America’s armed forces and war veterans have long been saluted by the golfing world.
Since World War I, golfers and fans have embraced the nation’s military, providing support on the front lines and homefront, aiding wounded veterans and boosting service members’ morale. A connection between the sport and the military continues through numerous initiatives.
PGA of America’s long history with the military began when it raised money for a Red Cross ambulance during World War I, said Allen Wronowski, honorary president of the organization. It has continued to raise money for veterans through charitable events, including the Folds of Honor Foundation, a nonprofit that provides scholarships for children and spouses of service members killed or severely wounded in battle.
Augusta National Golf Club has also lent support to the military. Prior to World War II, Augusta National cofounders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts wanted to provide recreation for soldiers at Camp Gordon on the outskirts of Augusta.
Proceeds from the 1942 Masters Tournament financed a putting green, driving range, golf clubs and balls at Camp Gordon. Jones even provided caps for Camp Gordon’s softball team that matched the green-and-yellow ones worn by caddies at that time, according to The Augusta Chronicle archives.
“Golfers wanted to promote the sport. It was their method of doing that,” said U.S. Army Signal Corps historian Steven Rauch.
Jones served in the Army Air Corps during the Second World War. While he was away, cattle and turkeys were raised on the course. The Masters was not held from 1943 to 1945.
The war’s end heightened the need to support returning troops. Soldiers from Camp Gordon, which was called Fort Gordon beginning in 1956, were offered badges to the Masters.
Four-time winner Arnold Palmer said soldiers who were asked to man the leaderboards in the 1950s were the origin of the affectionate moniker given to the large galleries that followed him.
“Those are the guys who started calling me Arnie’s Army,” according to an interview with Palmer in The Chronicle archives. “They used to holler at me and hold up signs. They were talking to me about playing well and would say, ‘We’re members of Arnie’s Army.’”
Other golfers showed their gratitude as the nation was again forced into
international conflict. Three-time Masters champion Sam Snead autographed his ball for a wounded Korean War veteran at the end of his second round in 1952.
Vietnam War veteran Clebe McClary said golfer Billy Casper – who had been playing some tournaments in Japan – visited a hospital filled with wounded troops when much of the nation had turned its back on the military during the conflict.
“Nobody came to the hospitals like they do today. It was very unusual for anyone to show interest in vets,” said McClary, a motivational speaker from Pawleys Island, S.C.
McClary lay in a hospital bed, severely wounded and near death when Casper came to his bedside to thank him for his service. The visit gave him the will to continue fighting for his life, he said.
“It was like I got slapped in the face. I needed that cause I had given up. God used him to save my life,” McClary said.
McClary and Casper reunited at the 2014 Masters, 46 years after they met in the hospital. Casper died in February.
The golfing world’s outreach and support continued through Vietnam and the Gulf War but was revived during the nation’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Wronowski said. Golfers have chosen a cause that permeates the national consciousness, and through charitable events, many players have heard heart wrenching stories they cannot ignore, he said.
“They see a need and build a relationship with that person. How many people in their life have not met a friend or family or neighbor who have told stories of what they have had to endure,” he said.
Golf was the flagship sport for the Folds of Honor Foundation. The organization’s Patriot Golf Day and other golf events held at 3,500 golfing facilities raised $5.4 million last year, said Wronowski, also director of golf relations for Folds of Honor.
Last year, 8,000 scholarships were awarded, he said. The foundation, created by F-16 fighter pilot Maj. Dan Rooney, wants to increase the number to 10,000.
“I’ve seen it change lives. I’ve seen people who lost a spouse or loved one who have no idea what there future is going to be. This gives them the opportunity to go back to school to able to support themselves or support their family,” Wronowski said.
The PGA Tour also has military outreach initiatives. Birdies for the Brave, founded in 2006 by tour player Phil Mickelson, raises money, holds military appreciation events and gives free admission to the military for select tournaments.
In Augusta, Fort Gordon personnel are still invited to the Masters. Augusta National allocated 100 badges to the installation, which runs a lottery for active-duty service members to purchase a badge to attend one of four days of the tournament, according to The Signal, Fort Gordon’s newspaper.