By Gail Wood
“I was angry,” he said. “I went through a couple of years where I was pretty bitter.”
But Martinson, an Army veteran who was injured fighting in Vietnam in 1968, found rescue in seemingly an unlikely place – a golf course. It was at the American Lake Veterans Golf Course that he found a place to heal.
“You find out you’re not alone,” Martinson said.
And, to Martinson’s surprise, he found out that he could still do a lot of the things he did before his injury, including golf. Martinson, and other veterans like him, have shown that a disabling injury doesn’t have to be the end of life.
This nine-hole, 377-acre golf course next to American Lake and the nearly 200 volunteers that keep the course open are key in that recovery.
“This place is magical,” said Ken Still, a former PGA golfer from Tacoma.
And the course is popular. Last year, the course had 33,000 rounds of golf played. That’s about 13,000 more rounds than neighboring courses had.
To meet those growing demands, the American Lake Veterans Golf Course, which opened in 1956 and is open only to veterans, is expanding. In March, work will begin on a 9-hole addition and it’s projected to be ready for golf by the spring of 2015.
It’s an ambitious project for a golf course that lost government funding in 1995 and has been supported by donations and modest green fees ($12 for vets and $20 for guests) ever since. Bruce McKenty, the course manager – a volunteer, of course – found help to build the 9-hole addition in an unexpected place.
Jack Nicklaus, the PGA legend, donated his time in designing the additional nine holes, which will also be handicap accessible. American Lake Veterans Golf Course claims to be the only golf course with disability access in the country.
Back in 2009 it took just one phone call from Still, a long-time friend of Nicklaus, to convince the PGA’s all-time winningest golfer to help.
“It took him about 10 seconds to say yes,” Still said.
With Nicklaus onboard, McKenty is hoping name-identity will help in fund raising. It certainly brought media attention in September when Nicklaus was part of a groundbreaking ceremony. With $1.7 million in the bank right now, McKenty said about another $1.8 million is needed to be raised to pay for the cost of the additional nine holes.
“We all have an opportunity to say thank you to the men and women who have given so much for our country,” Nicklaus said.
In the last few years, the Friends of American Lake Veterans Golf Course association raised money to pay for a driving range, a covered eating area for barbecues, larger tee boxes, handicapped accessible bunkers and greens, mowing equipment and special golf carts that allow disabled vets to golf from. On Mondays, free golf lessons are given to vets. Ages of the volunteers range from 23 to 95.
But it’s not just about golf. It’s about handshakes, friendships, vets getting out and saying “Hey, how you doing?” to the familiar faces in the golf course club house. The club house was built in 2009 for $1.4 million with socializing in mind.
“It’s as much social as anything else,” McKenty said. “We designed this building so that it would accommodate the needs of our veterans. Part of the needs is that they go out and golf nine or 18 holes and come back here to socialize.”
Martinson golfs from a special three-wheel golf cart that has a moveable seat, raising him in position to hit the ball. Golf has become his latest challenge. Not long after his injury, he began racing in wheelchairs (he won the Boston Marathon wheelchair race) and that led to him starting a sports equipment company that made wheelchairs for racing. Now, he’s an active volunteer at the golf course, working with other veterans.
“It’s much more than a golf course,” said Roger Gatts, the course assistant manager. “It’s a place where veterans can come and start to rehabilitate back into life.”
Russ Carlson, who lost a leg in an injury during the Vietnam war, is another veteran who encourages others to get up and get going.
“He’d talk with people who said, ‘Oh, I don’t think I can do that,’” said Jim Sims, president of the Friends of the American Lake Veterans Golf Course referencing his experience with Carlson. “Then he’d bang on his false leg with a club and say, ‘Do you think you’re going to get any sympathy from me? Come on, lets go.’”
“And we’ll help you do it,” Sims said.
Without the volunteers, McKenty said there’d be no veterans golf course.
“And all of us have our hearts pointed in the right direction,” Gatts said. “That’s taking care of the veterans.”
9600 Veterans Drive SW
Tacoma, WA 98493