In a country where veterans are often overlooked and left on the outside looking in, there are some organizations that have taken to supporting the men and women that have protected the United States.
The PGA is one of them.
The Northern California section of the PGA has taken the PGA HOPE to the next level. HOPE – which is an acronym for Help Our Patriots Everywhere – introduces golf to veterans with disabilities to enhance their physical, mental, social and emotional well-being.
The program started in October 2015 and has grown ever since.
“The PGA HOPE has given our Foundation purpose,” said Suzy Schneider, the Programs Coordinator for the NCPGA, of the sections charitable arm. “Our Foundation was struggling – we needed to have our own program.”
They launched the program, but as is the case with many new organizations, things took a while to get going.
“We had six PGA Pros ready to go – we have a maximum ratio of five vets to every pro,” explained Schneider. “We were ready to go, and we had three vets show up. We panicked a bit, but we kept going, working with vets’ groups.”
Now just a touch over three years later, they have had 650 vets graduate from the program and 750-800 go through the PGA HOPE program.
“We get 25-30 vets at every clinic,” explained Schneider.
The PGA Hope is broken down into a two-part process. The first step is the Down Range Clinic, a free introductory golf experience open to all veterans that serves as an orientation to the HOPE program. Following the Down Range clinic, all veterans are invited to participate in the weekly HOPE sessions that will be conducted over the next 5-8 weeks.
All the PGA pros involved with HOPE are trained in adaptive instruction.
Following graduation from the program, the NCPGA keeps the vets engaged by doing things like making sure they have discounted greens fees or organizing special events.
Recently they held a special event at the Contra Costa Country Club in Pleasant Hill. I was fortunate to play in the tournament and it was a great experience being around all the vets. It was a special feeling to be able to thank these men and women first hand and get to know some of them.
“That was the first one,” said Schneider. “We wanted to get them the experience of playing at a nice country club. I think it will be the first of many.”
Bob Epperly is the Lead Instructor for HOPE and spends time between the 10 courses in Northern California that offer the program. His main job is to make sure there is consistency between all the programs.
HOPE is open to all veterans, but Epperply’s focus is tighter.
“It’s structured to reach out to the PTSD guys,” said Epperly of HOPE. “It’s the guys that are sitting around the house and help them. They target is to get new golfers – PGA HOPE is growing the game of golf.”
James Miller served in the Air Force from 1976 to 1994 and now lives in Antelope, just outside of Sacramento. Miller has been involved in HOPE for the last couple of years and his seen his game go from an 18-handicap, down to an 11.
He agrees with what Epperly sees.
“They need something to take their mind off of things,” said Miller of the vets suffering from PTSD. “We want to get them out. They need to talk with someone and who better than other vets out on the course.”
Miller, who was already a golfer before being involved in HOPE, has benefitted from the quality instruction to fine tune his game.
“The pros are all so helpful,” said Miller, who went through the Cherry Island program in the Sacramento area. “That they give up their time to help us means a lot. They are always willing to listen, and they are never in a hurry. You think of an hour lesson and you think the pro wants to get out of there after an hour. Not these guys. They stick around and answer all your questions.”
Which is a far cry from what he saw his family members – all vets – treated when he was growing up.
“My Dad and my uncles were all in Vietnam,” said Miller. “When they came back, they got spit on. I got in a lot of fights when I was younger because I wasn’t going to let anyone treat my Dad that way. But PGA Hope is different. They help vets succeed in life.”
Right now, there are HOPE programs at 10 different courses, most somewhat close to a VA hospital or other veteran clinics. Epperly and Schneider are happy with the growth but are also always looking for ways to make HOPE better.
“The goal is not to add any more courses until we are real good,” said Epperly. “We are constantly fine-tuning things to make it as good as possible.”
The NCPGA Foundation does more than its fair share to build and run HOPE, but there is always a need for more funds. The cost for one, seven-week clinic is $5,000 – or $250 per veteran, per clinic.
There are two major fundraisers each year – the Invest in HOPE, a tournament held at the Blackhawk Country Club, and The Langley, an event held at Pebble Beach.
The Foundation also takes direct donations. For more information on either one of the fundraisers or for how to donate, please go to www.ncpgafoundation.org.
By Dennis Miller