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Trip of a lifetime: The tales of three heroes

By Roger Schiffman

Editor's Note: Golf Digest's Roger Schiffman is on a golf trip to Ireland with wounded U.S. veterans.

The past three days were the most gratifying of this entire odyssey of links golf, Irish hospitality and incredibly emotional stories from our band of 11 wounded veterans-turned-golfers and their spouses or friends. By day we experienced truly great golf at Portmarnock on the outskirts of Dublin and Pat Ruddy's European Club about 45 minutes south. By night we were treated to a bit of Jameson or a pint of Guinness or Smithwicks, some local music and the soldiers' harrowing tales of battle scars, heartbreak, and selfless heroism.

Related: More photos from this special golf trip to Ireland

In Dublin, we're staying at the classy Merrion Hotel, which, as have all the hotels, treated the soldiers to a gourmet dinner as well as full Irish breakfast each morning. The trip, created by Golf Digest Irish Tours' Linton Walsh, is being sponsored by a grant from the Irish Tourist Office (Failte Ireland) and Aer Lingus. Titleist donated 22 dozen logoed ProV1s, and Kartel provided raingear, headwear and other apparel. TaylorMade offered rental clubs. The soldiers were identified through the Salute Military Golf Association and the Folds of Honor Foundation.

blog_chad_pfeifer_1024.jpgThe weather held for us at Portmarnock, a typically gray Irish day with little breeze and temperatures warm enough to require only a layer of UnderArmour and perhaps a sweater. I had the privilege of playing with Chad Pfeifer (left), who is missing his left leg and has played golf only four years. I predict he will make it to at least the Tour one day, and it might be fairly soon. A self-taught player who can't put weight on his left foot -- only the heel of his left golf shoe touches the ground throughout his swing -- he posts over his right leg throughout his action and has a full and complete arm swing. His prosthetic under his left knee seems to keep him stable, resulting in crisp contact every time, a gentle fade off the tee and a barely perceptible draw into the greens. Did I mention he plays to a plus-2 handicap and drives it 280 down the middle seemingly at will? Chad's ultimate goal is to make it on tour.

Chad is also a supremely nice guy, very mellow, no highs, no lows. Nothing seems to bother him on the course. He lives in the Phoenix area with his wife, whose brother, Mark McGee, was along on the trip as Chad's partner. Mark told me that Chad's acceptance of his injury, which occurred in Iraq five years ago, is remarkable. If he's bitter or sad, you'd never know it. He's turned all his emotions into becoming a phenomenal player, hitting 500 balls a day. He shot 75 at Portmarnock, which is a very difficult course from the back tees. If you miss a fairway, it's almost a certain bogey. And the recently aerified greens were slick and bumpy.

At the European Club the next day, I played with Lieutenant Colonel Carolyn Fota, who suffers from a traumatic brain injury incurred in Haiti. She was hit on the side of the head with the butt of an AK-47 by a young soldier who she says was simply scared. Today, she is on serious medication and suffers from epileptic seizures if she forgets to maintain her equilibrium. Which is why her method of teeing the ball requires her to kneel on all fours, put the tee in the ground, then place the ball on the tee, then slowly get back to her feet. She started playing golf a year ago as part of her rehabilitation. Others would be frustrated by the length of time her brain needs to focus on a simple five-foot putt, but she is undaunted. Her golf swing is getting better, and she plans to take lessons with Jim Estes, the teaching pro who has worked with more than 800 wounded veterans at Walter Reed.

Fota's loving husband, Frank, a nuclear regulatory expert, is also on the trip. He's clearly devoted to her and her well-being. He doesn't play golf -- yet -- but Carolyn is talking him into it. She played with rental clubs everyday, which only compounded the stress of learning an already difficult game. When she gets properly fitted clubs and starts taking lessons with Estes, she'll be on her way to rapid improvement.

Carolyn is one of three women veterans on this trip. One of the others is Danielle Green, who was a standout basketball player at Notre Dame about 15 years ago. (We played on the smaller course a few days ago at Royal County Down.) Danielle grew up in a very tough, drug-infested environment in Chicago. She vowed at age 7 to escape by getting good grades, working on her basketball skills and playing for Notre Dame. And she succeeded. She also dreamed of going into the military. Which is what she did after five years at Notre Dame.

