Veterans group seeks to build golf course

By Al TaysMarch 14, 2015, 8:10 am

There isn’t much evidence left that this land once was a golf course. Just some weatherbeaten stone tee markers rising from the weeds like miniature monoliths, and patches of pavement that used to be cart paths. But if Tom Underdown has his way, Bermuda grass will again grow here, as neatly trimmed as the haircuts of the men who hope to call this place home.

Underdown, 64, is no developer, and his vision is of no ordinary golf club. The Warrior Golf Club would be the home of the Orlando, Fla., chapter of Fairways for Warriors, a nonprofit organization founded by Underdown, both of whose parents served in the military, to help wounded veterans and their families. 

Fairways for Warriors holds outings, tournaments and clinics at several courses in the Orlando area. But it has to shoehorn its activities into their schedules, which, especially during Florida’s snowbird season, are often full. “We can’t always do all the things we want to do or need to do for our soldiers and their families,” Underdown said.

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“Having our own place, we could have our guys going there every single day.”

Fairways for Warriors is in negotiations to lease part of the former Meadow Woods Golf Course, which is currently owned by a church. Underdown envisions a driving range, a nine-hole course, a three-hole practice area, a short-game area and a clubhouse.

The facility is eight miles from a Veterans Affairs medical center which is scheduled to open this year. Underdown said veterans would be able to get from the VA center to the Fairways for Warriors facility via a light-rail system.

“We can provide jobs for these guys,” Underdown said. “We’ve got so many guys who are 100 percent disabled, sitting home every day - they could go to the Warrior Golf Club, they could volunteer for a couple of hours, they could hang out. The quality of life for them and their family would just escalate so much. We want to have seminars, activities, events at the clubhouse. We want to have a workout room, we want to have a library, a coffee shop. [It would be] so much more than just a golf clubhouse.”  

Underdown said Hilton Grande Vacations “has stepped up to be our major sponsor,” and he hopes to get assistance from the PGA of America, but Fairways for Warriors needs more financial help. “We need $1.2 million for the clubhouse, about $1.5 [million] to redo the greens and fairways. We need more donations.” Once the facility is up and running, Underdown estimates, green fees and other golf-related revenues would make it self-sufficient.

For most golfers, the opportunity to play on any given day is a luxury. For wounded veterans, it can be much more.

Many veterans who went into the military as teenagers find themselves exiting to a civilian life they have never experienced as an adult. The most mundane activities can be furiously frustrating.

Fairways for Warriors member Eric Napier smiles when he’s asked about a scene in the Oscar-winning movie “The Hurt Locker.” The main character, a bomb-disposal expert, is back home in the U.S. and standing in the cereal aisle of a grocery store. The camera pans over dozens of cereal choices, then focuses on actor Jeremy Renner’s face, which registers – depending on your interpretation – frustration, disgust, anger, confusion. Renner’s character ends up returning to Iraq and his insanely dangerous job, which he prefers to the mundaneness of civilian life.


Fairways for Warriors members Eric Napier (l), Steve Allberry

“I told people about that,” said Napier, who spent nearly eight years in the Army and was deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Senegal. “I came home and was really stressed out from the minutia of everyday life. Some people didn’t get it. They said it’s nothing compared to what you’ve been through. I said it’s the fact that there’s so much drama over so little that’s so stressful.

“When we’re over there working, we really have a handful of priorities. They’re life-and-death priorities, but I’ve got a handful and I can check them off. When I get home, I have an armload of priorities that don’t matter whether they get done or not, but the world we’ve built around ourselves, it’s life and death if I don’t get to the dry cleaners and pay that cellphone bill.

“It’s easy to get frustrated – ‘Why am I so upset over things that hold so little importance in my life and my family’s lives?’”

Frustration too often leads veterans to an irrevocable decision – to commit suicide.

Every member of Fairways for Warriors can recite this key statistic from a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs - every day, 22 veterans commit suicide.

Talking to Fairways for Warriors members, it’s rare to find one who hasn’t experienced suicidal feelings or known someone who has committed suicide. Underdown remembers a veteran who called him after learning about Fairways for Warriors, and wanted to join the group. “He was going to come out on a Saturday,” Underdown said. “The Monday before, he committed suicide.” Underdown can’t help but wonder if immediate access to a Fairways for Warriors club facility might have saved that veteran’s life.

Although it seems logical that once military men and women escape a war zone alive and return to their loved ones, their lives should improve, the sobering truth is that they still face life-threatening danger.

