A golf instructor finds purpose in helping veterans with PTSD during the lockdown

May 05, 2020
Nick Novak Hero .jpg

I remember the first time I went to the Mosholu Golf Course, a nine-hole municipal track in the Bronx, to teach a golf clinic for PGA Hope (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere), a program for military veterans who want to learn the game. A few guys seemed really down. Some had disheveled dress and didn’t say much. Others barely made eye contact, and I would find out later that a couple hadn’t been out of the house in weeks. Then, after coming back for three or four more clinics, they started to look and act differently. They showed up in new golf clothes, they began to talk trash, they high-fived each other. Some opened up about their PTSD and told me that golf had become like therapy. It gave me such a rush. All I was doing was sharing my passion for the game, and I was helping to change their lives. I became hooked, and I’ve been doing it ever since, as a sideline to my day job as a teaching pro at private clubs.

During the coronavirus lockdown, I’ve been devoting time to keeping the PGA Hope program alive, even if the vets can’t play outdoors. I gave a two-hour Facebook Live lesson in which I walked some new guys through the basics: grip; swing mechanics; what influences ball flight; how to think positively on the golf course the way pros do, as opposed to the negative thoughts I see in most amateurs. I joined them for their weekly computer “Hope Hangout,” where they talk golf and bust chops—you know, Army versus Marines, that kind of stuff. They have also set up a buddy system where guys check in on each other to make sure everyone’s doing OK. “No soldier left behind” is their motto.

Giving back is important to me because of everything golf has done for me. I grew up in San Diego with a struggling single mom. My brother and I got out of the house as much as we could, and we discovered an early First Tee-like program called Pro Kids Golf Academy at a public park called Colina Del Sol. It was around the time Tiger Woods was blowing up, and we became obsessed. We played every day after school, read every golf magazine we could get our hands on and broke every light fixture in my mom’s house swinging clubs indoors.

Then my brother and I went to live in Connecticut with our dad, who caddied at Wee Burn Country Club. So I learned to caddie and played high school golf. I got away from the game for a few years as I went to community college, and then became a sales intern until that work dried up in the last recession. When I went back to Wee Burn and asked the pro about his line of work, he warned me about how tough and unglamorous it was, and how far behind I was competing against guys who were graduating from college with PGA of America cards. But I realized that golf was the one thing I loved, so I took a job in the bag room and started working my way up.

Eventually, I got to the Jim McLean Golf School in Florida, where I learned to teach and was fortunate enough to work with a lot of great players and even a few tour pros. Now as an established PGA golf pro, I’ve just begun a new job as a coach and supervisor of custom-clubfitting at the Golf Performance Center in Connecticut, an intensive coaching hub for juniors who want to play college golf and have dreams of competing professionally. I get a lot of satisfaction out of helping players of that caliber, but it’s working with the veterans that gives me joy.

A lot of golf clubs and individual players in the PGA’s Metropolitan Section have been generous in supporting the Hope program, so every year we’re able to hold a graduation ceremony in which all the vets who make it through get their own bags and clubs. We’re determined to see this year’s class graduate, even if we have to be a little creative about how we get them there. To be honest, the small part I have in helping these guys keeps my spirits up in these tough times. It’s partly selfish, because it makes me feel so good to help them feel good, but I tell myself that that’s the best way to be selfish you can find. —with Mark Whitaker

Nick Novak is supervisor of custom-clubfitting at Golf Performance Center in Ridgefield, Conn.