The Army lieutenant colonel, paralyzed below both knees, is propped up inside a “SoloRider,” a specially designed cart with a seat that tilts up to support disabled golfers when they swing. He takes the new club, leans over the ball and follows the legend’s instructions.
The white ball soars into the sunny Northwest sky, past lush evergreens and lands about 150 yards down the driving range.
Dudek’s drive – specifically the dedication and promise for renewal it represents – is why Nicklaus is here outside Tacoma, Washington. The golf great is donating his expertise to design what will perhaps be the most appreciated course he’ll ever build.
Nicklaus is helping U.S. combat veterans by redesigning and expanding the American Lake Veterans Golf Course. It’s going to be a one-of-a-kind, 18-hole layout geared specifically for disabled golfers.
“All projects are very important to me. But this one is out of love,” said Nicklaus, who has designed more than 300 courses around the world and has 100 more in the works. “I’m a hired gun to do things a lot of places. But I’m not a hired gun here. I’m doing this because I want to do it.”
Nicklaus wasn’t at Pebble Beach this week with the rest of the American golf establishment for the U.S. Open, a tournament he won four times as part of his record 18 major championships. He wasn’t getting paid to put on another clinic.
He was taking time from a trip to Asia to give back to a military in which he never served by helping some of America’s wounded veterans rebuild their lives.
“You know, I was married and had children before I even got out of college, so I was never in the service,” Nicklaus said. “I never knew what these guys have gone through, and it’s just something to be behold. I had a lot of friends who were in and went to Vietnam. They came back and their lives were scarred in a lot of ways. So to be able to give back – even though I couldn’t contribute from that standpoint, I sure can from this standpoint.”
Nicklaus is donating his expertise to build a new back nine and tweak the front nine holes at American Lake. The course was originally constructed as a nine-hole place of respite – not rehabilitation – in 1955, on the grounds of the Veterans Administration hospital near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
On Monday, he conducted a 45-minute clinic for soldiers and civilians after flying from Florida and New York earlier in the day. Wearing black slacks and a yellow, American Lake sweater vest over a light-blue golf shirt, he pulled clubs out of a black bag with his trademark golden bear on it.
The 70-year-old Nicklaus, who says he now only plays five or so times a year, held his audience enraptured. A few soldiers in desert camouflage uniforms and black berets bellowed from behind the ropes, “HOO-AHH, Jack! HOO-AHH!”
Then Dudek teed up. The colonel and commander of the Warrior Transition Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord for soldiers returning from war walks with the aid of braces strapped to each arm. An improvised explosive device detonated into his back in 2007 while he was an artillery officer deployed to Iraq.
Dudek, satisfied with his first swing of the day, smiled. So did Nicklaus.
“Did you play golf before you were injured?” Nicklaus asked. “You had to.”
Dudek admitted he did.
“It kind of doesn’t compute, it doesn’t make sense: I’m standing in front of Jack Nicklaus!” Dudek marveled.
There was no place Nicklaus would rather have been.
“I’m delighted,” he said.
Nicklaus got involved at the urging of Ken Still, his good friend and a teammate at the 1969 Ryder Cup.
Still and his American Lake committee wanted to enlarge their course and make it specifically for wounded veterans. But that vision needed funding, expertise – and a big name to attract donations and credibility.
They don’t get much bigger than Jack Nicklaus.
“Ken Still is a pretty solid guy,” Nicklaus said. “He says, ‘Jack, you need to be involved out here.’ I said, ‘What do you what me to do Kenny?’ He says, ‘I want you to come out and design a golf course for these guys.”’
That was all Nicklaus needed to hear.
After the clinic, he led an invitation-only reception, part of American Lake’s efforts to raise the $3 million it needs to begin turning the course into an 18-hole getaway for the wounded and disabled.
“When you lose a limb, lose an arm, all of a sudden you feel like you are ostracized from society. This puts these guys back into society. It gives them self-worth,” Nicklaus said. “To us, their self-worth will never be questioned. But to them, sometimes they worry about that … golf gives them a new lease on life.”
“It’s great. I’m just so pleased to be involved and help out in any way that I can.”
Tuesday, he saw for the first time the land he will design into the final nine holes. Driving a cart past stunned veterans golfing on the front nine, Nicklaus and two of his senior designers spent more than three hours unfurling blueprints and sketching hole layouts. He was covered in dust as he talked about moving trees and dealing with power lines. He pondered how he will turn dirt and brush and deep green forest into perhaps the most needed course he’ll ever build.
He’ll have to modify some of his usual concepts. His notoriously deep sand traps with steep lips will have to be shallower so the special carts can access them.
“My usual sea bunkers aren’t going to work here, are they?” Nicklaus said.
Asked for the other modifications he will have to make, Nicklaus shrugged.
“I don’t know. It’s all uncharted for me,” he said.
“Hopefully this is a prototype for a lot of places around the country.”
Nicklaus’ work is the centerpiece of the $4.5 million project at American Lake called “A Course in Courage: Healing America’s Veterans through Golf.” His design will start becoming reality once American Lake raises about $2 million more.
It’s estimated that eight of every 10 golfers who play American Lake have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. And those who play keep coming back. Many older veterans now volunteer on the course’s maintenance crews.
More than 12,000 rounds of golf were played at American Lake between April and August of 2009. The demand is expected to grow soon, as the largest number of homecoming of veterans in 30 years arrives back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many will have severe injuries and emotional trauma.
Gen. John Shalikashvili, the retired former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suffered a massive stroke in 2004 and is in a wheelchair. The resident of nearby DuPont, Wash., was among those golfing from a SoloRider during Nicklaus’ visit.
“I think it’s terrific,” Shalikashvili said of the course. “Because it shows that no matter what the injury is, it’s not life-ending.”