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Hero Fits

January 14, 2011

We've all heard about the benefits of custom fitting, and the emphasis on fitting is certainly an important part of the February issue of Golf Digest, where for the first time we name America's Best Clubfitters. But the leading manufacturers in the game are making some special efforts in the area of custom fitting when it comes to golfers with special needs, including several programs for wounded heroes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Few companies are a match for Ping when it comes to fitting clubs to each golfer's unique individual specifications. Under the leadership of founder Karsten Solheim, the company instituted a color-coded system for matching lie angles and lengths to a golfer's measurements three decades ago, and today, that fitting system is still the most comprehensive among the game's major manufacturers. Still, that level of sophistication was put to the test recently as the company fit quadruple amputee Jeff Lewis, who lives in Mesa, Ariz. Lewis called the company about the possibility of clubs that could be made special for his needs, and one day later he was on the range at the company's Phoenix headquarters. Ping's engineering team, led by research project engineer Paul Wood, figured out the measurements and a mechanism to lock clubs into his prosthesis.

"I'm hitting the ball very well," Lewis, who lost his spleen after he was shot some 20 years ago and then lost portions of his extremities when a strep infection could not be controlled because he had no spleen, told the Arizona Republic. "I don't hit it that far. I've had a few pars, a lot of bogeys but no real chances for a birdie yet."

Ping's work with Lewis also has helped with its efforts to supply clubs and lessons to veterans who are part of the Wounded Warriors Project. A story of one such veteran is turning up in what has become a viral e-mail chain headed, "A note from a golfing friend." It tells of a recent round played at the Lake Buena Vista Course at Disneyworld Resort with a quiet veteran named Ben Woods, who had recently earned his medical discharge after spending the previous 15 months in an army rehabilitation hospital in San Antonio. The email reveals how veterans are fitted for a set of Ping clubs and given lessons.

"[Ben] looked me in the eye and said that being fitted for those clubs was one of the best things that ever happened to him and he was determined to learn to play golf well enough to deserve the gift Ping had given him," the email reads. See the e-mail here (G11411.pdf.)

According to Pete Samuels, director of communications, Ping has custom fit 130 wounded veterans since 2008. "We feel it's the least we can do considering the sacrifices these soldiers are making," he says.  "Using golf to help someone like Ben Woods get through the rehab process makes us feel good as a company but more importantly helps improve his quality of life."

Of course, Ping is not alone in its efforts to help wounded veterans through the game of golf. For example, Callaway has donated $5 million in golf equipment to 250 military bases through Phil Mickelson's involvement in the Birdies for the Brave program, says Tim Buckman, senior director of global communications.

TaylorMade also has played a big role in the effort to bring golf to injured veterans in the San Diego area. The company donates equipment and instruction to the San Diego-based program Operation Game On! The program, organized by Tony Perez, the father of PGA Tour pro Pat Perez and the annual starter for the Farmers Insurance Open, works with wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan at the Naval Medical Hospital in San Diego.

The idea grew out of Perez's initiative to get wounded veterans to serve as honorary starters at the San Diego tournament a few years ago. When they told him they had been interested in golf before serving and being injured, he began developing the program today that features four 10-week sessions for as many as 20 wounded veterans a session. He even has taken them to the TaylorMade Performance Center, known as the Kingdom, at the company's headquarters in Carlsbad, Calif., where they've received instruction from noted teacher Jim Flick.

"These guys are no different than the rest of us," says Perez. "One good shot and they're hooked. They forget about their disability and they're really enthusiastic about getting better. They're warriors, and that can-do, will-do attitude comes out."

For more information on Perez's program, click here, and see the video below.

*-- Mike Stachura