Related: Check out Golf Digest's "Golf Saved My Life" series

She was one of the first women to get injured in Iraq. She was hit by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) while policing the roof of a building. The explosion instantly severed her left arm, sending a burning pain throughout her body. Yet she remained conscious. Despite the pain and shock, she managed to help others who were also in danger before she was dragged to safety by her buddies. Then she realized she had been wearing her wedding ring -- she had gotten married just seven months before. Her buddies went back onto the roof under enemy fire and retrieved her arm and her ring.

Today, Danielle, who was awarded a Purple Heart for her bravery, has two Masters Degrees and counsels other wounded veterans. She has been playing golf for six years, using her immense athletic ability to hit long, if not always straight, drives. A natural left-hander, she had to re-program her brain to do everything right-handed, including writing and playing sports, a long, tedious process. And sadly, Danielle's husband died suddenly of a heart attack just a year ago. But she actually smiled more than anyone on this trip, a tribute to her perseverance and what golf can do for you.

How Danielle and these other veterans manage to pick themselves up and get through life every day with such a positive attitude is beyond me. But one thing is for sure. They are using golf -- and everything the game has to offer -- to give them focus, stay upbeat and keep forging ahead.

Next up? Our final stop: Dromoland Castle. . .

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Courses & Travel

Trip of a Lifetime: An Ultimate Experience at RCD

By Roger Schiffman

Editor's Note: Golf Digest's Roger Schiffman is on a golf trip to Ireland with wounded U.S. veterans.

I’ve played Royal County Down three times now -- well, three-and-a-half. The first was 28 years ago on my honeymoon. My wife and I arrived at 4 p.m. after driving four hours from Sligo to find a calm sea, warm sunshine and maybe the most perfect golf experience in the world. The second was two years ago when we were on a golf tour through the northern part of Ireland. After our round, we loved the place so much we talked the caddie into another nine holes as the sun was setting. 

Those were great experiences, but nothing compared with the round we played last week in the company of two wounded veterans -- Tim Lang and Brian Donarski, better known simply as “Ski.” They’ve had more than 50 surgeries between them, and using golf as rehabilitation thanks to Jim Estes and the Salute Military Golf Association (, Tim carries an 8-handicap and Ski a 5. And they can play to them.

After all-night rains that rendered most courses throughout Ireland closed last week, the skies broke about 9 am and we were treated to the most blissful weather Ireland has to offer. In the middle of the round, it was 70 degrees and sunny with nary a breeze at Royal County Down, ranked No. 1 in the UK by Golf Digest Ireland, which is sponsoring this trip, along with Aer Lingus, the Irish Tourist Office and several Irish Hotels, including the 4-star Slieve Donard next to the course. (Royal County Down was also ranked as the best course outside the U.S. by Golf Digest.)

Tim Lang was awesome. Until then, he had never walked even one hole on a golf course, always using a cart due to the fact that his right leg is missing. But carts are simply not allowed at Royal County Down, no exceptions. Tim wanted to play the course so badly that he decided to try it. With his stump blistered from overuse on this trip, and lathered up with Lidocaine and antibiotic ointment, he walked all 18 holes of a long, tough, hilly golf course. Twice, we flagged down the ranger, who gave him a ride between holes.

Grimacing between shots but never complaining -- Tim is a marine, after all -- he shot 79 that would have been even better if not for an unlucky break on the long par-3 13th hole, when his flop shot from deep rough rolled just over the green and into a deep, water-sogged pot bunker, and he took three shots to get out.

Tim’s injuries are too many to recount here. But not only did he lose his leg when he was “blown up” (his words) in Iraq, he was sent 75 feet into the air, landing on pavement, breaking his back in four places. During his lengthy recovery at Walter Reed, he developed a horrible infection -- probably due to the dirt and bacteria that entered his body when his leg was blown off, causing him to lose so much weight that his friends and family no longer recognized him. He went from 225 pounds to 109 before doctors finally got him on the path to recovery.  That’s when he met Jim Estes, who got him to try golf. “Golf was a sissy sport,” says Lang, who was a star football player in high school. But Estes convinced him to swing a golf club. As soon as he got a shot airborne, he was hooked. He started hitting 500 balls a day. It’s been less than four years, and he shoots in the 70s often.  He weighs 190 today and looks strong.