On the urban battlefield, the enemy hid in plain sight. Virtually any place, any person, might be concealing a bomb. Back in the United States, many of the veterans themselves have become time bombs, with potential detonators in their own minds and bodies: depression, pain, nightmares, rage, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The substances they often use to dull their pain – alcohol and drugs – become detonators as well.

A more effective treatment can simply be finding something to do and someone to talk to who understands what you’re going through. Through the vehicle of golf, Fairways for Warriors provides these two things.

“I was in a real bad place a little over a year ago,” said Fairways for Warriors member Steve Allberry, an Army veteran.  “Once I got connected with Fairways, I sold my house and moved over here to be closer. This organization is one of the best things that’s ever happened. I can’t wait -I sit around the house looking at the clock wondering when’s my next tee time with Fairways. I’m ready to get out. Everybody in Fairways is my family. I’ll do anything for them because I know they’d do anything for me.”

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Na: I can admit, 'I went through the yips'

By Rex HoggardJuly 17, 2018, 3:35 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Following his victory two weeks ago at A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier, Kevin Na said his second triumph on the PGA Tour was the most rewarding of his career.

Although he declined to go into details as to why the victory was so gratifying at The Greenbrier, as he completed his practice round on Tuesday at the Open Championship, Na shed some light on how difficult the last few years have been.

“I went through the yips. The whole world saw that. I told people, 'I can’t take the club back,'” Na said on Tuesday at Carnoustie. “People talked about it, 'He’s a slow player. Look at his routine.' I was admitting to the yips. I didn’t use the word ‘yip’ at the time. Nobody wants to use that word, but I’m over it now so I can use it. The whole world saw it.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Na, who made headlines for his struggles to begin his backswing when he found himself in the lead at the 2012 Players Championship, said he asked other players who had gone through similar bouts with the game’s most dreaded ailment how they were able to get through it.

“It took time,” he said. “I forced myself a lot. I tried breathing. I tried a trigger. Some guys will have a forward press or the kick of the right knee. That was hard and the crap I got for it was not easy.”

The payoff, however, has steadily arrived this season. Na said he’d been confident with his game this season following a runner-up showing at the Genesis Open and a fourth-place finish at the Fort Worth Invitational, and he felt he was close to a breakthrough. But being able to finish a tournament like he did at The Greenbrier, where he won by five strokes, was particularly rewarding.

“All good now,” he smiled. “I knew I was good enough to win again, but until you do it sometimes you question yourself. It’s just the honest truth.”

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Koepka still has chip on his chiseled shoulder

By Ryan LavnerJuly 17, 2018, 3:06 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Brooks Koepka prepared more for this Open than last year's.

He picked up his clubs three times.

That’s three more than last summer, when the only shots he hit between the summer Opens was during a commercial shoot for Michelob Ultra at TPC Sawgrass. He still tied for sixth at The Open a month later.

This time, Koepka kept his commitment to play the Travelers, then hit balls three times between the final round in Hartford and this past Sunday, when he first arrived here at Carnoustie.

Not that he was concerned, of course.

Koepka’s been playing golf for nearly 20 years. He wasn’t about to forget to how to swing a club after a few weeks off.

“It was pretty much the same thing,” he said Tuesday, during his pre-tournament news conference. “I shared it with one of my best friends, my family, and it was pretty much the same routine. It was fun. We enjoyed it. But I’m excited to get back inside the ropes and start playing again. I think you need to enjoy it any time you win and really embrace it and think about what you’ve done.”

At Shinnecock Hills, Koepka became the first player in nearly 30 years to repeat as U.S. Open champion – a major title that helped him shed his undeserved reputation as just another 20-something talent who relies solely on his awesome power. In fact, he takes immense pride in his improved short game and putting inside 8 feet.

“I can take advantage of long golf courses,” he said, “but I enjoy plotting my way around probably - more than the bombers’ golf courses - where you’ve got to think, be cautious sometimes, and fire at the center of the greens. You’ve got to be very disciplined, and that’s the kind of golf I enjoy.”

Which is why Koepka once again fancies his chances here on the type of links that helped launch his career.

Koepka was out of options domestically after he failed to reach the final stage of Q-School in 2012. So he packed his bags and headed overseas, going on a tear on the European Challenge Tour (Europe’s equivalent of the circuit) and earning four titles, including one here in Scotland. That experience was the most fun and beneficial part of his career, when he learned to win, be self-sufficient and play in different conditions.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“There’s certain steps, and I embraced it,” Koepka said. “I think that’s where a lot of guys go wrong. You are where you are, and you have to make the best of it instead of just putting your head down and being like, 'Well, I should be on the PGA Tour.' Well, guess what? You’re not. So you’ve got to suck it up wherever you are, make the best of it, and keep plugging away and trying to win everything you can because, eventually, if you’re good enough, you will get out here.”

