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Military and Golf: Rich History, Challenging Future

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It’s my turn to tee off in the match I’ve got going with my buddy on the course at Fort Bragg, N.C., where we’re stationed with the 82nd Airborne Division. And since I don’t have an ice pick handy, I grab some of the fallen pine needles to make a little “bed” for my ball to lay on. No way a tee is going in the ground. It’s freezing outside and the ground is rock hard, but we’re playing golf anyway. Because we love it, the course is open, and it keeps us out of trouble.

Fort Bragg is in the Sand Hills region near Pinehurst and Southern Pines, otherwise known as The Home of American Golf. And while our modest little military base track pales compared to the sprawling, iconic Pinehurst courses, it’s as good as Augusta National to us. It’s our course, we can play it at a bargain-basement rate, and it provides almost everything the elite courses do – fun, competition, camaraderie, tradition, the great outdoors, and a place to make birdies.

And it’s responsible for one of my favorite and most enduring golf memories – watching Jack’s back-nine charge to his last green jacket with a clubhouse full of fellow service members. The roars emanating from our little building raised the roof. Nothing like sharing a special moment with kindred spirits. That’s one of golf’s great charms. But I digress…

Golf and the military have a long, rich history in this country. For as long as the game has flourished in America, military members have embraced the game, perhaps none more so than our Commander-in-Chiefs. Ike was an Augusta National member, and Gerald Ford skulled more than one spectator while playing (poorly yet avidly). Donald Trump owns courses and reportedly mixes rounds with running America, as did Obama, Clinton and the Bushes before him. When was the last time the POTUS didn’t avidly play golf? Jimmy Carter? Ronald Reagan?

Leave that to the fact-checkers, and it doesn’t matter. The point is that golf and the U.S. Military are deeply interwoven – from the highest level to the rank-and-file troops who comprise the vast majority. There are 145 American base golf facilities globally (111 in the U.S.). That portfolio makes it one of the largest collections of courses in the world. Add that there are tens of millions of past and present service members who golf, and countless generations to come, and it’s clear that military golf is, pardon the pun, a force to be reckoned with – good and bad.

The Good

The spectrum of courses ranges from modest, municipal-type tracks to top-notch layouts combining outstanding design with spectacular locations and views. Think Hawaii, California and Colorado, Virginia, Texas and South Carolina. As an Army vet who has worked in the golf industry for the past 20 years, I’ve experienced both first-hand, and I can honestly say that I got as much benefit from playing the military courses as from the swankiest resort or private club course.

Benefit is the key word when it comes to judging or evaluating military golf, which falls under the military’s department of Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR). Those three words perfectly describe the benefits that base golf facilities provide service members past and present, as well as their families.

Many service members – former and current – suffer from significant stress and physical disability. It is well-documented that they experience relief and enjoyment while they’re on the golf course, practice range or putting green. It helps them cope, heal and recover — to experience life as fun, hopeful and free from mental anguish again, even if for a short period of time. In many cases, these golf experiences serve as springboards to enhanced wellness. That’s good for their mental health and physical well-being and that of their families, as well as our military readiness overall.

The Bad

Since 2011, there have been zero funds appropriated for stateside golf courses. Most income base golf courses receive comes from green and cart fees. This creates annual revenue shortfalls as many base courses provide very low rates for service members past and present. Hence, many are falling into disrepair – both on and off course (practice facilities, on-course accessories, restrooms, additional accessibility, cart barns, maintenance equipment/facilities, clubhouses, etc.).

Left unchecked, this scenario spells, if not doom for military courses, certainly a slow, steady decline, and along with it the benefits afforded our selfless, patriotic soldiers.

The Solution

Operation Support Military Golf (OSMG) is a non-profit organization that was formed to address this challenge. To understand OSMG is to understand Founder Jennifer Poth and her father, Lt. Col. John E. Poth. USAF Ret. Jennifer was born with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, a condition that prevented her from following her father into military service, which was her dream.

After playing junior golf four years in high school, she signed with Texas A&M University. Its strong academics, athletic standards, and military presence inspired her. Jennifer left competitive golf after college and focused on using her Sports Management degree. Her goal was to work for the PGA Tour, so she packed her truck and drove from College Station, TX, to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. She spent her first six months in Florida scrubbing clubs, working the bag drop, and in the pro shop at TPC Sawgrass, ultimately earning a position traveling 26 weeks per year as a Shotlink Producer for the Tour. After seven years with the Tour, she parted ways, earned her master’s degree in Sports Management, then founded JP Golf Consulting and Design.

While working for herself was rewarding, bettering Florida golf courses did not fulfill her lifetime desire of serving her country. Shortly after the Boston Marathon terrorist bombings in 2013, Jennifer realized a way to serve our military through the game she loves. Since then, she has devoted her professional career to combining her love and passion for our United States Military and golf through OSMG.

OSMG is dedicated to “Reviving the Golf Courses that Revitalize our Heroes.” They are green-space havens that at some overseas bases are the only safe and/or affordable recreational space for service members and their families. Who does OSMG serve?

