was among 20 veterans who live with physical or cognitive challenges invited to PGA HOPE National Golf & Wellness Week, which included an outing at Congressional Country Club on Monday morning. The group was comprised of veterans who have graduated from their local PGA HOPE programs. The four-day curriculum included advanced golf instruction as well as sessions on health and wellness and opportunities to network.

Participants from PGA HOPE National Golf & Wellness Week pose for a group photo at Congressional Country Club on Oct. 28, 2019. (Photo by Michael Cohen/ Getty Images)

Chris Nowak, a retired Marine who serves as PGA HOPE Military and Veteran Liaison, said the program uses golf as a draw, with a greater emphasis on “now let’s make them whole” as part of the healing process.

“Golf has such an ability to escape from different traumas and different things we’re dealing with in our lives from military service,” Nowak said.

“Anybody who has ever played this game knows that if you want to hit a good shot, you can’t be thinking about anything else. You have to be thinking about striking that golf ball. You can’t think about the trauma you experienced or the trauma you’re dealing with now.”

Shack, who represents the Northern Texas PGA Section, agreed that playing golf allows him to focus and tune out distractions. “When I’m playing golf, my mind’s focused on the ball, what I’m doing right now. Everything else is not even in focus. Just me and the ball.”

PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh took part in the Wellness Week activities and saw firsthand the HOPE program’s benefits to those in attendance. He sees golf providing many veterans a distraction, something fun to do, “but also it’s a structured place to play, a structured way to do it,” with boundaries and rules that appeal to many who have served our country.

PGA professionals receive specialized training on how to teach veterans in the HOPE program, and Waugh said the pros he has heard from all want to do more. “It’s been life changing for them too,” he said of the pros who help approximately 2,500 veterans annually. “They’ve chosen a mission to impact lives through this game, but to take that to another level – where you’re not dealing with how to hit a 7 iron but how to live your life and how to change a life – is just a whole other layer of giving back, and frankly fulfillment.”

Waugh noted that suicide among the veteran population is a serious issue. He has had HOPE golfers personally thank him for saving their life. “What better mission can you have than that,” Waugh said. “This week is about not only saving lives, but giving them the tools to live a healthy life, to take this game and pass it on to others.”

Now Shack and his fellow HOPE ambassadors are eager to spread the word when they return to their local sections.

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