Hundreds of veterans have discovered the therapeutic nature of golf thanks to the Veteran Golfers Association. The group gained prominence when a college team from the University of Connecticut invited the former military service members to compete in the annual Til Duty Is Done 2016 Collegiate Invitational in Baltic, Connecticut, at the Mohegan Sun Golf Club. The tournament served as a launching point to an entire season of golf for veterans healing from the wounds of war.
In 2015, veterans served as volunteers for the tournament, and then UConn head coach Dave Pezzino got an idea. What if the VGA team competed the next year? The coach asked the NCAA to grant an exemption for the veterans’ team, and the organization granted the request. Pezzino said the veterans show his players there’s a world outside of golf, and the coach believed participating in the tournament was a way to honor and thank the men for their service.
The tournament featured 13 total teams, including the veterans. UConn won the day, the VGA team finished 13th. The highlight for the veterans occurred on the final day of the outing when Army Staff Sgt. Micah Tilley aced the 16th hole. The UConn tournament was special because the college guys got to spend time with American heroes, while time on the course helped veterans heal on their way to a national championship in November.
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The first-ever VGA Championship happened on Veterans Day in 2015 at the famous Pinehurst No. 2. Tilley finished first by scoring an amazing 70 on the first day and then 75 in the second round. Participants included 17 Purple Heart recipients and eight amputees. The VGA expanded in 2016, and it plans to have a second national championship around Veterans Day. The VGA and its championship tournament started as an idea from one wounded vet who turned to golf as a way to cope with his injury.
Golf as Recovery
Army Capt. Joshua Peyton turned to golf after nearly losing his hand in Iraq after his vehicle overturned during a battle. Following two years of rehab and recovery, he founded the VGA in 2014 because he loves the game of golf. Peyton experiences more from the VGA than just his personal healing; he said he gets “more joy out of impacting other veteran lives” than just playing the game himself. He’s humbled every time someone heals the horrors of war due to golf.
Such is the case with Sgt. Andrew Smith, a double amputee who competed at the VGA Championship. He finds comfort knowing he can hit a ball just as well as able-bodied people. Focusing on golf improved Smith’s physical therapy and his mental well being. The VGA is very popular; in less than two years, the organization has had 700 members participate in tournaments. Golf serves a dual purpose for wounded veterans who find camaraderie in their fellow warriors and the tall tales of holes in one, wicked shots and awesome drives on the golf course.