How golf is bringing veterans together

Nonprofits like Patriot Golf Foundation and Folds of Honor are among many that are connecting, assisting America's soldiers and their families

Military Vets
Military veterans take part during a one-day golf school in 2020.

As Lt. Col. Dan Rooney's flight landed following his second of three tours of duty in Iraq, the pilot's somber intercom message would forever change Rooney’s life.

The remains of Corporal Brock Bucklin were on board it was announced. The words stung. Rooney later watched as Bucklin's twin brother walked alongside the flag-covered casket to meet the family, which included Bucklin's young son, Jacob.

In 2007, Rooney, a certified PGA professional, founded the nonprofit Folds of Honor foundation with a purpose of providing scholarships to spouses and children of disabled or fallen service members. Jacob Bucklin became the first of 29,000 scholarships awarded — mainly with the help of golf.

An F-16 fighter pilot in the Oklahoma Air National Guard, Rooney also established Patriot Golf Day, which funneled into Folds of Honor. The grassroots initiative encouraged golfers around the country to donate at least $1 with their green fee at select courses. The first year, 2007, took in more than $1.1 million; $2.1 million the next year; and more than $2.3 million in 2009. The donations gradually grew from year to year.

Since 2007, Folds of Honor has raised more than $50 million and thousands of facilities have agreed to host Patriot Day events throughout the year. The PGA of America, United States Golf Association and myriad other golf organizations got on board.

“Patriot Golf Day was created to honor those who have made a significant sacrifice in the name of freedom and to ensure their legacy through education,” Rooney said.

Rooney's vision wasn't the first nonprofit foundation to help veterans. The Wounded Warrior Project (2004), Tee It Up For the Troops (2005) and the John Daly-Major Ed Heart of a Lion Foundation (2020) are just a few examples that have assisted current and former military personnel, and families, in need through golf.

The Patriot Golf Foundation in Scottsdale, Ariz., is another. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the foundation was founded by Seth Glasco and Ted Simons last year. Glasco, a renowned instructor, initially came up with the idea after attending the first Patriot Cup at Patriot Golf Club in Owasso, Okla. Listening to Rooney's story there moved Glasco.

He called Simons, who he met while both were with the Jack Nicklaus Academy of Golf.

"He said, 'Let's take golf instruction out to the veterans, raise money and share proceeds," said Simons, Patriot Golf Foundation executive director. "I said, 'Let's go, I'm in.'"

Simons wrapped up 18 years as the executive vice-president and COO for Nicklaus Academies and the foundation took off. He has helped develop Patriot Golf Schools that utilize former Nicklaus Academy and Golf Digest Schools instructors. Proceeds from the schools and related programs are shared with qualified military veteran organizations, he said.

Then COVID hit. The foundation had to cancel two huge events: one in Orlando and another at the Patriot Club.

The Patriot Golf Schools were able to host two one-day golf schools in early 2020: the first at Monarch Beach Golf Links in Dana Point, Calif. in January before the second at Scottsdale's Camelback Golf Club in February. The 24-person golf school had 18 participants, six military veterans and six instructors. Simons had been introduced to Vet Tix, a national nonprofit that supports the veteran and military community with event tickets ranging from concerts to pro games. Vet Tix helped facilitate veterans to take part.

Simons has seen veterans from every branch of service, including every golf level, engaged in various functions he's attended.

"It's so heartwarming to see these individuals come out," Simons said. "Obviously PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is hidden and you can sense it when watching.

"We do have some adaptive golfers. Our instructors are so good at getting it down to the fundamentals and having them interacting with the golf ball. It's about creating an environment of success. You see these women and men get the ball in the air for the first time — it's heartwarming and makes you realize why you invest your time in helping."

COVID may have delayed plans, but the Patriot Golf Foundation would ideally like to run sponsored or partnered events throughout the country, where proceeds benefit local veterans and families.

"We want to provide that participation experience," Simons said.

More than that, the camaraderie aspect tends to bring some out of their shell. Rooney and Simons both said that they've often found veterans exchanging contact information. The golf connection could potentially bridge an otherwise empty gap.

Or, in other words, as Simons said, quoting his foundation's mantra, "It's all about the healing power of golf."