  • Active Duty & Reserve Personnel – as a means of R&R and unit bonding
  • Medically Retired, aka Wounded Warriors – in their life adjustment recovery process
  • Retired Veterans after an honorable career – as a well-earned perk for their service
  • Future Generations of service members – investing in our future and our people
  • Families of all the above – providing service members the knowledge that their dependents have a safe environment to learn and play a game that teaches positive, lifelong lessons, such as the values of integrity and tradition. This is especially important during deployments or as a means of reintegration upon their return.

With $1 million targeted per course for renovations and many facilities falling into disrepair, the Poths need many people and groups to rally together.

After five years traveling the country, putting countless pieces together (and using their personal savings to do so) – from navigating the protocol required to get military approval at the highest levels, to recruiting leading golf organizations to pledge their support – Jennifer and Lt. Col. Poth have built the runway. Now it’s time to fly. Work on OSMG’s inaugural project – at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, FL – is scheduled to begin this spring.

Arnold Palmer Design Company has made the in-kind contribution of providing the architectural drawing for a practice facility, and MacCurrach Golf Construction is scheduled to implement it this year. And several leading industry organizations have answered the call and pledged support though in-kind services to OSMG, including Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, American Society of Golf Course Architects and the Golf Course Builders Association of America.

There are not enough funds to replace the cart barn and two on-course restrooms at Mayport, but OSMG is striving to secure them. The second upgrade project will occur at MacDill Air Force Base, assuming funds are secured to complement the generous in-kind services already donated.

With the support of individual and corporate donors, Military Golf will have a solid future. That’s good for everyone.

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A University of Maryland graduate, Dan is a lifelong resident of the Mid-Atlantic, now residing in NoVa. Fan of all D.C. professional sports teams, Dan fell in love with golf through Lee Trevino's style and skill during his peak years. Dan was a newspaper journalist, editor of Golf Inc. magazine, then a PR professional specializing in golf people, places and things for 17 years, rising to Vice President in Billy Casper Golf's PR division. In 2018, Dan started his own company, Dan Shepherd Public Relations, LLC, catering to golf, travel, lifestyle, attractions of all types, and non-profits (www.operationsupportmilitarygolf.org).

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Have you ever played a golf course and remembered where you used to hit the ball on certain holes? Have you ever gotten to a 360-yard par-4 and recalled when you used to lick your chops because you knew a little flip wedge for your second was ahead? Ever made shooting your age your next big goal? If you have, welcome to golf’s back nine, the time when you keep seeking improvement knowing full well it will never be what it once was.

Aging is another vivid example of the paradoxical beast that lies at the heart of our game. If we’re totally honest, we admit we can’t do anything as well as we did 25-30 years ago. Yet a little voice never far from our golf ears keeps whispering, “If you just move the ball in your stance and adjust your grip, you will hit it solid again.” That’s when we need to be honest and ask, “What does solid mean at 65-70-75 years old?” It certainly isn’t solid like it was at 35 years old, but it may be more solid than the last shot, or yesterday. And as we’ll see, it just might be solid enough for the home stretch. So we keep playing and practicing in a search for golf’s version of a fountain of youth.

If you are, like this author, closer to the 18th green than the first tee, here are 7 golden nuggets for the golden years:

1. Forget how you used to play

Stay present and take what the game gives you now, here, today. If that’s 210 off the tee, get your fairway woods and hybrids out and do the best you can with your inevitably longer approach.

2. Work on your scoring game

If aging has robbed you of flexibility and strength, it does not have to affect your game from 100 yards in. Seniors need to chip and putt more than any other age group.

3. Yoga and Pilates

If you think we’re old, we are a babe in the woods compared to these ancient disciplines. The mind/body connection is vital for seniors. And… the results speak for themselves! Staying as flexible and as strong as you can for as long as you can is vital for senior golf. Oh, and walk and carry whenever possible!

4. Get properly fitted

Not only do we play senior golf dreaming of yesteryear, male seniors often let testosterone affect their game. I get sooo many seniors coming to see me who are ill-fitted for their equipment, or more accurately, using equipment that once fit their game85-90 mph clubhead speed does not likely require a stiff shaft, 9 degrees of loft or 75 grams of weight to achieve proper launch and landing conditions. Good senior golf demands brutal honesty with yourself.

5. Consider swing “adjustments,” not “new swings”

I don’t want to be a bearer of bad tidings here, but as a teacher of many years, I know this much: The swing you’ve had for oh so many years is not going to change. At least not very much. The does not mean it can’t be made more effective. I “tweak” seniors, not break them down.

6. Play forward tees

I’m a club professional, and I was a fairly decent player once. At 70 years young, I am proud to say that I play white tees measuring no more than 6300 yards. And in a few years, I’ll likely move up again. It’s just a fact of life and denying it is futile.

7. Check your fundamentals

Just because a certain grip, posture or ball position was effective once, as we age, all these may need adjustments from time to time. Swings get shorter, slower, narrow, etc. And as they do, we have to allow for these things and find new ways to complement the “senior swing.”

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Enjoy the back nine. I know I am.

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