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June 11, 2012
With equipment, instruction and plenty of encouragement, golf manufacturers are helping Wounded Warriors get their lives in order
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June 11, 2012

The Healing Game

With equipment, instruction and plenty of encouragement, golf manufacturers are helping Wounded Warriors get their lives in order

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He's now in his 30th year as executive director of Disabled Sports USA. The DSUSA includes a branch called Warfighter Sports, which administers adaptive clinics like the one at Olney Park. Golf can serve as an ideal diversion for Wounded Warriors, Bauer notes, "to keep them from dwelling on their disability." The same, of course, can be said about kayaking and mountain climbing. (Bauer, 64, spoke to SI between training sessions for his mid-June attempt to summit 20,320-foot Denali Peak in Alaska.) Golf's advantage, he says, is that it can be introduced early in the rehab process.

"It really brightened my spirits," says Marine Capt. Antoine Bates, who stepped on an IED in Sangin, Afghanistan, on June 25, 2011, and had his left leg amputated below the knee. "It gave me something to look forward to." Before he was wounded, Bates played occasionally. "I sucked," he says. "I had the slice from hell." His lower left leg is gone. Somehow, so is his slice. "The PGA guys teaching us are so good," he says, "I now have a chance not only to play golf but actually be good at it."

No sport has embraced Wounded Warriors like golf. Birdies for the Brave, created by Phil and Amy Mickelson to support troops injured in combat, has been subsumed by PGA Tour Charities Inc. Many of the sport's major equipment makers—Bridgestone, Callaway, Cleveland-Srixon and TaylorMade, among them—donate generously to similar causes. Ping, meanwhile, has gone all in, partnering with Warfighter Sports to design eight-week courses offering Wounded Warriors instruction from PGA pros specially trained in adaptive techniques. Candidates who complete at least six sessions get a set of custom-fit Ping clubs. The company gives out around 80 full sets a year. It's worth noting that like most of the other equipment manufacturers who work with the military Ping chooses not to publicize those efforts.

By its count Callaway has donated almost 81,000 clubs and countless balls to military locations around the world. At many of the crude driving ranges set up by soldiers in the Middle East, balls are hit only once. "Too dangerous to retrieve them," says a company exec.

Callaway also gives custom-designed clubs to Wounded Warriors, with its own special twist. "We'll get 'em in a hat, get 'em out on the range, next to Jim [Furyk], next to Phil [Mickelson]," says Callaway tour manager Dean Tekyl. "Then we'll take them through a fitting like we'd do with the guys we pay to endorse our products. It's an honor and a privilege to work with these guys."

At the Transitions Championship in Palm Harbor, Fla., in March, one of the Warriors was moved to tears by the generosity of the Callaway crew. "He hadn't played before he got wounded," says Tekyl. "He had taken up golf because it was the only game he could play with his kids."

"But if you cry, we're all going to cry," warned one of the Callaway guys. He did, and they did.

Some of the soldiers who've given the most want the least in return. Mark Holbert is a former Green Beret who returned from Afghanistan without both legs up to his hips. His missing right thumb is almost an afterthought.

"A lot of people want to help me, which I really appreciate," he says. "But my feeling is, let me figure this out myself."

He remembers being loaded onto a helicopter in Afghanistan. "A nurse told me she was going to put me to sleep." It was Aug. 16, 2010. "I wake up in Walter Reed, and they're telling me it's the last week of September." He was severely septic. "They had him on crazy doses of antibiotics," recalls his friend and fellow Green Beret, Joe Diaz. "There were questions about whether he was going to make it."

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