Golf course for veterans inspires donor


LAKEWOOD, Wash. ' Out of the hospital with a repaired heart and a new appreciation for life, millionaire businessman Gene Lynn went searching for a way to share his good fortune.
When he read about American Lake Veterans Golf Course, a spot that caters to military veterans and welcomes those with physical challenges, Lynn realized hed discovered a project worth tackling.
Now, thanks to a $200,000 gift from him, a little help from Jack Nicklaus and a determined volunteer staff that keeps the course running on land owned by the Veterans Administration, the courses shoestring fundraising efforts have developed into a new, more ambitious effort.
The goal is to upgrade the nine-hole course just a short drive from Fort Lewis, creating a golf complex thats accessible for any veteran no matter what their physical ailment might be.
Everyone I met out here gives their time. Im used to a world where everyone is trying to make a buck. These guys all give their time. They love what theyre doing, said Lynn, who learned about American Lake by reading an Associated Press story published last year. Its a calling, there is no doubt about it.
To accomplish their goal, the Friends of American Lake Foundation is launching a $5 million fundraising drive this month with a pair of well-known co-chairmen: golfing great Nicklaus and Gen. John Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and one-time commander in chief of U.S. forces in Europe.
Organizers are convinced that golf purists will be drawn to the Golden Bear, while veterans will pitch in out of respect for the former four-star general.
What makes these efforts even more amazing is that the course has survived without any true government funding and operates solely with a dedicated staff of volunteers, Nicklaus said in a statement. So if there is anything our organization can do by volunteering our support and services, we are going to do that.
When Pepper Roberts started volunteering as an instructor eight years ago, he could only imagine a day when such an undertaking was suggested.
In the last couple of years, the Friends of American Lake raised an average of $256,000 in small donations for manageable course projects like rebuilding tee boxes, making bunkers accessible for SoloRider golf carts and building a picnic shelter.
The organizations new goal is to raise enough to pay for the construction of a clubhouse-rehabilitation center, to build nine new holes previously designed by Nicklaus group, and to provide a cushion to buoy the foundation in the future.
Ultimately, the course ' which was played more than 20,000 times last year ' would like to set an example for other veterans golf facilities around the country. All have been without federal funding since it was cut by the government in the mid 1990s.
Its going to be unique. I dont know of any other course in the United States that the golf course is designed for the handicapped, said Roberts, the foundation president. There are other courses that might have other people come that are handicapped and play it but the course itself is not designed for them. This one is going to be designed for them.
After his first visit to the course, Lynn ' who served in the Army from 1955-57 and was stationed in Alaska ' immediately pledged $200,000 toward the project. Hes already hitting up friends that live in the same exclusive residential community outside Palm Springs, Calif., and has hired a fundraiser.
He thinks big, with names like Gates and Clinton regularly rolling off his tongue as potential donor targets. His daily passion is pushing forward with the projects at the golf course.
Lynn constantly reiterates hes not in this for attention. Its his quest for fulfillment ' he hopes to give about $500,000 of his personal money eventually.
This is the most compelling situation Ive ever come across in my life, Lynn said.
Shalikashvili was never a golfer because the game took too long.
But even now, nearly 74 and following a major stroke five years ago, he can be helped into a SoloRider cart, and taught how to swing a club. Even more than that opportunity, Shalikashvili realizes the importance of camaraderie for all vets who use the course.
I feel great about it. Im a Vietnam war vet and Im a Desert Storm vet and we came home from Vietnam and you didnt want to wear your uniform. The welcome was not there, Shalikashvili said. But now these guys come back and theyre welcomed with open arms and have the feeling that the VA and military services are worrying and caring about them and welcoming them (back).