With help from Estes, wounded warriors find a new challenge — golf

Former PGA Tour pro teaches game to combat veterans

November 05, 2010|By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

Growing up in rural Longwood, Va., Dean Schwartz loved playing sports, especially football and soccer. Golf was never much on his radar, until he suffered a life-changing injury while serving in Iraq with the Virginia National Guard.

A combat engineer with the Second Infantry Division in Mosul, Schwartz lost most of his left leg after a rocket-propelled grenade attack May 8, 2004. When he recovered enough to take an internship with Disabled Sports USA in Rockville, Schwartz learned of a program that teaches golf to wounded warriors.

The Salute Military Golf Association is a four-year-old organization run by former PGA Tour pro Jim Estes out of Olney Golf Park.

"I was always into sports, but without my knee, some of those are a lot tougher," Schwartz said one Saturday morning this fall while he and more than a dozen other injured soldiers worked with Estes and some of his fellow teaching pros. "It's almost impossible to be competitive at them now. Golf has taught me a lot of patience as well, something I've got to have, going to hundreds of doctors' appointments and things like that."

It has also helped Estes get something different from a game he has played at the highest level but with only a modest level of success. When his 10-year career — spent mostly on the Nationwide Tour — was coming to a close, Estes had to figure out something else to do.

Giving lessons and playing in local events would carry him only so far, and the idea of playing the Champions Tour — something Estes said he might try to do — was well in the distance.

"I started working with Disabled American Veterans, a nonprofit here locally, by doing what's called a 'Salute Servicemen Day,' in 2005," said Estes, of Germantown. "The whole idea behind that was that I asked the golfers locally to give lessons, and in return people would donate to the DAV. All the manufacturers came out, and people got to try the new equipment. It was a great success. We raised about $30,000."

From that, DAV asked Estes whether he was interested in starting his own nonprofit as a way to help one of its own volunteers, an unemployed wounded veteran who worked as DAV's unofficial treasurer, get a paying job. In 2007, Estes established his own nonprofit, the SMGA.

Things started slowly, with the SMGA's first event raising only $10,000 through local sponsorship and $375 entrance fees for the players. The one prerequisite for membership is that the soldiers have to have been wounded in action.

"Obviously, you can see some of the physical ailments, but a lot of them you can't see because they have cracked vertebrae in their spine, a lot of them have traumatic brain injury or PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]," Estes said.

Estes said this year's event — held June 14 at Manor Country Club in Rockville — raised $60,000 and membership has risen to about 150.

"What we try to do is tap into the folks in the defense contracting industry like Northrop Grumman, FedEx Custom Critical and other companies like Ernst & Young, AT&T," Estes said. "We've got a lot of help."

Estes — who had two top-15 finishes on the PGA Tour in 1998, his only season on tour, and won once on the Nationwide Tour — has also received support from the PGA Tour, which has opened pro-am spots to wounded warriors and given them the opportunity to hit ceremonial tee shots at a number of tournaments, including the AT&T National hosted by Tiger Woods, whose foundation has given the SMGA a small grant.

For his work, the PGA of America will recognize Estes with its 2010 Patriot Award at its annual dinner Saturday in Boston.

"It's a great honor to be recognized by your peers as someone who has provided unwavering commitment to the men and women of the armed services," Estes said. "But I'm not one who's caught up in awards anyway. I just feel like everybody should be doing this. The greatest thing you can do for anyone is to put your life on the line."

Estes is trying to expand the SMGA to other parts of the country but acknowledges that it has been difficult.

"Once they migrate and leave Walter Reed [Army Medical Center], that's when we don't have the ability to connect with them and give them the opportunity to play in other areas," Estes said. "But there are still guys in North Carolina and different parts of the country that we still provide tournament opportunities for. I think it's worthwhile; I think it's helpful."

There are logistical issues locally, too. After having as many as 60 wounded warriors show up throughout the summer, only about 15 came for one of the final sessions in late September, in large part because the usual contingent from Fort Meade had lost its driver as well as the officer who had been working with Estes' group in approving the soldiers' leaving their posts.

"The transportation at Fort Meade is not available right now," Estes said.

As he surveyed the scene, Estes smiled as he watched the wounded warriors try their new challenge. Some had the basic skills down, but many of the newcomers looked as if they had never picked up a club. Estes can tell them about Sean Lewis, a Gulf War veteran and single-leg amputee who went from never playing to breaking 100 within three months of his first lesson.

"Most of them have never played, which is a reason I think it's a great tool," Estes said. "Many of them thought they couldn't play."


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