A fully accessible 18-hole golf course in Washington is giving injured veterans a place to relax and heal through the power of sport.
A golf course that once resembled a cow pasture with dead grass has been given new life and is, in turn, giving life back to injured veterans. American Lake Veterans Golf Course in Lakewood, Wash., near Tacoma, Wash., is the only completely Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant course in the U.S. and possibly even the world. Everything from the clubhouse and restrooms to the immaculate greens and tree-lined fairways is accessible.
For the more than 200 volunteers who operate and maintain the 18-hole, par 71 course, being able to help veterans is a pure labor of love. The course even ranked No. 1 on Golf Digest’s 2015 list of “The 9 Most Cheerful Courses in America.” With the back nine holes designed by golfing legend Jack Nicklaus and his design firm, the course continues to attract more and more veterans seeking a place to heal, exercise and socialize.
From A Pile Of Dirt
The original front nine holes were built as part of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Puget Sound Health Care System in Tacoma in 1956 with a budget of $25,000.
“The golf course was shaped a little bit, but the only real thing they did was push a big pile of dirt together, smooth it out, throw some grass seed on it and call it a green,” says Bruce McKenty, course manager. “They did put a sprinkler system in, and that eventually gave out in the 1990s. The golf course was burning up.”
Then in 1995, the VA pulled funding for all golf courses at VA hospitals, and most of the courses were sold to local municipalities. The VA held onto about a dozen courses, including American Lake. When the VA halted funding, a group of about 40 volunteers petitioned the VA to take over operations and maintenance of the course. Up to that point, any funds collected through greens fees, range balls and golf cart rentals went into a VA account, and checks written to vendors needed VA approval.
“We’ve gone lightyears ahead of that now,” McKenty says. “These volunteers had to learn how to cut grass and take care of greens and the whole nine yards.”
In 2003, volunteer and golf coach Harold “Pepper” Roberts entered the picture. He was concerned about the condition of the grass and decided he needed to help. Roberts formed a 501c3 nonprofit called the Friends of American Lake Veterans Golf Course, which was incorporated in December 2004. The Friends raised over $180,000 to rent equipment and buy materials to revamp the sprinkler system and bring the grass back to life.
“The VA said, ‘You guys aren’t contractors, so you’ve gotta prove to us you can do this,’ ” McKenty says. “So, they had us go out and do the driving range. We did the driving range successfully, so they gave us permission to do the entire nine holes.”
It took about nine months to complete the work with the help of volunteers who were all in their 60s and 70s. That started the process of making the course bigger, better and accessible.
Making It Accessible
The group lessened the slope on the tee boxes and spent about $38,000 to make the sand traps shallower so the specialized mobility golf carts could drive in and out of them. In 2007, the volunteers turned their attention to the tiny clubhouse. They received permission to tear it down and had an 8,500-square-foot, two-story clubhouse built in its place. It included fully accessible restrooms and an indoor training area with a Full Swing simulator. The second floor, which is accessible by elevator, houses a conference room, library and lounge. In 2008, an activity area with picnic tables and pavilion was added, as was a covered driving range and a nine-hole putting green. The new clubhouse was finished in 2010 at a cost of $1.4 million, all of which was donated.
“It attracted a lot of attention from veterans coming on and off [the VA campus],” McKenty says. “They didn’t even know this golf course existed, and now all of a sudden there’s this big, beautiful clubhouse that doesn’t look like any other building on the VA campus. We had doctors come over from the VA saying, ‘Well, how can the VA spend money like this when they don’t have money to get me bandages and whatever?’ And I told them the VA didn’t build this building. We built this with donated money and then we gave it to the VA.”
Pictured left to right: an unidentified veteran, Harold “Pepper” Roberts, Anthony Netto, Jim Martinson, current Paralyzed Veterans of America National President David Zurfluh and Joe Sapienza got to test drive a ParaGolfer in 2007.
Once they put the clubhouse in and word got out through the Friends’ publicity, the nine-hole course started getting crowded. Because golfers could play all day for $15 and most would play two rounds, the course began to deteriorate.
“About three or four years ago, we had 37,000 rounds one year and we had 41,000 the next year,” McKenty says. “We said, ‘Ya know what, we need to build another nine holes,’ because the course is getting crowded and just the wear and tear of everybody playing it twice, it was wearing the course out.”
When the idea came up to expand the course to a full 18 holes, it was Friends director Ken Still who brought Nicklaus and his design team on board. Still, who passed away in March at age 82, was a member of the 1969 U.S. Ryder Cup team with Nicklaus.
