Wounded veterans get fitted for custom golf clubs at The Players Championship

By MATT SOERGEL | The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville) | Published: May 7, 2014

Gabe Watt has been hurting every day for the past 11 1/2 years, ever since a giant boulder, propelled by an explosion in Afghanistan, flew through the air and crushed his left foot. A medic’s quick work to stop massive bleeding saved his life.

Still, Watt hurts if he stays in bed. He hurts if he walks. He hurts when he plays golf.

So, he figures, he might as well play golf.

Now if only he played well. His golfing handicap? “I don’t think you can count that high,” he said.

Indeed, when he hit the driving range Tuesday morning, the vast majority of Watt’s slices off the tee hissed along the grass or blooped over some bushes on the edge of the range. And cameras were there at the TPC Sawgrass Players Stadium Course to capture just about every errant shot.

It’s likely, though, that his game will soon get better.

Watt and Steven Jones, wounded veterans from the war in Afghanistan, will soon be given a full set of clubs, custom-designed by a crew that makes meticulously engineered clubs for many of the pros at The Players Championship.

The veterans spent Tuesday at the tournament as part of the PGA Tour’s Birdies for the Brave, an outreach program for the military.

Callaway Golf, as part of Birdies for the Brave, will soon send Watt and Jones their new clubs — designed after company representatives watched them make drives and putts with a variety of equipment.

Jones, who made mostly impressive shots at the range, owns a set of clubs given him 15 years ago by his grandfather.

The new set, he noted, should be an upgrade.

Jones, 26, lives in Port St. Lucie with his wife. Serving in the Marines, he was injured when his armored Humvee struck an improved explosive device.

He remembers the heat and the noise, but was then knocked unconscious. He broke bones in his back and in his right leg, lost teeth and was hit by shrapnel.

He’s healed well, he said, though his back still bothers him. So does the thought of friends who died in Afghanistan.

Jones left college at North Carolina State after two years to join the Marines, looking for discipline and a challenge. “I would do it all again, even knowing the outcome,” he said.

Watt, 32, lives in Rockledge and is married with one child. He was in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division for three years.

Before going to the driving range, the veterans were shown around a Callaway trailer where clubs are made on the spot. The company’s Mike Sposa said computers have the exact specifications of every club of every tour pro who uses its equipment.

The trailer can make a copy of each club, Sposa said, to a tenth of a gram of weight, a 10th of a degree of angle. Even the thickness and length of tape on the handle is on file. The pros are particular, and can instantly tell if something is off.

At the tournament, Watt and Jones were introduced to a half-dozen pros, and got some advice on their swings from golfer John Rollins, who was hitting balls 288 yards at 173 mph — a sensor behind him picked up that info.

At the putting green, Mark McCumber, 1988 Players champion, was called over to offer advice. He barely got a word in before the vets each sunk a couple of putts in a row.

McCumber laughed. “That’s it. My work is done.”

Watt, who redeemed his efforts at the range with every putt he sank, then made a nice shot that looked right on target. It wound up inches away. Agonizingly close.

McCumber laughed again: That’s an occupational hazard for those lucky enough to play the game for a living, he told them.

“I used to have hair,” he said, taking off his cap to demonstrate his current not-so hirsute situation. “This is what happens when you do that.”

Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082


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