While golf can be one of the most frustrating sports, depending on whether your ball lands in the tall grass, the wrong fairway, a sand trap or in the water, it can also boost one’s self-confidence.
Golf helped Derek Williams after the ulna bone in his right forearm was broken in half from an enemy bullet. Ironically, it hit where he had an anti-terrorism tattoo with Uncle Sam — while on deployment with the 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment, out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, in Afghanistan in June 2012. Six surgeries and months of rehabilitation later, Williams picked up a golf club and began playing.
Fast forward about 18 months and Williams is preparing to golf in the first Veteran Golfers’ Association National Championship at the Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina — specifically the No. 2 course — Tuesday-Wednesday. Not bad for someone who started playing less than two years ago. The qualifying tournament in September at JBLM’s Eagles Pride Golf Course was his first competition.
Williams, who won the Wounded Warrior Flight C with a 94 at Eagles Pride, won’t be able to play the sports he used to play before the injury, but he’s been able to play a full 18 holes despite his arm that will never completely heal.
“If you’re gripping the club correctly, it’s not going to require a whole lot of grip strength or bearing a lot of weight on the arm,” Williams said. “I do start to feel discomfort about three-fourths of the way through the round. It’s worth it though, and that’s what is awesome about the sport.”
About a year and a half ago, he was introduced to the sport by a group of friends from his unit. Then he heard about the nonprofit Salute Military Golf Association, which helped pay for him to receive golf lessons from Brian Mogg, one of the top instructors certified by the Professional Golfers’ Association.
Williams also received plenty of support from his friends and family as he became more involved with the sport. He said he credits golf for helping him through the adjustments he’s had to make physically and the issues related to post traumatic stress disorder.
“A good shot to help make par or maybe a birdie can be a good boost toward one’s self-esteem, especially when a veteran might not be feeling “up to par as far as (his) mind goes,” Williams said.
From his perspective, golf is a good mental game — perfect for the resilient veteran who has gone through the stress and pains of war and overseas deployments.
“You have a hard time exceeding and excelling in things you were good at in the past,” Williams said. “Now golf comes along and you have this thing you can excel in, if you put the work in.”
With less than two years of full-time golf experience, Williams believes the idea of golfing at one of the most prestigious golf courses in the country, graced by the presence of legends like Sam Snead and Ben Hogan in the 1951 Ryder Cup, is “insane.”
He is not the only JBLM golfer who will play two 18-hole rounds at Pinehurst No. 2. Micah Tilley earned a spot by finishing second in the men’s Flight A with a score of 75 at Eagles Pride. The first place golfer, Steven Broner (74), was one of many golfers who did not have connections to JBLM.
In fact, many of the qualifiers come from different parts of the country, including North Carolina, Nevada and Wisconsin. Others who competed at other various qualifying tournaments even traveled to multiple events, attempting to earn a spot in the VGA Championship.
“It hit me that it might be a bit bigger than I initially thought,” Tilley said.
Experience does play a major factor in performance. Tilley’s history with the game goes back to when he was first swinging a club at the age of 5 and played regularly in high school tournaments and club championships until he joined the Army at 19.
There were moments where he was able to play golf while stationed in JBLM between 2001 and 2004 and after returning from a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan in 2014. Now as a staff sergeant serving under the 1st Battalion, 229th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion on JBLM, he’s been able to spend at least an hour or two on most days of the week — whether on his way to or from work, or during a lunch break at Eagles Pride.
While he has never competed in a national championship golf tournament, Tilley feels he will be able to compete well against fellow service members and veterans with a 2-handicap and an average score that hovers around the mid-70s. While he is aware of the difficulty that awaits him at Pinehurst, he said he doesn’t plan to be intimidated by the course.
“It’s such a mental game that (if you were intimidated) you would be beaten before you even took a shot,” Tilley said. “I’m going to attack it like I would any other course.”