Denise Krueger didn't even know if she liked golf when she attended a PGA Tour Golf Academy at World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Florida. As an alumna of Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP), the Navy veteran saw the clinic on the WWP events calendar and decided to try it out. After being cooped up for so long because of COVID-19, she thought it might be nice to do something outside and mingle with other veterans.
"I've never played. I have no experience," Denise said. "At the beginning [of the clinic], I thought everyone was really nice, but I still had an inkling that maybe I don't belong here."
The feeling didn't last long. After hitting her first long drive, Denise was hooked.
"Once we actually got into it and the coaches were there teaching us how to do it properly, I thought, 'OK, this seems cool,'" Denise said. "Then I hit my ball and it just went flying and disappeared. It was such an exhilarating experience. I felt like I was on cloud nine. I did that!"
Even for warriors with some golfing experience, like Army veteran Matt Glisson, the PGA Tour Golf Academy provided him with skills he'd never considered. Matt lives next door to a golf course, and he often goes over and hits balls on the driving range. He enjoys the practice but really appreciates the expert advice from PGA pros.
"They really showed me that a lot of things are based on technique," Glisson said. "Just the vast knowledge. There are so many different aspects involved, like the chipping and the putting. I learned a lot. They taught me a lot of useful drills."
Navy veteran Ozzie Nelson enjoys the game of golf, but initially didn't feel skilled enough to sign up for WWP's veteran golf outings. Attending the three-day clinic gave him the confidence boost he needed to compete.
"That was an excellent opportunity for me," Ozzie said. "I wanted to play in more outings with Wounded Warrior Project, but I didn't think I was good enough. I didn't want to embarrass myself or be a liability to those I played with. So, by going into that golf clinic and hearing from PGA professionals, I picked up some tips that really did help me."
Denise, Matt, and Ozzie were just three of the many wounded warriors who attended the PGA Tour Golf Academy, and all three ended up finding something there they didn't necessarily expect.
What started out as a way to get outside turned into a true passion for Denise. While she jokingly says she doesn't see herself on the LPGA Tour anytime soon, she's eager to put her newly learned skills to the test on a regular basis.
"I felt like they drilled the fundamentals: the way your hand is supposed to grip the golf club, the difference in how you do the putts than when you're doing the long-distance hitting, and how you're supposed to stand," Denise said. "Those are in my head now. I always remember."
Knowing the best techniques to drive, putt and chip was valuable, but it also gave the golfers a chance to build their strength and endurance to improve their game.
"Physically, it helped me with not just proper form, but developing new muscles, and I learned to hit the ball without hurting myself," Matt said. "And then the mental aspect helps because it forces you to calm down."
For Ozzie, the clinic taught him to look at golf and the way to approach his game in a whole new light.
"We did everything that you can imagine — the long game, the short game, the putting, the chipping in sand," Ozzie said. "But the one that really stuck out for me was the middle game; how to think about the whole game and think about where you're going to try to place the shots. … They taught us course management, to look at the design of the hole, to think about the best place to have the ball land, so you would have a good trajectory without running into so many hazards. I guess that could apply to the rest of our lives, instead of just being adrift. Maybe planning things out a little bit, or picking and choosing our own battles, or whatever the case may be."
The results for Ozzie's game were pretty apparent — and substantial.
"I've been fortunate enough to play in the 90s before," Ozzie said. "Since that clinic, I've easily dropped nine strokes, and I can hit the 80s pretty consistently. I know that's not earth-shattering stuff, but it was for me. Nine strokes is a big difference, so there is a sense of self pride there."
For many warriors, the WWP outings and events they're able to attend are more than an opportunity to try new things or engage in a favorite hobby. It's the chance to connect with others who understand their experiences – and maybe find a new and better way to cope with their injuries, both physical and mental.
WWP Outreach Specialist David Mynett organizes golf outings and events across Northeast Florida for warriors and their families. He said the golf program offers something for everyone who has any interest in learning or playing the game and is especially powerful for wounded warriors who need that connection with other veterans.
“The Northeast Florida Golf Alumni program exists to promote golf to every WWP alumni and family member, regardless of skill or experience, to connect with other WWP alumni and family members and to develop a new skill, and get them away from isolation, especially after COVID-19,” David said.
Through the program, warriors are not only able to play with other all-era veterans at local golf courses, but they are also offered one-on-one and group golfing sessions, the opportunity to play 18-hole games, monthly golf clinics, and multi-day golf seminars. WWP alumni and family members new to the sport are also given a full set of golf clubs, a bag, balls, and golf glove from local donors or other warriors who have spare sets.
Some warriors and family members also receive tickets to prestigious golf events like THE PLAYERS Championship, taking place through March 13 at THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
Denise is one of the warriors spending time at TPC Sawgrass during PLAYERS week, watching the best PGA Tour players compete a sport she knew almost nothing about a few months ago. Now she can’t get enough of the game.
"I was never interested in [golf], and then I thought maybe it'll be fun; it's something to do to get me out of the house," Denise said. "Then I ended up loving it a lot. It's really amazing."
It's also a game relatively unaffected by aging. A game injured veterans can adapt to and progress in even as they get older.
"It's one of those things you can continue to grow in," Matt said. "It's not like football, where you have to give it up at a certain age. Golf is something you can continue to do throughout your life pretty much. And the older you get, the better you can get."
For Ozzie, the opportunity to play golf on a regular basis also allows him to get out of his head a little. He did multiple deployments to the Middle East. He lost four service members under his command during combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. He still sends cards to their families each year on the anniversaries of their deaths and continues to carry the burden of feeling responsible because he was their leader. Being able to surround himself with other veterans, bonding over a shared enjoyment, has been instrumental in Ozzie's mental health well-being.
"Golf is a good therapy for me," he said. "It reduces chaos; I'm out in nature, and I'm surrounded by like-minded military individuals. So, there's a lot of camaraderie there."
While time may have healed Ozzie's physical scars, his emotional scars stay with him. It's learning how to manage those that Ozzie continues to work on. For him, being out on the golf course helps calm his thoughts and provides a safe space.
"Here on the golf course, away from the daily grind and routine, I do find some solace," Ozzie said. "It's not as chaotic, and I do have a little bit of peace. I need that in my life."
Contact: — Paris Moulden, Public Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org, 904.570.7910
About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.