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Above Par

Reprinted from PN August 2017

A fully accessible 18-hole golf course in Washington is giving injured veterans a place to relax and heal through the power of sport.

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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.


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.

“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.

For more information about the course, visit alvetsgolfcourse.com or call 253-589-1998.

 

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