In fact, he is strong. He averages about 290 off the tee, and hits his 9-iron from where I hit my 5. Today, Tim is a sweet guy. He would do anything for you. He lives in Michigan with his wife, and is working toward a college degree while in demand for motivational speaking jobs. I’d hire him in a heartbeat.

Next stop, Dublin and the Portmarnock Golf Club…

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Courses & Travel

Trip of a lifetime: 'I was hit five times'

By Roger Schiffman

Editor's Note: Golf Digest's Roger Schiffman is on a golf trip to Ireland with wounded U.S. veterans.

After a long drive -- on the road in a coach bus from Old Head toward Dublin, not on one of the rolling links fairways so common in Ireland -- we stopped at the Blarney Castle, where most of us climbed to the top and kissed the Blarney Stone, giving us the "gift of the gab." These wounded veterans might be missing legs or arms and are probably dealing with mental demons, but one thing is for sure: they are tough and "can't" is not in their vocabulary. It's not easy climbing to the top of the castle on two good legs, and you have to somehow get to the top to kiss the Blarney Stone. There are no elevators.

blog_ireland_trip_1019.jpgOn the road in Ireland with (from left) disabled veteran Tim Lang, our bus driver, Purple Heart recipient Charles Eggleston and Patricia Donnelly. Photograph by Roger Schiffman

A few hours later, the entire group of wounded veterans, spouses and friends were treated to a fantastic dinner at the Angler's Restaurant just outside of Dublin, about a 20-minute drive from Carton House, where we stayed for the night. Carton House is a 5-star resort hotel with a strong parkland golf course, spa, and fishing retreat. It's the site of next year's Irish Open. And it's represented by local Irish golfer Shane Lowry, who just happened to win the Portugal Open last Sunday, so the Irish pride was flowing.

Related: Photos of the Wounded Warriors golf trip to Ireland

At the dinner, which was preceded by lots of Irish "Craic," which means music, drink and general revelry, we really got to know one of the service members who is on the trip. Charles Eggleston's motivational talk after the meal was second to none. You see, he doesn't have a "live day," the anniversary of the moment when he should have been killed in combat. He has a number of "live days" as he was hit on five different occasions over the course of six years. Needless to say, he has received the Purple Heart, the highest honor bestowed upon a soldier.

The stories he told were harrowing, and I'll only give you the barest details here: Right side of his face blown away, multiple back and shoulder injuries. But the way he told them was so positive and uplifting because somehow he jokes and laughs and remains so very upbeat. He talks about the others he met in Walter Reed who he said were less fortunate. And he recounts how golf gave him a purpose in life, and his goal now is to, along with Jim Estes, introduce the game to as many other wounded servicemen and women as he can. But mostly he worries about the other soldiers who fight "the war after the war." Meaning what they deal with when they get home. Many, he says, can't deal with life, and tragically they take their own.

Not only is Eggleston a good friend of Major Ed Pulido and Dan Rooney, founder of the Folds of Honor Foundation (the main veterans group represented on this trip), he advises President Obama on various issues regarding the Veterans Administration and how to make the government's policies more equitable, more sensitive, more sensible. He says progress is being made, however slowly. He showed me photos of himself with Michelle Obama (a huge supporter of veterans projects), General Colin Powell, Joe Theismann, Tiger Woods. You get the picture ... he's a celebrity in his own right.

Sometimes, life just isn't fair. Which is why this trip is so important for these heroes. Two days ago when we played Old Head, these wounded veterans were in awe the minute we drove across the cliffs out onto the small peninsula, just wide enough to hold an 18-hole golf course. If you're afraid of heights, this course is not for you. But what a spectacular place it is.

The weather has turned wet and cold, but tomorrow promises to be a great day -- we have another long drive north, with our next destination Royal County Down, ranked the No. 1 course in Ireland. More to come...

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Courses & Travel

Trip of a Lifetime: Gratitude At Every Turn

By Roger Schiffman

The more time I spend with the wounded veterans who are on this golf trip to Ireland, the more grateful I become. This is not a political thing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, conservative or liberal. It’s not about how you feel regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No, it’s simply about supporting the troops. And they don’t get nearly the support they should when they return home, many with debilitating injuries -- physical as well as mental -- that will haunt them the rest of their lives.

jackson_ballybunion_470.jpgWounded U.S. veteran B.J. Jackson tees off at Ballybunion. Photo by Caroline Quinn.

