Golf course provides special place for veterans
In this moment, Jackson is simply another golfer. With a typical C-shaped whip swing, he cannons 300-yard drives down the middle of the fairway. Not bad at all.
His back story is what makes the drives amazing. The four times his vehicles were hit by roadside bombs in Iraq. The post traumatic stress disorder that clouds his thoughts. The medications he must swallow each day simply to function.
None of that matters here. When Jackson arrives at American Lake Veterans Golf Course'a haven for military veterans from World War II to Iraq that sits a short distance from Fort Lewis'Jackson is another hacker, trying to use his passion for smacking around a little white ball to help him cope with the aftermath of tours in Iraq.
Its really nice having a place to go out and not be looked at as being different than anybody else, said Jackson, who goes by Spc. Jackson when hes on base at Fort Lewis, working in the Warrior Transition Battalion. Ninety percent of the guys out here are wounded veterans from World War II all the way up to now. We all deal with similar limitations and just get out there and have fun.
The fact Jackson and his comrades have American Lake as a sanctuary is thanks to the yeomans work of some determined veterans, who wouldnt let the tree-lined course about an hour south of Seattle become a pasture when Congress cut funding to all military golf courses in 1995.
Nearly every veteran who walks onto the course has an ailment of some sort: an amputated limb; a noticeable limp; those who are blind and those who cannot walk.
Here, they can relax and make friends, sharing their military experience as a bond.
I prayed for death pretty much every day after I got out. I felt pretty much useless, said Dave Best, a veteran of the Iraq war who is now the operations manager at the course. Hes also the treasurer for Friends of American Lake, the nonprofit that handles fundraising for the course. (Then) I came out here to this support group.
Best and Jackson certainly arent alone in seeking help on the course.
Take, for example, Staff Sgt. Travis Spradlin.
Spradlin was hit in the shoulder by a sniper in Iraq in August 2007. For a time, he lapsed into a coma.
Now he has turned to golf as a coping mechanism in his recovery. Once nearly a scratch golfer right-handed, Spradlin was forced to switch to lefty because of his injuries'relearning all the basic muscle movement that once came so naturally. With help from Pepper Roberts, a soon to be 77-year-old who has helped the course survive and thrive, Spradlin quickly picked up the game from the opposite side.
It can be (hard). It all depends on the person, all depends on where they are in the continuum of healing, said Kristine Goedhard, program manager for Rehabilitation Care Services at VA Puget Sound Health Care System. Some youll find that if they were really good at something before an injury occurs, its really hard for them to try it if theyre not as good as they were before. Some are ready right away after an injury.
Spradlins reliance on golf as his therapy was evidenced on a recent Monday. After finding out he would no longer be on active duty during a midday meeting, Spradlin was back at the course that afternoon.
After my injuries and the severity of what its like to be in Iraq, and the day-to-day business of being over there, this is someplace we can come and play golf thats relaxing, Spradlin said. You dont have the high pressures of military life.
With the likes of course manager Mike Kearney working tirelessly, the course stayed open long enough for Roberts to arrive seven years ago.
Roberts was a former golf coach in the nearby Clover Park School District and Jim Smith, then the course manager, was a friend who asked Roberts to help with clinics and sit on the golf course board of directors. Smith promised it would take only one day a month.
That was the first lie he told me, Roberts cracked.
Roberts became the catalyst for a plethora of improvements at the course and many others in the planning stages. He was astonished the first time he came to American Lake and realized a course designated for military veterans was only accessible for the able-bodied.
I was always a little bit amazed that the only people that could play the course were those that could walk it. They had no carts, none of that stuff, Roberts said.
So he got to work, writing grants, seeking donations, helping to form the nonprofit corporation and asking for all the help he could garner.
Through the groups fundraising, the course acquired a handful of SoloRider golf carts that allow severely disabled, or even partially paralyzed golfers to still swing a club. The cart swings the seat and can physically support someone who otherwise couldnt stand themselves, allowing a chance to swing and putt.
The greens and bunkers of the course were redesigned or replanted, allowing the SoloRiders to be driven into the traps and onto the putting surface. A three-hole short-course was built within the driving range, keeping the nine-hole course open for the regular stream of vets that cycle through.
Pat Gailey, the course project manager, estimated that $360,000 worth of work has been donated by local contractors wanting to help out.
Its easier to get $8,000 or $10,000 worth of work donated than a check of $2,000, he said.
A covered driving range was constructed with stalls large enough to accommodate wheelchairs. Theres also an A-framed picnic area, and a new clubhouse is next on the docket.
The ultimate dream for those in charge is constructing another nine holes and creating an 18-hole complex. Rough sketches are already in place, courtesy of Jack Nicklaus design group'a favor that was called in.
Thats the benefit of having Ken Still, a former Ryder Cup teammate of Nicklaus and close friend, on the American Lake board.
There is a difference between having a cookie bake sale and the type of money well need to build it, Roberts said. I need a little bit bigger donations than the cookie sale.
Whatever American Lake becomes, the basic principle still remains fellowship and a different type of rehabilitation.
Maybe Russ Carlson tells it best. A Vietnam vet who lost his left leg, Carlson once attempted suicide'unable to handle the idea of becoming a civilian believing he was a freak. Now hes one of the first to greet every new face that walks onto the course property.
Things that Ive seen, I dont want it to happen to these guys, Carlson said. I dont think it would be fair to them. I think they deserve more than what the government is giving to them. So every little bit we do we try and help. Thats what were there for.
Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile
Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.
The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.
"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."
He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).
Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Web.com Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.
“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."
Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.
Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Web.com Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.
Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.
The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.
McIlroy gets back on track
There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:
He is well ahead of schedule.
Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.
“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”
To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”
And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.
After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out.
Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.
“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”
The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.
The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)
But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.
Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.
Everything in his life is lined up.
Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.
Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore
Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.
Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.
There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.
Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.
The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.
Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again
Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.
Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.
It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.
Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.
While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.