Game Changers

How a Ryder Cup Speech Introduced the Power of Golf to Veteran Robert Leahey

By Jay Coffin
Published on

The first time Robert Leahey and Chris Nowak met was slightly awkward. There were many things left unspoken.
Leahey, a retired U.S. Navy Corpsman, was in Washington, D.C., representing the Georgia PGA Section as one of 20 Veterans selected to participate in PGA HOPE National Golf and Wellness Week as ambassadors. Nowak, PGA HOPE’s Military and Veteran Liaison, was the reason why Leahey was there after giving an impassioned speech in front of thousands during the opening ceremony of the Ryder Cup in 2021 at Whistling Straits.
Nowak didn’t know until recently, when staff was pouring through ambassador nominations, that his words spurred Leahey to join PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere), which introduces golf to Veterans and Active Duty Military to enhance their physical, mental, social and emotional well-being.
“You don’t really acknowledge it,” Nowak said of his first meeting with Leahey. “It’s a full-circle moment though, to know that somebody heard that message, and look at him now.”
Leahey, 30, grew up in Harvard, Illinois, a huge dairy town 75 miles northwest of Chicago that prominently features a statue of a cow and hosts the annual Milk Days county fair where an epic milk-chugging contest is the highlight of the week. But it’s also where Leahey first caught the golf bug, growing up on the dogleg right fifth hole at the now defunct Plum Tree National Golf Club.
Golf has always been part of Leahey's life.
Golf has always been part of Leahey's life.
“I would walk out there with my dad and play a couple holes at twilight,” Leahey said of some of his earliest memories. “That course specifically is where I originally fell in love with the game. When I played other courses it was fun, but nothing was like playing Plum Tree.”
Turning the golf bug into a full-blown obsession came a few years later when Leahey and his twin sisters would spend 4-6 weeks each summer in Roscommon, Ireland. His maternal grandfather lived there, and Leahey would often play the local course in town or venture north to play County Sligo.
“I remember it being the coolest place on the planet,” he said of Sligo.
Immediately after high school, where he also played lacrosse, Leahey went to boot camp in Chicago, then spent another five months in San Antonio for Corpsman medic training, then moved to Camp Pendleton in California for training to become a combat medic with the Marines.
There was no time for golf.
A year later, after receiving orders to go to the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, North Carolina, Leahey was reunited with the game.
“The base is on the water and there’s not a lot to do out there,” he said. “But we had a golf course – the Sounds of Freedom – and they had a driving range where you could pull your truck up and for $1 you’d get about 100 balls. There was stadium lighting, so you could flip the switch yourself and it was open 24 hours a day.
“That’s when the love for the game started to come back to me.”
Kevin Kearley, one of Leahey’s friends from high school, happened to be stationed at Cherry Point too and, for the next 18 months, the two played golf at least once a week and spent four other days at the driving range. Although Kearley was eventually shipped to Japan, Leahey was moved to Virginia and continued to explore new courses in the golf-rich area as often as possible. It also helped that the golf course at Little Creek was across the street from his unit.
In 2015, Leahey was sent to the Middle East on a 10-month deployment as part of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), where he was a part of the team that would help secure beachheads and establish points of entry. During his time, he was on the USS San Antonio which was targeted during a missile barrage off the coast of Yemen and in 2016 was part of Operation Odyssey Lightning, which was designed to liberate the Libyan city of Sirte from ISIS.
During the end of deployment, vehicles were going through an agricultural wash, so that no harmful soils or materials were being brought back to the United States, when Robert Slawter, an assistant squad leader in the Navy, fell 20 feet – from the top of a Humvee which was on top of a 10-foot platform – and suffered a massive head injury.
Slawter was rushed to the Navy hospital in Rota, Spain, but his injuries were too severe, and he was sent to a non-military Spanish trauma hospital in Cadiz. Leahey was with Slawter every step and reported back to his superiors and Slawter’s wife every day for a month.
Thankfully, Slawter recovered, and Leahey flew home to join his family on Christmas Eve. While sitting in the hospital during the month, however, Leahey made up his mind about his future.