At least they get a chance to forget about the realities of their injuries for a few days here in Ireland. All they need to think about is hitting a little white ball down the fairway, onto the green and into the hole. Everything else is pretty much taken care of for them by the Irish people, whose warmth and appreciation are next to none. The Irish Tourist Office, Aer Lingus and the Irish hotels have come through for them big time.

Two nights ago was a great example. After we played the spectacular Tralee Golf Links, the manager and captain of the club sponsored a dinner for all of the attendees on the trip. A phenomenal time was had by all. After a sumptuous dinner, the speeches started flowing as only they can in Ireland. Just about every Irishman and woman must have kissed the Blarney stone, because they all certainly had “the gift of the gab.” Never will you see such appreciation expressed by the people of one country to another.  In the words of the Tralee captain, “You have not only defended the freedom of the United States, but of all the free world, and Ireland is most undoubtedly part of the free world.” In the words of Linton Walsh (editor and publisher of Golf Digest Ireland and director of Golf Digest Irish Tours), who conceived of this trip, “Never before have I been so proud to be Irish.” (His speech went on much longer, of course, describing how the trip came to be and what it means to the soldiers and to people of Ireland.)

But then Major Ed Pulido got up and thanked the Irish hosts by saying, “We protect those who support us, and your support has been unequivocal.” He finished by introducing Sergeant Ramon Padilla, who lost his left arm in Afghanistan but now plays a mean game of golf. I was honored to play with him at Ballybunion, after which I nicknamed him “Fairway” because he rarely misses one. He has devised a prosthetic that enables him to not only make full swings, but also stroke delicate putts. Amazing.

The stories of these brave men and women just don’t stop. Last night my wife, Patricia Donnelly, a sport psychotherapist and health coach, and I had dinner at the Porterhouse Pub and Restaurant with Jim Estes, the former Nationwide tour winner and now teacher in Maryland who introduces golf to wounded veterans through his SMGA (Salute Military Golf Association) and Tim Lang, one of his pupils. Lang is such an amazing individual. The harrowing experience he had in Iraq, not only losing his right leg but sustaining multiple back injuries is hard to comprehend. More than 45 surgeries, as well as complications from a terrible infection, sent him from his fighting weight of 225 pounds to 109 before he finally recovered. He’s now an 8-handicapper and a long-drive champion. (More on him in a future blog.) The Porterhouse owner was so moved by the presence of a wounded U.S. veteran that he refused to charge for his dinner. The meal, by the way, was excellent in all respects, and we were in great spirits on the walk back to the Killarney Plaza Hotel, only a block away.

The four of us were paired together yesterday at Dooks, one of the hidden gems of Irish golf. Tim and Patty took on Jim and me for an epic four-ball match. Jim and I played hard but finally succumbed on the final two holes and had to buy them a round of Jameson that evening. This true links is not overly long, but very difficult and ultimately one of the most scenic courses in Ireland. It’s not Tralee, but I’d be very happy to play it everyday for the rest of my life. The views, especially on the front nine, are breathtaking, a blend of gentle mountains and the sea, with a long stretch of beach sand in the distance, and quaint Irish homes dotting the coastline and hillsides.  It’s difficult to concentrate on the golf shot before you. But that’s only one of the things that makes Irish golf -- and this once-in-a-lifetime trip -- so special.

Next stop: Waterville…

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Courses & Travel

Trip of a Lifetime: Fighting Off Jet Lag at Ballybunion

Editor's Note: Golf Digest's Roger Schiffman is on a golf trip to Ireland with wounded U.S. veterans. Here he reports on his first two days.

By Roger Schiffman

After only two days on what I’m calling the Trip of a Lifetime—10 days playing the greatest courses of Ireland with 11 wounded veterans -- about the only way I can describe the experience is “inspiring beyond belief.”

ireland_day_1_470.jpgMajor Ed Pulido and B.J. Jackson ready to tee off on the first hole at Ballybunion in Ireland.
(Photo Roger Schiffman)

We landed Thursday morning at Shannon and went straight to Ballybunion by coach bus, all 25 of us. Nine men and two women wounded veterans, along with spouses, partners and caretakers. Plus the staff of Golf Digest Irish Tours and a few assorted press.

