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.
Wounded 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…