Leahey, from the Georgia PGA, during National Golf & Wellness Week.
Leahey, from the Georgia PGA, during National Golf & Wellness Week.
“I decide that I am ready to get out of the military,” he said. “It was time. All of my friends were graduating from college and I always wanted to go to a Big Ten university and follow Big Ten football.”
Leahey attended the University of Iowa, which was a difficult transition. He was nearly 24 at the time and found himself in social situations with 18-year-olds. One saving grace was that he was able to room with Kearley, who left the military at the same time.
But something just didn’t seem right. Leahey made plans to transfer to the University of Alabama because he wanted another change of scenery. He was never fond of the cold weather anyway.
“I still didn’t know exactly where I was supposed to be,” he said.
Shortly before leaving, Leahey was out with friends when a man spilled a drink on him at a bar. Leahey turned around and the man was wearing an Iowa Veterans shirt. They got talking and the man told Leahey that there was a huge Veteran population in Iowa City and that his immediate group included a Navy Corpsman and two infantry Veterans from both the Marines and Army.
“I ended up staying at Iowa and lived with those guys for the next two years,” Leahey said. “They became my best friends.”
Leahey with Lee Trevino during Hope & Wellness Week.
Leahey with Lee Trevino during Hope & Wellness Week.
During those two years Leahey volunteered with Student Veterans of America and was a student liaison for over 500 Veterans at the university, helping them with their respective transitions back into civilian life. He graduated in 2021.
Leahey and his girlfriend, Danielle Bauers, moved to Atlanta after he graduated – Bauers, now his fiancée, is originally from nearby Alpharetta – and he landed a sales job in a logistics company. But he was floundering and didn’t have a strong Veterans group to help support him.
Several months later Leahey’s family surprised him with tickets to the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits as a birthday present. That’s when, on Thursday of the week, Leahey heard Nowak speak.
“He starts talking about how it takes a nation to heal a Veteran,” Leahey recalls. “He talked about how many Veterans they’ve helped and how this is going to create a support group for anyone who has served.
“Something clicked in me.”
Chris Nowak speaks before the Opening Ceremony of the 43rd Ryder Cup.
Chris Nowak speaks before the Opening Ceremony of the 43rd Ryder Cup.
Nowak is a dynamic speaker and is not afraid to be blunt in any situation. He’s the perfect liaison for PGA HOPE and appreciated the opportunity to speak in such a high-profile setting. It was the only time he can remember ever being nervous in public.
“I don’t speak from a script, I never have,” Nowak said. “I want it to be what I’m feeling at that particular moment. But it’s never about me. I don’t tell my story because mine is a dime a dozen. I just try to explain the benefits of the program and I want people to understand what the game can do therapeutically.”
Leahey made an appointment with Veterans Affairs when he returned from Wisconsin, which was something he was always hesitant to do. It was suggested to him there that he should attend PGA HOPE classes, which were starting soon at Bobby Jones Golf Course in Atlanta. He enrolled.

“I got hooked on the game again. My whole purpose of wanting to be a Navy Corpsman was wanting to help people. I missed that. It’s hard to find something to fill that gap in real work life. PGA HOPE was able to do that.”

Robert Leahey
Now, Leahey has taken a leadership role with the program and has helped recruit new members to the program, created a Facebook group to help with promotion and is working on a database to help with post-program engagement.
“Right from the jump, literally the first day, the first session he stood out as somebody who is going to be passionate about the program and helping other Veterans,” said Jason Kuiper, Director of Instruction at Bobby Jones Golf Course. “He’s always the first person to raise his hand to volunteer and help. He was the guy talking to everybody in the group whether he knew them or not. You got a sense, even from that first session, that he was going to be a leader.”
Which led to a trip to Congressional Country Club last October for National Golf and Wellness Week, where Leahey made fast friends with everyone from his Javelin squad, led by captain Mike Jaborek.
“I fell in love with golf, I have ties to it, went into the military, it was there as a support system and it keeps following me around,” Leahey said. “I’m just happy to keep spreading the word and helping other guys. I thought I was good before, but being a part of this program makes me feel great again.”