I've been lucky enough to travel the world playing golf, but one of my all-time favorite golf trips was unlike any other.
In September 2015, I was embedded in a group of disabled American military veterans called "Heroes to Ireland." We toured the Emerald Isle by bus, playing some fantastic links and receiving a warm Irish welcome wherever we stayed. The trip was the idea of Justin Farrell, a golf tour operator who founded Links of Ireland (linksofireland.com), and Brian Coleman, the founder of Golf Supports Our Troops, a New-Jersey based nonprofit that has shipped thousands of donated golf clubs and balls to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, taken hundreds of vets to PGA Tour events and raised enough money to install seven wheelchair-accessible synthetic putting greens at VA hospitals around the country.
Meeting the heroes on this trip -- guys who have lost limbs and suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder -- was a privilege and inspiration. I'm now proud to call many of them friends. It also opened my eyes just to what an important role golf can play in their lives. I had one former soldier tell me it literally saved his life, lifting him out of depression.
Veteran's Day is Nov. 11. Why not give back to men and women who have sacrificed so much to serve their country? Golf is a great vehicle to do so. There are numerous ways to give back to veterans who love the game:
1. Donate money to key veteran golf organizations and causes
There are too many worthy veteran golf organizations to list, but let's touch on a few. The Veteran Golfers Association (www.vgagolf.org) -- launched in 2014 in Southern Pines, N.C. -- provides veterans playing opportunities with tournaments around the country. Donations can range from $5 to purchase a wristband to join the "Band of Golfers" campaign up to $250 or more to join the VGA's wall of honor.
Patriot Golf Day, held annually since 2007 over Labor Day weekend, collects donations for the Folds of Honor Foundation (foldsofhonor.org), which awards post-secondary educational scholarships for children and spouses of military killed or disabled while serving. Most golf courses ask for donations when you play that day, but some hold elaborate charity outings.
Coleman, who can be reached at email@example.com, is again raising money for a second "Heroes to Ireland" trip in 2017. Donations of $100 or more will be entered into a raffle to win a four-person golf trip to Ireland donated by Farrell that includes four-star accommodations, a mini-van rental and rounds at Old Head Golf Links, Waterville House & Golf Links, Ballybunion Golf Club and Lahinch Golf Club.
2. Play golf with a veteran
Many veterans don't have the discretionary income to play as much golf as they would like. Why not host a veteran to tee it up at your club or local course? If you don't know where to find a veteran who loves golf, turn to the VGA -- home to 1,500 golfers in 44 states. Simply send your name, contact number, golf course, city and state to firstname.lastname@example.org, and the VGA will arrange a golfer to play with you.
Another option is to buy a veteran a GolfNow gift card, which can be used on tee times at more than 5,500 golf courses throughout the U.S. Military also receive 15% off at many courses around the country via MilitaryTeeTimes.com.
3. Play in, organize or sponsor a fundraiser
There are probably dozens of charity fundraisers that raise money for veterans golf organizations at a course near you. Just ask around. The easiest way to contribute to their success is to play in one of these events, but maybe you can dig into deeper pockets by getting your employer to become a sponsor or donate a prize.
If your club or favorite golf course doesn't already host a charity event for military golfers, why not organize one? It will take time and effort to secure prizes, local sponsors and players, but there's no better way to give back. Just pick a cause -- the VGA, Golf Supports Our Troops, the Salute Military Golf Association, Tee it Up for the Troops (based in Minnesota), Folds of Honor, etc. -- and get going.
Dave Windsor, a PGA Professional/principal instructor with the Adaptive Golf Association and the Adaptive Golf Academy (two PGA of America-recognized programs) said it doesn't have to be big. He suggests a "Patriot Appreciation Play Day" where a men's or women's association at a private club invites a pair of veterans to come play and then speak to the group afterward. Donations to a cause would be voluntary.
4. Donate golf equipment
The SMGA (www.smga.org), a non-profit based in Maryland, collects donated clubs and golf bags that are less than five years old and in good condition. It also collects items that can be used in fundraising auctions such as tickets to sporting events, gift cards, vacations/trips and sports memorabilia.
Many courses collect donated items, too. "Heroes to Ireland" participant Jim Daniels, who lost a leg in Vietnam, said the men's associations at Lake Jovita Golf & Country Club and Tampa Palms Golf & Country Club collect equipment, balls, bags, pull carts, shoes and more to distribute to ex-military like him in central Florida.
5. Visit a VA Hospital to promote golf
Many injured veterans feel lost when they try to assimilate into civilian life, especially if they've suffered a life-changing injury. John Bircher, another Florida vet I met in Ireland, believes a visit to a VA Hospital to talk about golf could go a long way to improving a struggling vet's morale. "Share with them what golf means to you and how the game has impacted your life and helped you to cope with any problems you might have," he shared in a Facebook post.
There are organizations dedicated to helping disabled veterans learn how to play golf no matter their physical or mental issues. Windsor regularly holds clinics around the country helping pros learn how to teach golf to disabled golfers who have prosthetic/missing limbs or have other cognitive issues. Ken Juhn, his friend, has been holding a weekly clinic for disabled veterans at the Terrace Hill Golf Club in Florida for nine years.
These are the guys I admire the most. They've spent countless hours on the range helping disabled golfers get back to the game. They are doing a wonderful patriotic duty. Are you?