American golfers have always been patriots.
As we prepare to celebrate Patriot Golf Day this Labor Day weekend - using our beloved game to help those who sacrificed to give us the right to play it – we should also remember that our nation’s heroes have been intertwined into the fabric of golf since the game took root after the Civil War.
Francis Ouimet, America’s first golf superstar, enlisted in the Army at age 25 when America entered World War I. Ouimet rose to the rank of lieutenant, although his action was limited.
It was the nation’s next great star of the game, Bobby Jones, who solidified the inexorable link between the golf and national service.
Jones was only 15 years old during the First World War, but that didn’t stop him from doing his part. Along with Alexa Stirling (the greatest female player of her generation) he went on an extended exhibition tour to raise money for the Red Cross.
By the time World War II broke out, he was a sporting icon and one of the most famous celebrities in the world. Still, at age 42 with three kids at home, Jones lobbied to go overseas to serve on the front lines. Despite being encouraged to stay home, he got his wish. Jones was part of the second wave entering France on D-Day-plus-one. He and his unit withstood intense enemy fire for four days.
Ben Hogan and Sam Snead also served: Hogan in the Army and Snead in the Navy, while Jackie Burke saw some of the most brutal combat in human history as a Marine in the Pacific.
Lloyd Mangrum, one of the great players of his generation, turned down the head professional’s job at Fort Meade to take a front-line position in Europe. He received two Purple Hearts: one for taking a bullet through the helmet during the Battle of the Bulge. Upon returning home, Mangrum put the uniform and medals away and won the 1946 U.S. Open.
Many other patriots have held the game close. Teddy Roosevelt, leader of the Rough Riders and hero of the Spanish-American War, was our nation’s first golfing president, although he was not the most famous Commander in Chief. John Kennedy, another Purple Heart recipient, carried a single-digit handicap, and George H.W. Bush, America’s youngest-ever combat fighter pilot, continues to be active in the game at age 88.
Eisenhower was our most famous golfing president. But few know that Ike used the game as a way to clear his head while planning the D-Day Invasion. Telegraph Cottage on Kingston Hill outside London, Ike’s wartime retreat, backed up to the 13th fairway of the Coomb Hill Golf Club. On many a stressful afternoon, General Eisenhower would slip out the rear gate and play the course’s final six holes to clear his head and ponder the enormity of the months that lay before him.
Countless stories have been lost over time, although noted author and golf writer John Strege captured many of them in his book "When War Played Through: Golf during World War II."
The numbers dwindled in the modern era. Larry Nelson, sergeant and Infantry Squad Leader during the Vietnam War, was the last combat veteran to win a major championship. But the game remains linked to those who serve.
Tiger Woods, Davis Love III, Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan, Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson and countless others do more to support our military heroes than most will ever know. They don’t do it for the public relations. Most go to great lengths to make sure their efforts are kept quiet.
They do it because patriots don’t have to put on a uniform or take up a weapon to serve.
This weekend Maj. Dan Rooney, founder of the Folds and Honor Foundation, will take to the airwaves to encourage everyone to support the families of the fallen by participating in Patriot Golf Day. President George W. Bush normally plays with Rooney on these occasions, but because it is an election year, the former President called Maj. Dan with his apologies. No need to muddle the cause with politics of the day the president said.
So, as he has done time and time again, Jack Nicklaus stepped up. Maj. Dan will travel to South Florida this weekend where he and Jack will, once more, raise money and awareness for the patriots who sacrificed the most, from the patriots who play our game.
"I never had the privilege to serve our country, but I have such a deep-rooted respect and appreciation for the men and women who served," Nicklaus said. "For what these men and women have given us and for us - the sacrifices of life and limb for our country - you can count me in to help in any way I can. Just to be asked to involved, be it with programs like Patriot Golf Day or American Lake Veterans Golf Course, is a privilege."
Patriots are still plentiful in our country. You can find them many places, but almost certainly at a golf course near you.