It was Sept. 11, 2001. The most infamous attacks on American soil were unravelling before my eyes. I stood in the golf shop of Windy Harbor Golf Club at Naval Station Mayport near Jacksonville, Fla., watching the unbelievable unfold. Alongside me, Kris King, a former Commanding Officer’s wife, was glued to the television hoping for something positive.
Three days later, after the base was no longer on lockdown, two Navy sailors walked into the golf shop around 7:30 a.m. They were exhausted from the high-alert protocol the military had been on all week. I remember asking them what in the world they were doing coming to play golf at such a time.
“We’ve been on a 48-hour watch,” one of them said somberly. “We just needed to find something to relax and escape for a few hours.” And there it hit me. If I needed any further motivation to continue working at Mayport, surely giving two Navy sailors a chance to escape the tribulations of the military during one of our nation’s darkest hours was it.
I was fortunate enough to be hired by Capt. Tim Ziemer back in March 1993 and became an official employee of the United States Navy and head professional at Windy Harbor, the military course on base at Mayport. Before I took the position, the facility was without a PGA presence for well over five years. This was the one place sailors could come for reprieve, and sadly, the facility was falling apart.
In light of this, I tried to promote the famous phrase from the movie, Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” The quote made me think about the uniqueness of military golf. Where else could you tee off next to a range with gun fire popping in your ears or Navy helicopters flying over your head? Or, where else would a golfer get to experience “Colors,” when the American flag is raised, the national anthem is played at 0800 hours, and all activity is halted until the completion of the song? It’s a powerful statement that makes military golf so special and revered in my mind.
Another aspect that makes the military unique is its fair share of misperceptions. For example, at Windy Harbor we are referred to as a “Non-Appropriated Fund Instrumentality,” which means we have to generate our own revenue stream, be self-sufficient and profitable to remain open. Not one citizen tax dollar goes towards the support of our facility. So, ultimately, it’s on me to keep Windy Harbor afloat.
Golf courses aren’t cheap to operate, either. On average, it takes between $384,000 and $636,000 to maintain a military golf course, depending on its location. Some military courses have closed in recent years because of such high operating costs. As far as I’m concerned, though, no amount of money is too much when you consider the escape that golf provides to those who are willing to sacrifice so much for our country.
Another great part of my job is getting to interact with our brave patriots, both young and old. Recently, I had the pleasure of driving one of our elderly veterans, Truman Hermanson back to his home. Truman, to say the least, is a character. He reminds me of Uncle Leo from Seinfeld and is one of the most engaging individuals you’ll ever meet. A 96-year old retired lieutenant colonel, Truman plays twice a week at my course. (And that’s the least impressive fact I discovered about him).
Truman flew 32 bombing missions over Germany in World War II. He’ll celebrate another birthday on July 6. It’s an honor for me to be around so many people like Truman. They make my job so rewarding, and these true American heroes can be found in my golf shop at Mayport as well on bases around the globe.
I recently reached my quarter century milestone with the PGA of America, yet it still feels like yesterday when I had that interview with Capt. Ziemer. “Jon, your job will ultimately be to provide four hours of recreation to the sailors coming off the ships and from their commands,” he told me that day. Simple instructions, but they portrayed a deeper message to me and they have been words I have lived by ever since.
Working at a military golf course gives you a whole new perspective on what life is like for our bravest men and women. The saying “freedom isn’t free” comes to life when I think of the many sailors who walk into my golf shop. That first morning the base was open after the September 11th attacks always reminds me that every day there are people out there defending our way of life. If golf, the tranquil game that it is, can provide them with some level of reprieve from their duties, I am honored to provide that for them.