Survival Through Fitness

By Jeffrey Waters and PGA Master Professional, Jeff Waters

When Jeff Burley, the Adaptive Sports Manager for Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation, went looking for a golf course to introduce a new program using golf as a vehicle to teach leisure skills to military veterans suffering from a variety of emotional, physical, and intellectual challenges including histories of chemical dependency, he went no farther than Mick Riley Golf Course.

The golf course had already developed a large junior golf program providing clinics, camps, and leagues to junior golfers throughout the Salt Lake Valley. Recognizing a need to expand the award-winning county junior golf programs to non-traditional populations, Burley and I—in partnership with the National Alliance for Accessible Golf and its Golf: Accessible and Inclusive Networks (GAIN) program—conducted inclusive training for the contract teachers on the golf course staff. This led to the development of adaptive summer camps for juniors with mental, physical, and emotional disabilities, which also included Valley Mental Health’s Adolescent Residential Treatment & Education Center and its kids in treatment sports programs. These innovating programs have received widespread attention from disabled populations in the area with corresponding increases in participation.

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Expanding To Include Veterans
Enter William R. Klinger, aka Doctor Bill, a recreation therapist at the Salt Lake Veterans Administration. Based on the success of the Junior Adaptive Golf Programs, Klinger, Burley, and I decided to offer a program to outpatients at the Veterans Hospital with histories of physical disabilities including chemical dependencies. The program’s goal was: “Recovery through recreation, which will improve the participant’s life skills and improve their lives.” The program was implemented in the spring of 2015 with a block of two-hour skill sessions spread over a month and a mini-tournament on Mick Riley’s executive course.

The results were sensational and an awe-inspiring success for all involved. Based on those results, the initial program was expanded from one five-week session to three five-week sessions with increased participation at each session. One of the patients went so far as to proclaim: “This golf program has saved my life.” As Klinger stated when the program started, “Structured time is not the problem for these veterans, free time is the problem. And golf will help solve that problem.”

I utilized two of my more experienced instructors to start up the initial program—retired Command Sergeant Major, Dan Gordon, who had completed a combat tour of duty in Iraq, and long-time county golf instructor, Jake Wanless. These instructors bonded immediately with the participants. Wanless, with 20 years of teaching experience, proclaimed, “Working with these wounded warriors is the single-most gratifying experience I have had working in the golf business.” Gordon, a decorated war veteran himself, called the program, “A godsend for these veterans. Golf has given them an opportunity to learn structure, rules, and social interaction with others with the same background and life experiences. This program has given them a chance to re-claim their lives.”

Jeffrey Waters is a PGA Master Professional for the Mick Riley Golf Course in Murray, Utah. Reach him at jwaters@slco.org.