Golf gave this Army veteran a new mission in his post-military life
It might be a stretch to say that golf saved Joe Steadman’s life, but it wouldn’t be a big one. There is no doubt that the game has become much more than just a diversion to the former Army Special Forces combat soldier. He started to realize that during a casual round in 2013 after falling to his hands and knees in the middle of the third fairway at Bayonet Golf Course in Raeford, N.C., with what he thought, at first, was a heart attack.
“I remember just having hit my tee shot, and I’m walking down the fairway and all of a sudden I just dropped to the ground,” Steadman recalled. “My heart rate skyrocketed. I’m sweating. I can’t breathe. I was like, ‘What is going on?’ Turned out I was having a panic attack. And what snapped me out of it was that I just parred the first two holes, and my mind went right to my score, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to get my s*** together because I’m playing good.’ That’s kind of a capsule of how golf became not just a distraction for me. It became an obsession.”
And now it has become his profession.
Steadman, 35, is the teaching professional at Country Club of North Carolina, in Pinehurst, a dream job that keeps at bay any nightmares to which he might otherwise succumb. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder hits veterans in different ways and at different times, and Steadman, whose deployments over six years included Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa, had no inkling he would be a casualty until that day on the golf course.
“It’s hard to explain it to somebody until you experience it,” he said hesitantly, only recently able to talk about it. “It’s such an involuntary thing that kind of just creeps in. A few of my good friends, they really kind of went down some bad paths. And I think one of the reasons I didn’t is because I got so involved with golf. It became a respite. It was therapeutic.”
A native of Plattsburgh, N.Y., Steadman was a decent high school golfer and better hockey player, but upon graduation he enlisted in the Army and went through Special Forces training. His unit was based in Stuttgart, Germany, and from there they deployed to various theaters. After an almost non-stop half-dozen years of high-intensity duty, he was rotated home and stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. He has no regrets about his first career choice. He saw the world. He observed the hardships and day-to-day challenges of people in other countries. He grew up.
Steadman served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa during six years of service overseas. (Photos courtesy of Joe Steadman)
“Americans are really … we have it so good here. And we don't understand how other people live and kind of what other people struggle with,” he said. “At such a young age, being able to see all those different cultures and countries, it really gave me perspective.”
Golf was barely a thought while abroad, but he slowly got reacquainted with the game once he was stationed stateside. And because of his athleticism, and, yes, also because of some of his Army training—“You’d be surprised by the similarities,” he said—Steadman found himself improving significantly. In the meantime, he had gotten married, and he and his wife Sarah started a family (they have two children).
While still in the military as a combat instructor at Fort Bragg, Steadman pondered his future and found the idea of pursuing a career in golf increasingly appealing. And it just so happened that nearby Campbell University offered a PGA Golf Management undergraduate degree in its business school, where he enrolled in 2017.
“I had some injuries, and there were a lot of things going on where it leads to that little voice in your head, like, ‘Hey, man, you've got all your fingers and toes. Maybe it's time you look elsewhere,’” he said of leaving the military. “In no way do I regret what I’ve done. It really made me who I am. That experience and, again, just getting the perspective on the world and having the work ethic that comes with it.”
'If one vet can see this and say,"‘Oh, wow, this guy didn’t do it all by himself," and he can find something similar—and maybe it’s not golf—but just finds help and finds something to be passionate about, then that’s my hope.'—Joe Steadman
He was discharged from the Army in 2018 as Sergeant First Class, and that same year he served as an intern at Metedeconk National Golf Club in Jackson Township, N.J. While there, he worked under highly regarded swing instructor Terry Rowles, who cultivated his interest in teaching, and director of golf Brent Studer. The following year, Steadman graduated from Campbell and started giving lessons at the university course, Keith Hills.
This is the part of the story where desire, preparation and a bit of fortune create an opportunity. Some of the regulars at Keith Hills also enjoy playing privileges at CCNC through its Patriot Program for veterans, and one of the men taking lessons from Steadman asked if they could meet at CCNC for a lesson, but not before getting permission from the club’s director of golf, Jeff Dotson.
Dotson decided to watch the range session and came away impressed. He liked Steadman's demeanor and knowledge of the swing. “He is a smart guy with really good experience almost way beyond his years,” Dotson said.
Steadman walks with his son after his graduation from Campbell University. (Photo courtesy of Joe Steadman)
Not long after, in early 2020, just before the pandemic hit the U.S. in full force, two positions opened at CCNC. Dotson and COO Don Hunter thought of Steadman and hired him as an assistant. As spring turned to summer, the club considered hiring a teaching pro, but Dotson knew they didn’t have to look far.
“I said, ‘We've got the guy right here.’ And to be honest, with our ties to the military, it felt good to hire a veteran,” Dotson said. “Joe started in February, and almost immediately he developed a following among the members. It is hard to go out and hire an established teaching professional, especially if you haven't had one before. Joe had already made it clear that his family's intention was to put down roots, so it was a natural fit. It was a very easy decision.”
Steadman said that every day on the job “is like a vacation,” and while he chooses to not discuss his combat experiences, you can sense that, yes, by comparison, it probably feels like a vacation. He still has internal battles to confront, but along with the support of his wife and two children, the game allows him to thrive and not just cope.
So, on this Veterans Day, Joe Steadman has a message for his fellow service men and women. He didn’t want this story to be about him, and he only reluctantly agreed to talk about it, but he understands how his story represents them, the many thousands of veterans. And to that end his thoughts are about them, especially those struggling with anxiety or depression or merely that hard transition to civilian life.
“If one vet can see this and say, ‘Oh, wow, this guy didn’t do it all by himself,’ and he can find something similar—and maybe it’s not golf—but just finds help and finds something to be passionate about, then that’s my hope,” Steadman said. “Maybe a guy is strung out or worn out or he doesn’t know what to do, let this be an example. It’s daunting to leave the military. It’s daunting dealing with having been in the military. So, yeah, if I help one person here … other than my family, I focused on golf. It motivated me. And it helped me deal with all the other stuff.
“But, again, it doesn’t have to be golf. …”
True, but golf is not a bad option. He can even point you to a good instructor.