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PGA HOPE golf program is helping military veterans cope, find camaraderie

In a July 11, 2019 photo, Twin Warriors Golf Club pro Allan McDermott provides swing technique advice to U.S. Marine Corps veteran Phoebe Comeau during a golf outing at the Twin Warriors Golf Club, Bernalillo, N.M. The VA is partnering with PGA HOPE to assist veterans at becoming more active, and learn the game of golf.

DAVE OVERSON/NEW MEXICO VA HEALTH CARE SYSTEM

By ALAN BLONDIN | The Sun News (Myrtle Beach, S.C.) | Published: September 21, 2020

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (Tribune News Service) — For Fred Gutierrez, the PGA HOPE program is more about improving lives and saving lives than it is about learning how to play golf.

And he believes that will be the case for many of the military veterans on the Grand Strand who take part in the Myrtle Beach chapter of the program, which launched recently at the home of Project Golf at Barefoot Resort.

According to a 2019 study for the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, approximately 17 U.S. veterans take their own lives every day. Other published studies have the total around 20.

Gutierrez tried to become one of those. But an unsuccessful suicide attempt with a gunshot to the head in 1996 left him paralyzed on his left side, so he plays golf one-handed.

“God said, ‘I’ve got a different plan for you. I need you to go back and help your brothers and sisters,’” Gutierrez said.

PGA HOPE has been one of his primary vehicles to fulfill that mission.

The program

PGA HOPE – HOPE is an acronym for Helping Our Patriots Everywhere – is a PGA of America initiative designed to provide veterans with an opportunity to learn the game, share camaraderie with fellow service members, and have an activity that in many cases can serve as therapy and physical and/or mental rehabilitation.

“It’s trying to engage veterans, bring them back into society, give them some fun, learn a new skill in golf, meet some other people – particularly veterans,” said Gary Schaal, executive director of the Project Golf nonprofit grow-the-game initiative and administrator of the local PGA HOPE chapter.

The program is administered in the Carolinas by PGA Reach, the nonprofit philanthropic arm of the Carolinas PGA Section. PGA Reach is promoting three pillars in particular – Youth, Military, and Diversity & Inclusion.

Gutierrez is a founder of the Charleston chapter of PGA Hope, which has grown to become perhaps the largest chapter in the country with approximately 400 members.

He finds the lessons in golf correlate to the challenges in life, particularly for veterans.

“Forget about what you did wrong, learn to like yourself and forgive yourself and move on. That’s what golf has taught me,” Gutierrez said. “That’s why I think it’s so important that other veterans get with each other. They can teach each other how to move forward. . . . We do understand each other because we’ve been in the same foxhole.”

Gutierrez has a different meaning for the acronym PGA. “P stands for the peace I get when I’m around with other guys, the G stands for the gratitude I have sharing what we do and being on the golf course, and A stands for appreciation and my accomplishments.

“For me this program has been awesome.”

The initial Myrtle Beach chapter program will consist of six two-hour sessions over six weeks from 4-6 p.m. on Tuesdays.

The student-to-teacher ratio is 4-to-1, and the maximum class size was going to be 36. But because of the coronavirus, the PGA of America cut the allowable class size down to 10. The first group is filled and Schaal plans to add a second day of the week for another class.

Schaal said Project Golf will organize veteran golf days when the class is over. “Once these guys bond with one another we’ll move them around from golf course to golf course playing once or twice a month,” he said.

Participants only need to bring a mask. PGA Hope provides the equipment for lesson with donated clubs, and Schaal said TaylorMade offers deals to vets who have taken part in the program if they want to upgrade.

PGA HOPE is pursued in partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and is open to all military veterans with an emphasis on serving those with physical and emotional challenges who can benefit the most.

About 20 participating PGA pros have become certified to teach adaptive golf through a one-day class that helps them understand how to instruct veterans with missing limbs, partial limbs, paralysis, blindness, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.

Last Tuesday, some members of the Coastal Carolina University men’s golf team also took part in the instruction.

Murrells Inlet resident Chris Aranda has been a participant. He works for the Department of Veterans Affairs and is the Veteran Outreach Program Specialist at the Myrtle Beach Vet Center, which provides readjustment counseling to the veteran community.

“It has been a life-changing event for me,” Aranda said. “I’m a combat veteran so when I did come home I was looking for that avenue to take me in the right direction, and it was golf. The game of golf got me out there in the community, got me involved in some activity, and at the same time the camaraderie we miss as a veteran. I was lost without a formation to go to. I needed to be around soldiers. I put the game of golf and soldiers together and guess what you’ve got now, PGA Hope. Now we want to grow PGA Hope in our community and make it something special.”

Aranda brought about 10 local veterans to the PGA Hope event. Some were avid golfers, others had never played the game. “They’re coming out today to make that first step to making a positive change in their lives,” Aranda said.

Project Golf expands

Project Golf was created by the Golf Tourism Solutions marketing and technology agency that promotes the Myrtle Beach market.

It’s facility on the Barefoot Resort driving range was previously the Greg Norman Champions Golf Academy. GTS purchased the building and 1.73 acres it sits on for nearly $1 million late last year and has been upfitting the building for its purposes.

In addition to PGA HOPE, junior golf programs including The First Tee of Coastal Carolinas are expected to make use of the facility. “We’re building golf,” Schaal said.

The facility includes three indoor/outdoor hitting bays, numerous offices, a conference room, two classrooms, a large gym, media studio, a storage room for donated clubs, a kitchen/break room, two sets of bathrooms including one with showers, and a driving range, putting green and short-game practice area.

GTS plans to create an outdoor patio area in the near future for socializing with a grill and fire pit.

Schaal is a former PGA of America president who took over the Project Golf executive director position from Gene Augustine, who moved to Florida.

Schaal is both a PGA member and veteran who reached the rank of captain while enlisted in the U.S. Air Force from 1964-73.

“I’ve got a foot in each camp – PGA and I’m a veteran,” Schaal said. “I thought this was a perfect fit down here and it is.”

Schaal hosted a Salute Military Golf Association program at Cannon Ridge in Fredericksburg, Va., a course he owned with former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman. He plans to host the same SMGA program at Project Golf on occasion, particularly in the winter when it’s colder in Virginia.

Schaal saw the importance of that program, and by extension PGA HOPE, when he spoke to the wife of a SMGA participating vet.

“She said, ‘Your clinics are on Tuesday and Friday, and those are the only two days [he] gets out of bed,” Schaal said. “So whenever I think, ‘Well maybe this isn’t working,’ I think back to what she said. And she spoke for a lot of vets. . . . Let’s get these guys back into society. They’re dying to play golf.”

Project Golf’s first program was an “Introduction to Golf” series launched last summer at a few Grand Strand courses. It brought approximately 200 new people to the course and is designed to keep them engaged in the game after the conclusion of the six-week program. The Barefoot facility will now be able to host some of that instruction, as well.

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