Military golf continues to thrive at many underrated courses

Imagine this: teeing it up at Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill and Cypress Point with no waiting, no fees … just go. During World War II, soldiers stationed at California’s Fort Ord enjoyed such exceptional perks. Offering this today might spark a welcome stampede to recruitment offices.For decades, golf and the military have enjoyed a special relationship, most notably with U.S. Presidents. However, things weren’t always so compatible. King James of Scotland banned the game in 1457 upon discovering troops abandoning archery practice for golf, although the short-sighted monarch would have benefited from the complementary hand-eye coordination both skills require.Since WWII, commanding officers prided themselves on showing off their units’ stellar golfers. After completing 21 European flying missions, scratch-golfer and Army Air Corps B-17 pilot Billy Hamlin, now 97 and living in Portage, Mich., returned to the Pacific to lead the Air Force golf team.“The captain’s job was between another guy and me. But he was a dentist and they needed him home to fix choppers … and not the flying kind!” Hamlin says. He recently hung up his clubs, saying “there’s no one to play with.”The game also boosted morale, lifting spirits of POWs. Guards at Stalag Luft III allowed prisoners to create makeshift golf holes utilizing sticks, poles or trees to define boundaries. Using Red Cross-provided clubs and American ingenuity, they fashioned golf balls from rubber shoe shavings and leather stripped from boots. Golf was used strategically during the Vietnam War. Ejecting from his EB-66 “Bat-21” aircraft, avid golfer and USAF Lt. Col. Iceal “Gene” Hambleton, communicating with rescuers, pinpointed a daring extraction site using familiar golf holes’ yardages and direction. The 9th hole at the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Eisenhower Blue Course is pictured in Colorado Springs, Colo.Fred Vuich/USGAToday, golf remains popular within all service branches. The military is one of the top course management companies in the U.S., operating 125 facilities, but courses receive no taxpayer funding and, by law, must be self-sufficient. Green fees are structured by pay grade and largely range from $20-$60. Many are currently meeting financial goals through public-access programs which require simple vetting, background checks and annual fees of $10-$30. While military courses merit kudos for proficient service, they get no props within golf rankings. According to Golf Digest Architecture Editor Derek Duncan, who leads the publication’s ratings panels, “The Air Force Academy’s Blue Course at Eisenhower isn’t a candidate, and the U.S. Naval Academy course is another I can think of … though they should be.”Naval Academy architect William Flynn’s design credits include Shinnecock Hills, Cherry Hills and Merion, and Robert Trent Jones Sr. sculpted Eisenhower, so why the omissions? Access is likely problematic, with civilian raters unable to gain entry. Sometimes, design factors like aesthetics and ambience could fall short considering the expansive and inherently unglamorous grids of military complexes. National Guard Association of Michigan Executive Director Jeff Frisby says that many installations do find unique and adaptable sections of land to use and some courses rival the best attributes of top private clubs.“Fort Gordon in Georgia is a favorite,” Frisby says. “It’s extremely nice, but there was something special about playing in Augusta, knowing just miles away is one of the most famous courses in the world.”Passionate golfer and veteran Communications Specialist Doug Waite didn’t realize he’d played so many base courses. Retired Navy Senior Chief Greg Lees and Retired Senior Chief Douglas Waite at the Legends at Parris Island in South Carolina.Courtesy Doug Waite“As a Navy retiree, these low cost courses are still available to me … a nice benefit,” says Waite, who fondly recalled playing Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam Navy/Marine Golf Course. “Without courses allowing personnel to play a first-rate Hawaiian course at mainland military prices, options would be limited due to high costs.”Top Florida courses Waite recommends are the 27-hole Casa Linda Oaks facility at Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville, Windy Harbor, an eclectic 18-hole course at NAS Mayport, and the AC Read at NAS Pensacola, a celebrated course featured on the Florida Historic Golf Trail, many of its 27 holes running along Bayou Grande Inlet. In addition, the Navy course at Sewells Point in Norfolk, Va., is a stunning facility where Arnold Palmer played during his 3-year Coast Guard stint from 1951-54. “The USMC Boot Camp at Parris Island, S.C., isn’t really noted for having a good time,” Waite says, laughing. “However, the Legends course is a delight … a beautiful layout winding through marshes and ponds, with huge alligators sunning themselves.”Veteran Dan Shepherd played base courses during his ’80s Army service. Now, as a golf PR specialist, he visits the industry’s best resorts but nostalgically remembers those early days at Fort Bragg’s Donald Ross-designed Stryker course. “Any golf was heaven!” he says.The Donald Ross-designed Stryker course at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.Courtesy U.S. Army MWROne unique aspect of playing military courses is unparalleled. “There is so much happening, with military aircraft flying around while enjoying the game … and this helps inspire patriotism,” says Frisby. “For 10 years of my military career, I lived at Little Rock AFB in Jacksonville, Ark. This outstanding course was tucked away in the Arkansas pines and on any given day you’d see aircraft overhead, training and conducting routine exercises. Being there, under those perfecting their profession to protect our nation … never grew old.”In mid-July, the USGA will host the 2023 U.S. Girls Junior at the Air Force Academy’s Eisenhower GC in Colorado Springs, Colo., its first major championship at a military facility. Similarly, the Golf Association of Michigan (GAM) will hold its own U.S. Girls Junior state qualifier at Selfridge ANGB.Then there’s the altruistic side of military association with golf: recognizing its healing power. American Lake Veterans Golf Course, located on the grounds of the VA Hospital near Tacoma, Wash., was re-fashioned to be adaptive-friendly and provides stress relief not only for mentally and physically disabled patients at the hospital, but also employs them. Super-patriotic Jack Nicklaus designed the second nine and renovated the original nine, but didn’t stop there.Partnering with Lt. Col. Dan Rooney and his vision to resurrect the family’s Grand Haven Golf Club in Michigan, Nicklaus designed American Dunes, sans architectural fees. A true tribute to military traditions and fallen warriors while benefitting Folds of Honor, this destination course and reverent complex has gained top national recognition from the golf world as well as military and civilians alike. More importantly, millions in scholarship dollars have been awarded through Folds of Honor to the children of those who gave all for their country. In addition, other organizations address physical and emotional trauma many veterans experience after leaving the service. Two of them are Tee It Up for Troops and the PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere) programs, which teach adaptive golf to disabled veterans and also host events to raise both awareness and funding.Army National Guard veteran Kate Melcher learned to play golf from her dad, Joe Melcher.Courtesy Kate Melcher“Tee It Up offers opportunities for wounded warriors to learn golf, sometimes after they’ve lost limbs in combat,” explains Army National Guard veteran and former Apache helicopter pilot Capt. Kate Melcher. “There’s an annual event at Florida’s Reunion Golf Resort where wounded veterans meet others who served during any era. I went in my role as Executive Director at Fisher House Michigan, but ended up reuniting with a friend from Officer Candidate School, Matt Anderson, who was injured overseas; but that hasn’t stopped him becoming a scratch golfer.” PGA HOPE hosts multi-week classes for veterans to learn golf but also connect with other veterans, many suffering from war injuries and PTSD. Operating at almost 350 locations in 48 states and territories, over 10,000 veterans will be served in 2023 by PGA professionals trained in adaptive golf and military cultural competency. The Northern California Section PGA Foundation will host “The Salute at Pebble Beach” from June 30-July 4 to benefit PGA HOPE. Isn’t it ironic that after almost 80 years, military golf will come home to Pebble to return the favor? 

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