Lee Trevino would hoist baubles big and small during his Hall of Fame playing career, but when asked to name the trophy that meant the most to him, he cited the silver bowl he was awarded as a member of The Marine Corps. That trophy, which his wife even went to the trouble of refurbishing, was the prize for winning the 1959 Okinawa Chamber of Commerce Open over the sand greens at Awase Meadows while stationed at Middle Camp Fuji in Yokohama, Japan.
More recently, Tiger Woods cut his teeth at Navy Golf Course in Cypress, California, Paula Creamer was introduced to the game at the Golf Club at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California, by her father, Paul, while he was stationed at the base, and before he became a PGA Tour champion, Billy Hurley III hit shots off a flight deck in full uniform, complete with steel-toed boots, while serving in the Navy.
From spikes to standard-issue boots, golf and the military have long marched in stride. Collectively, the various branches of the U.S. Armed Forces operate more than 120 golf courses in the United States. If the individual branches were grouped together to form a single management company, it would rank among the top five in the country, behind only the game’s biggest multi-course operators such as Troon Golf, ClubCorp, Billy Casper Golf and KemperSports.
The NGF’s facility database shows there are military courses in 39 U.S. states, stretching from Alaska to Florida, Puerto Rico, Guam and seven countries: England, Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, South Korea and Turkey. California (13), Virginia (9), Texas (8), Florida (7) and Georgia (7) represent the top five states with the most military courses.
These facilities serve active and retired military, who are giving or had given so much to our country in defense of our freedom. Some, including the U.S. Naval Academy Course in Annapolis, Maryland, designed by William S. Flynn and Fort Bragg Stryker GC in Spring Lake, North Carolina, designed by Donald Ross, can claim notable architects.
Many, such as the 36-hole Moose Run Golf Course located at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, are considered the best-kept secret in their community, if not the best course around. And others are admired for their locale. The Air Force Academy course in Colorado overlooks the Rocky Mountains while Eagles Pride GC at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington is in the shadow of Mount Rainier.
Hurley, who was stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii for a stint from 2007-09, played twilight rounds at Mamala Bay Golf Course with F-16s flying to nearby Hickam Air Force Base. He says having golf as a source of recreation is a great outlet for the men and women who serve and protect our country as well as a rehabilitation tool.
“I’ve talked to military members and veterans who’ve used the exact words, ‘Golf saved my life,’ ” Hurley said.
The NGF’s golf participation and engagement research shows that about 10% of current golfers 18 or older either serve or have served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Military personnel can work long shifts and spend months at sea. Hurley, for one, recalled the time he spent 61 days on the U.S.S. Chung Hoon while deployed before docking in Hong Kong. When service members arrive back to the base, many of the service men and women look to the military golf course to be an outlet for the toll the job takes on them.
“Go to Norfolk sometime when the ships come in,” said Will Cofer, a former staff director of the special House panel that oversees Defense Department morale, welfare and recreation activities. “The first thing these guys do after eight months at sea is get a hamburger, call Mom and head for the golf course. That says it all right there.”
While their primary reason for existence is to attend to the morale and welfare of active duty soldiers and their families, almost two out of three military golf courses welcome civilian play. As a matter of fact, over 80 percent of the courses operated by the Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command (a division of the U.S. Army) are open to public play. NGF research shows that approximately 20% of adult golfers — around 5 million — have played on a military course.
Golf courses started appearing on U.S. military bases around World War I. A boom occurred during the 1950s, not surprisingly, with the ultimate combination of military and golf, Dwight Eisenhower, an inveterate everyman golfer, in the White House. New construction steadily continued until the defense slowdown in the 1990s. Some bases lacking full courses make due with driving ranges, pitch-and-putt courses, practice putting greens or miniature golf.
Recent base closings have opened the likes of Fort Benjamin in Harrison, Indiana, a Pete Dye design, to public play, as well as those at Fort Ord in Seaside, California, (Bayonet and Black Horse) and the Presidio in San Francisco. Local golf courses have stepped up and provided discounted rates to the military, but it’s simply not the same. They need a place to call home, a place of their own that they can hang out and relax.
Perk or pork? Military courses are often unfairly attacked when defense spending is debated. In 1975, Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire called out the Pentagon for spending $14 million a year on its then-300 golf courses. More than 20 years ago, opponents of a proposal to build a third course at Andrews Air Force base in Washington, D.C., presented the issue as a choice of using non-appropriated funds between golf and child-care facilities. More recently, the online magazine Salon, expressed its disapproval by noting that military courses are among the “luxuries that are out of reach for the ordinary American.”
Such scrutiny and claims ignore the fact that since 2011, all of the courses in the continental U.S. are required by federal law to be completely self-sufficient and receive no taxpayer dollars, and the small number of courses overseas get scant funding.
Golf falls into “Category C” business operations within morale, welfare and recreation. There is stiff competition for non-appropriated funds from such activities as bowling alleys, movie theaters and fitness centers and upgrades typically have to circumvent several layers of bureaucracy. Budget constraints have forced a military mantra of do more with less, and limited resources demand that courses try to squeeze more revenue from green and cart fees to offset shoestring budgets.
“It would be sad to me if courses were closing around military bases,” said Hurley, who has seen first-hand how golf can be an effective way of building morale for those in the military.
Some military golf facilities, of course, continue to turn a tidy profit, which is used to support programs such as bowling, softball, youth activities, libraries, and other morale, recreation and welfare services. But such facilities have become the exception rather than the rule, and more often the courses are the victim of neglect. Most bases don’t have the resources to invest in non-essential repairs and upkeep.
That’s why Jennifer Poth, the daughter of a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, formed Operation Support Military Golf (OSMG), a Ponte Vedra Beach-based non-profit in 2013, whose mission is to “revive the golf courses that revitalize our heroes.” To do so, she is raising $1 million, per project, for facility upgrades at America’s ailing military golf courses.
“Unless the Commander is a golfer, they really don’t get the attention they deserve,” she said.
Her first project is the 18-hole Windy Harbor Golf Club, which opened over a half-century ago and sits within the gates of Naval Station Mayport in north Jacksonville, Florida. Hurley was stationed on a cruiser there and fondly recalls being a regular in a Friday game at Windy Harbor.
The golf community has embraced the initiative with the Golf Course Builders Association of America, Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, and American Society of Golf Course Architects among the industry collaborators. Arnold Palmer Design Co., has taken the lead in building an expanded driving range and practice putting green at Windy Harbor, along with a brand-new short-game area that is scheduled to open in August 2019.
Bay Palms Golf Course, a 36-hole facility at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, already is next in the pipeline. Sanford Golf Design and Wadsworth Golf Construction Co., have agreed to do the work. But the list of military courses that could use a helping hand is a long one and additional fundraising is needed for next steps.
“I see it as a need for some time, if not forever,” Poth said.
Adam has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World, Morning Read, LINKS and The New York Times. The New York native is also the author of Deane Beman: Golf’s Driving Force.