The Irish Tourist Office (Failte Ireland) is helping immensely to defray a lot of the costs of the trip -- ground transportation, helping with the media and some of the dinners. Aer Lingus provided free roundtrip flights from JFK. The Irish Hotels, like the Killarney Plaza, donated rooms gratis.

We had good weather at Ballybunion (see photo), with a brisk wind that kept everyone awake the first day. Yesterday, we played Tralee, which I’ve said before and I’ll say again is the most beautiful golf course in the world. Now the others on the trip agree with me. What a spectacular place (think 15th, 16th and 17th holes at Cypress Point for the entire round).

But this trip is not just about the golf. It’s also about giving these troops something no one else gives them -- the golfing experience of a lifetime. Major Ed Pulido, of the Folds of Honor Foundation, and Jim Estes, a PGA teaching professional who rehabilitates wounded veterans with his SMGA (Salute Military Golf Association) program are with us and never stop giving back. More on them to come in later blogs. And they are devoted to this cause, which is the idea of Golf Digest Ireland Editor and Publisher Linton Walsh. All are to be commended.

We’re off to play Dooks today, then Waterville tomorrow. Follow me on Twitter @RogerSchiffman and stay tuned.

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Courses & Travel

A Golf Trip About More Than Golf

Editor's Note: Golf Digest's Roger Schiffman will be blogging about his golf trip through Ireland with wounded U.S. veterans. You can also follow Roger on Twitter: @rogerschiffman.

By Roger Schiffman

On Wednesday evening I’ll be embarking on one of the most amazing golf trips anyone can possibly imagine. Ten days playing the greatest courses of Ireland, from Ballybunion and Waterville, to Old Head and Royal County Down, to Portmarnock and the European Club. And there will be plenty of time for sightseeing -- Dromoland Castle, the Titanic Museum, Blarney Castle ... well, you get the picture.

Royal County Down is just one of the spectacular courses on the schedule for an upcoming golf trip through Ireland. Photo by Stephen Szurlej.

But wait, there’s a catch. I will be accompanied by the most inspirational people our country has to offer -- 11 wounded U.S. veterans who are using golf to get over their injuries. That’s right, nine men and two women who have sacrificed so much physically and mentally as a result of serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their spouses or partners or caretakers will also be with us.

The trip is the brainchild of Linton Walsh, the Editor and Publisher of Golf Digest Ireland, based in Dublin. Somehow he has managed to convince Aer Lingus to fly all the veterans round trip from JFK to Shannon free of charge and the Irish hotels to donate all the rooms gratis. The Irish Tourist Office is taking care of a lot of the other expenses. Yes, the warmth of the Irish people has never been felt so strongly.

To hear more about this odyssey -- and to learn how you can get involved in future such journeys -- listen to the podcast that follows from an interview I did with Matt Adams on his Fairways of Life show on PGA Tour satellite radio.

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Courses & Travel

Travel Report: 99 holes in Ireland

Ashley Mayo is not just a colleague, she's a close friend and co-leader of the social media strategy for Golf Digest and Golf World. Mayo just completed Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, and among other things, she carries a 4 handicap and an infectious laugh. Which is to say: you'll have a good time with her on the golf course as she's taking your money, squishing your ego, and then tweeting out pictures and the results to her thousands of followers. (No, I'm not still bitter about a recent round at Bethpage Black.)

Anyway, Mayo is just back from a bucket-list trip to Ireland, and she's eager to share anecdotes and images to the readers of this blog. Enjoy.

The first hole at County Sligo Golf Club is a straight par 4. Standing on the tee, I can see a narrow fairway guarded by three bunkers, a large, inviting green and, on a hill behind that green, a dozen sheep. The hole is out there for the taking, but it's not easy. A prevailing wind whipping off Sligo Bay makes it play more like a sharp dogleg right.

Deception defines golf on the northern coast of Ireland. What you see isn't what you get. And what you get are rounds of golf that are on seemingly untouched land, complete with ocean vistas, all four seasons of weather and sand dunes that have formed naturally over hundreds of years.

In one week at the end of June, I played six links courses on the northern coast of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Every one of them hugs either the Atlantic Ocean or the bays that feed into it, but they offer distinct personalities.

Here, I'll recap my experience in photos and captions.

blog_dublin_plane_470.jpgI flew into Dublin (shown) and drove three hours west, to County Sligo.

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