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Met PGA HOPE Puts Veterans On The Golf Course

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Golf club pros are seldom busier than right now. Members are demanding lessons, kids programs are getting underway, outings are filling the calendar, and the golf season is rapidly gathering steam. Which makes it all the more remarkable that ten of them volunteered an afternoon at West Point Golf Course to give lessons to a group of military veterans as part of the Met PGA’s HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere) program. The look on the vets’ faces tells why the pros do it.

Rob Zawacki, an infantryman who served in Iraq and came home with PTSD, said the program has been a huge help. “It’s the first time I’ve found something that can focus my mind,” he said. “It’s great!”

Army vet Rob Zawacki works on putting skills.

The HOPE program includes six weeks of golf instruction and camaraderie led by volunteer professionals from Met PGA Section courses. The vets are from the VA Health System headquartered in Montrose, New York. This year, the first for the program in Westchester and the Hudson Valley, about 30 vets have enrolled. Though most of them have never held a golf club, the results have been extremely rewarding for everyone concerned.

“You can’t believe how much fun these guys have,” said Sleepy Hollow head pro David Young. “They are really into it.” 

Jared Troise, a Coast Guard veteran from Long Island, took time out from heckling one of his buddies on the chipping green to say, “It takes a lot more skill than I thought. It’s a great time, though.”

At the beginning of the June 18 session, New York Giants star David Diehl stopped by for a quick word of thanks to the group for their service to the nation. It evolved, naturally, into a photo session.

Anthony Ariola, a Poughkeepsie native who served with the Army in Afghanistan, said he’s getting into golf. “I played when I was a kid,” he said, “mostly fooling around with my buddies. But that didn’t stay with me. Now, the pros are giving me some little tweaks that are straightening out my game.”

From left: Jared Troise, David Young, and Anthony Ariola 

Amy Hahn, a recreational therapist with the VA, reports she gets “goose bumps when I think of how these guys have responded.” She points out the program is helping them build confidence, self-esteem, and providing social interaction. “It shows them they can do what normal people do.” Most of the participants are in the Healthcare for Homeless Vets and Supportive Housing programs provided run by the VA. “When Thursday comes around,” she says, “they’re all asking, ‘Is it time for golf yet?’”

According to Charlie Robson, executive director of the Met PGA, “They kind of stood around during the first session and you could tell they were wondering why they were here. Now, they’re really into it.” Robson says the real key to success will be to keep the vets playing. The Met PGA hopes to start league play and to involve other VA facilities in Yonkers and Long Island in subsequent years.

Centennial pro Kregg Moyer gives a driving lesson.

Pros helping out on June 18 included Kevin Rodine (Westchester Country Club), David Young (Sleepy Hollow), Heath Wassem (Fenway), Bob Bigonette (Michael Breed Golf Academy), Kregg Moyer (Centennial), Paul Glut (Woodside Acres), Mike Turnesa, Jr. (Baldwin Golf), Stewart Waach (Silvermine), Ray Ford (Rolling Hills), and Andy Crane (West Point Golf Club).  Met PGA Player Development Director Jonathan Gold and Director of Operations Kelli Clayton manage the program.

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