Koepka has proved that he’s plenty good enough, of course: He’s a combined 20 under in the majors since the beginning of 2017, the best of any player during that span. But he still searches long and hard for a chip to put on his chiseled shoulder.

In his presser after winning at Shinnecock, Koepka said that he sometimes feels disrespected and forgotten, at least compared to his more-ballyhooed peers. It didn’t necessarily bother him – he prefers to stay out of the spotlight anyway, eschewing a media tour after each of his Open titles – but it clearly tweaked him enough for him to admit it publicly.

That feeling didn’t subside after he went back to back at the Open, either. On U.S. Open Sunday, ESPN’s Instagram page didn’t showcase a victorious Koepka, but rather a video of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. dunking a basketball.

“He’s like 6-foot-2. He’s got hops – we all know that – and he’s got hands. So what’s impressive about that?” Koepka said. “But I always try to find something where I feel like I’m the underdog and put that little chip on my shoulder. Even if you’re No. 1, you’ve got to find a way to keep going and keep that little chip on.

“I think I’ve done a good job of that. I need to continue doing that, because once you’re satisfied, you’re only going to go downhill. You try to find something to get better and better, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Now 28, Koepka has a goal of how many majors he’d like to win before his career is over, but he wasn’t about to share it.

Still, he was adamant about one thing: “Right now I’m focused on winning. That’s the only thing I’ve got in my mind. Second place just isn’t good enough. I finished second a lot, and I’m just tired of it. Once you win, it kind of propels you. You have this mindset where you just want to keep winning. It breeds confidence, but you want to have that feeling of gratification: I finally did this. How cool is this?”

So cool that Koepka can’t wait to win another one.

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Despite results, Thomas loves links golf

By Jay CoffinJuly 17, 2018, 2:48 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Despite poor results in two previous Open Championships, Justin Thomas contends that he has what it takes to be a good links player. In fact, he believes that he is a good links player.

Two years ago at Royal Troon, Thomas shot 77 in the second round to tie for 53rd place. He was on the wrong side of the draw that week that essentially eliminated anyone from contention who played late Friday afternoon.

Last year at Royal Birkdale, Thomas made a quintuple-bogey 9 on the par-4 sixth hole in the second round and missed the cut by two shots.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“I feel like I’ve played more than two Opens, but I haven’t had any success here,” Thomas said Tuesday at Carnoustie. “I feel like I am a good links player, although I don’t really have the results to show.”

Although he didn’t mention it as a reason for success this week, Thomas is a much different player now than he was two years ago, having ascended to the No. 1 position in the world for a few weeks and now resting comfortably in the second spot.

He also believes a high golf IQ, and the ability to shape different shots into and with the wind are something that will help him in The Open over the next 20 years.

“I truly enjoy the creativity,” Thomas said. “It presents a lot of different strategies, how you want to play it, if you want to be aggressive, if you want to be conservative, if you want to attack some holes, wait on certain winds, whatever it might be. It definitely causes you to think.

“With it being as firm as it is, it definitely adds a whole other variable to it.”

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Reed's major record now a highlight, not hindrance

By Ryan LavnerJuly 17, 2018, 2:46 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – The narrative surrounding Patrick Reed used to be that he could play well in the Ryder Cup but not the majors.

So much for that.

Reed didn’t record a top-10 in his first 15 starts in a major, but he took the next step in his career by tying for second at the 2017 PGA Championship. He followed that up with a breakthrough victory at the Masters, then finished fourth at the U.S. Open after a closing 68.

He’s the only player with three consecutive top-4s in the majors.

What’s the difference now?

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“The biggest thing is I treat them like they’re normal events,” he said Tuesday at Carnoustie. “I’ve always gone into majors and put too much pressure on myself, having to go play well, having to do this or that. Now I go in there and try to play golf and keep in the mindset of, Hey, it’s just another day on the golf course. Let’s just go play.

“I’ve been able to stay in that mindset the past three, and I’ve played pretty well in all three of them.”

Reed’s record in the year’s third major has been hit or miss – a pair of top-20s and two missed cuts – but he says he’s a better links player now than when he began his career. It took the native Texan a while to embrace the creativity required here and also to comprehend the absurd distances he can hit the ball with the proper wind, conditions and bounce.

“I’m sort of accepting it,” he said. “I’ve gotten a little more comfortable with doing it. It’s come a little bit easier, especially down the stretch in tournament play.”