“We’ve got a lot of men and women coming back home, and they need our help,” Nicklaus said in an announcement when the back nine opened in June 2016. “I will never forget meeting a gentleman who, after coming home from Vietnam, tried several times to take his own life. Then he was introduced to American Lake and the wonderful people involved there. That association, along with the game of golf, helped save his life.”
All of Nicklaus’ work was pro bono, but the Friends still had to raise about $3.5 million for construction. Dubbed the Nicklaus Nine, the new nine holes was the 400th Nicklaus Design to open worldwide since 1969. The volunteers were the first to play it, and Still had the honor of hitting the first ceremonial tee shot.
“People when we first opened in June, [the back nine] was all they wanted to play,” McKenty says. “We said, ‘Hey guys, we need to control this.’ We’re like any other golf course. You start on hole 1 and you play one through 18 and finish on 18. We make a few exceptions for our elderly golfers and people with disabilities who can really only play nine holes.”
In general, McKenty says the front nine has more trees and is shorter because of the restrictions on the property line when the course was built. The back nine is more of a links-style course — a little more open with bigger greens — and the grass grows taller outside of the rough.
“We have a signature hole, which is a par 4, and it’s not the most challenging hole, but it’s the prettiest hole on golf course because the tee box is elevated about 100 feet from the fairway and the green,” McKenty says. “It’s a short par 4, and some people can drive the green, and we’ve had a couple people get a hole-in-one on it.”
Bob Brush, a hospital liaison and vice president for the Paralyzed Veterans of America Northwest Chapter, has been a volunteer at the course for about nine years. Brush, 65, has used a wheelchair since he was 54 when a series of neck surgeries went badly, resulting in paralysis. He says his favorite hole is No. 2 because he can drive the green, even with his one-handed swing.
“When you drive the green, guys like us in a wheelchair, it’s just the same as we’re getting a hole-in-one,” Brush says. “It’s all good.”
A Stress Release
While the golf course remains on VA property, it recently signed an agreement giving all management and maintenance responsibilities to the nonprofit Friends of American Lake Veterans Golf Course. McKenty says the Friends are now working to raise funds to build brick-and-mortar accessible bathrooms at a central location on the course, so those using the SoloRiders and ParaGolfers would be able to drive in, “rather than have to go find a tree someplace.”
“We are the envy of western Washington,” McKenty says. “Our golf course is in absolutely beautiful shape. And none of us are professionally trained to do what we’re doing here, but we learned how to do it and we do a really good job taking care of our veterans, and we’re very proud of that. We just continue to find newer and better things to do for our veterans, and that’s what we’ve dedicated the rest of our lives to.”
The course now has eight four-wheeled SoloRiders and two three-wheeled ParaGolfers. The SoloRiders and ParaGolfers are lightweight and two-wheel drive, so they’re less likely to harm the greens.
“We have the equipment to offer to the disabled veterans who need the mobility- impaired golf carts,” McKenty says. “You won’t find another golf course in the United States that has 10 or 12 mobility-impaired golf carts and a course that’s been modified so those carts can drive in and out of sand traps, on greens, tee boxes and everywhere else.”
The course has about a dozen trainers, including some VA physical therapists, who have been trained by other professional golfers who handle various disabilities. Brush is the golf course’s ParaGolfer and SoloRider mechanic, a marshal and golf instructor, but he never golfed before his injury and didn’t think he could play after his injury. He had the opportunity to give golf a shot when ParaGolfer inventor and founder of Stand Up and Play Foundation Anthony Netto was doing a demonstration of his invention.
“He asked me if I wanted to try it, and I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ And I hit the ball pretty good, and I’ve been here ever since,” Brush says. “I thought people who played golf were nuts, chasing a ball around a field. I said I don’t see no fun in that, but I love it. I felt great. I call golf my stress release. This place is a blessing for us guys.”
He started instructing other veterans with disabilities shortly thereafter. Brush works with his students for eight to 10 weeks, going from the Full Swing simulator to the driving range to the putting green and eventually to play nine holes.
“It shows these guys with disabilities that, yes, they can have a productive life and they can do what they thought they could never do,” Brush says.
He loves volunteering and golfing at American Lake because it helps him relax, and Brush finds it calming to see other people enjoy it, too.
“This golf course has made me who I am today, and if I didn’t have this golf course I don’t know if I’d be alive or not, because I had a lot of stress. Now, I don’t have no stress,” Brush says. “It’s the best thing since apple butter. I love it, and I want to get more people involved. That way, they don’t get pressure sores. Get out and do something.”
For more information about the course, visit alvetsgolfcourse.com or call 253-589-1998.
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