This is a story of two soldiers and a golf course. The first time I ever heard of Christopher Nowak, USMC Retired, was when Pete Bevacqua marked his ball with a challenge coin bearing his name. "Hey, take a look at this," said Pete, who is the CEO of the PGA of America. It resembled a poker chip with Nowak's name on one side and this slogan on the other: Sweat Dries, Blood Clots & Bones Heal. Chicks Dig Scars. Now that's a business card, I said.
Actually, a challenge coin is a medallion with the insignia or emblem of a military group. Traditionally they're offered to prove membership or share with special friends. If you can't produce one when challenged, you have to buy the next round of drinks. They also make perfect ball markers.
Bevacqua met Nowak through the PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere) program, which helps rehab and assimilate military veterans back into society. Nowak is a retired Marine who lost his leg below the knee in a training exercise at an Army base in San Antonio. ("That's why I'll always have a special fondness for the Army," he says.)
Nowak is now the HOPE coordinator in charge of recruiting veterans and active-duty military for the six-week program of free lessons with PGA professionals. Formerly he worked for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, where he was the director of sports programs. He calls himself "a solid 19-handicap."
It's another example of golf and golfers giving back—not just in fundraising, but through active participation to improve people's lives.
• More than 3.5 million veterans have some form of service-connected disability.
• 1.3 million are living in poverty or homeless.
• 22 military veterans commit suicide every day.
It seems a long way from golf, but by the end of 2016, PGA sections in every state will have HOPE programs.
"By far, golf is the best modality for PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]," Nowak says. "When you're standing over the ball, you forget all your problems. You forget about your PTSD or your injuries. You're not thinking about your family or a job. You've got only one thing on your mind: striking the ball. Those moments are a gift."
Nowak suggested I talk to Sgt. Shack.
Randy Shack was a victim of multiple IEDs (improvised explosive devices) during his Army Infantry service in Iraq, 2006-'07. "I'd be in a Humvee as a gunner driving down the road and see smoke and then feel explosions," he says. "It happened a couple of times. I lost five friends in one day. Two years after I got back, I was diagnosed with spinal stenosis. One day I just couldn't stand up straight. It was a spinal-chord injury from the IEDs. My right leg is paralyzed."
His wife, Jamie, more than encouraged him to try the HOPE program. She locked him out of the house and told him he had to go. If you can imagine this, it took the warrior an hour of sitting in the parking lot to work up enough courage to go into the golf shop.
"I was home-bound, didn't talk to anybody except my wife and 18-month-old," he says. "I didn't know how to talk. I completely got disconnected. Golf became my entry point back into society. I'm learning how to talk to people. Even this conversation is difficult for me. I have friends through golf now. I can't explain how much golf means to me."
So far, Sgt. Shack is just going to the range and taking lessons. Check out "The Ride of His Life," by Leonard Shapiro, in this issue, for another inspiring story on the steeplechase jockey Peter Walsh and how golf saved his life after a broken neck and the loss of an arm. It's all more evidence of the healing power of a redemptive game.
There's a new course that just opened in Jefferson City, Mo. Two hours west of St. Louis, the Ken Lanning Golf Center is a par-3 course built by the Missouri Junior Golf Foundation with synthetic-turf greens, tees and hazards accessible to wheelchairs. Holes range from 48 to 134 yards. Children under 15, players with disabilities and veterans can play for free.
The course is named for the PGA professional who introduced tour pros Payne Stewart and Stan Utley to the game as juniors and was a proponent of inclusiveness. "Mr. Lanning was my mentor from the time I was 13 up into my pro career," says Utley, a Golf Digest professional advisor. "I know he would have been proud of this place. I hope it inspires other communities to do the same thing."
MY TOP-FIVE THREE-HOLE STRETCHES IN GOLF
1. Augusta National's 11th, 12th, 13th
What Herbert Warren Wind first called "Amen Corner."
2. Cypress Point's 15th, 16th, 17th
Two par 3s and a 386-yard par 6.
3. Pebble Beach's seventh, eighth, ninth
Pete Dye once told me, if he were asked to design the course originally, he probably wouldn't have gone to the edge and noticed the seventh hole down on the rocks.
4. TPC Sawgrass' 16th, 17th, 18th
Pete Dye strikes again: 137 yards of pure fear, which makes Rickie Fowler's three 2s in a day even more remarkable.
5. Trump Turnberry's ninth, 10th, 11th
Centerpiece of Martin Ebert's renovation of the stunning Ailsa Course is a lighthouse that's the closest thing to Mar-a-Lago in Scotland.