How Air Force Veteran Tom Whitney Went From Overseeing Nuclear Missiles to a Career in Professional Golf
By Adam Stanley
Editor's note: The following story is about a U.S. Air Force Veteran. If you know of a Veteran in need, click here to learn more about PGA HOPE, and its therapeutic benefits through golf.
The United States has three Air Force Bases that house 450 nuclear missiles and now-PGA Tour member Tom Whitney was, at one point, responsible for 10 of them while stationed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming for four years.
You think professional golf is stressful? How about holding the keys to potentially needing to launch a nuclear missile?
“We train for a job that we hope we never have to do,” Whitney explains with a knowing smile. “But at the same time, the fact that we have 450 missiles on alert all the time . . . they’re doing what they’re supposed to do – keep our enemies in check.”
Whitney, 34, earned a PGA TOUR card late last year for the first time, thanks to his fine season on the Korn Ferry Tour, and will make his tour debut tomorrow at The American Express in La Quinta, California. He finished 21st on last season’s Points List, where the top 30 receive PGA TOUR status. Whitney is also the second straight former Air Force Academy graduate to earn a PGA TOUR card via the Korn Ferry Tour, as Kyle Westmoreland (who graduated from the Air Force in 2014) finished 25th last year.
Six top-10 results on the Korn Ferry Tour last season, highlighted by a runner-up at the Club Car Championship at The Landings Club, helped a ton in getting Whitney to the next level. He hasn’t played the PGA TOUR since 2018 and has had a winding journey – 117 starts on the Korn Ferry Tour, 34 on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica (including a victory) and three on the PGA TOUR. As a Monday Qualifier for the 2017 Shriners Children’s Open, it marked the first PGA Tour start by an Air Force Academy graduate. Three months later Whitney made the cut on the PGA Tour for the first time in La Quinta, California – the city he moved to as a youngster.
A golfer made in La Quinta goes to the Air Force
At 7 years old, Whitney remembers, his father had a family friend who would do work on their house but would also, sometimes, be a no-show. Often his father would track down his friend at the local driving range and turns out, he got hooked on golf, too. Whitney’s father took he and his brother, Bob, to the driving range as a family not too long after that. They both had a natural ability with the sport. Before long, they were notching podium finishes at junior events in the area.
After moving to La Quinta from South Lake Tahoe (Whitney says that town only goes 3-4 months per year without snow) the brothers were competitive at golf at every level and Bob Whitney, two years older, was recruited to play at the Air Force Academy. During that time, Tom would visit his brother and eventually decided to follow his path.
“(Playing pro golf) was a possibility in the back of my mind as a high schooler just because I was a stand-out junior. I was lead guy on high school team and then the lead guy at Air Force, but I don’t think I was one of those kids that knew right away that golf was my path,” Whitney says. “I had a slow process of who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. And the Air Force let me slowly process that.”
Whitney was a star at the Air Force Academy. He notched four wins and left school with a half-dozen records. He was the team MVP in 2010, his graduating year, and a finalist for the Byron Nelson Award – a collegiate title for graduating seniors that recognizes achievement as a scholar-athlete.
Every student who attends a military service academy (Air Force, Naval, or Army) receives a full-ride scholarship – whether they are an athlete or not. When you graduate, however, you have a five-year initial commitment to the military. In 2014 the Air Force was shrinking its budget, and its personnel numbers, so Whitney took advantage of that program to jumpstart his pro-golf career one year early. He separated from the Air Force in May 2014 and began the road to the PGA TOUR that same year.
Whitney’s job with the Air Force after graduation was mentally taxing. He and a partner would, eight times a month, go 100 feet underground into a hardened silo for 24 hours straight where they would be charged with overseeing 10 of the 150 nuclear missiles at the Wyoming site. In all, he spent almost an entire full year underground.
“But being a part of something bigger is really cool. Being able to serve my country and have a greater purpose and greater mission than just myself was important,” Whitney says. “But during my tenure at my academy, I thought I had a skill set where I could get to the PGA TOUR. So, I ended up doing both of those paths.”
A jump from the military to pro golf
It started pretty well, too.
In his debut as a full-time professional, he won. A $10,000 check came with the first-place prize. Whitney thought it was a “cool validation” that his decision was the right one.
Reflecting back now, Whitney admits if he didn’t have the skill-set at the Air Force Academy that led him to those victories while in college, he wouldn’t have even thought about giving professional golf a try. He gave up a guaranteed salary with guaranteed promotions and a stable lifestyle (had Whitney stayed in the Air Force, he would just be finishing up his 13th year of service, and at 20, he would have been able to retire) to pursue a sport where nothing is guaranteed. When he jumped back into full-time golf, he said his game wasn’t any better than when he finished school, but it wasn’t any worse either.
“I had that itch and I don’t think I would have been able to live with myself if I didn’t pursue pro golf at some point."
Joining the Air Force wasn’t always the plan. Whitney’s grandfather – his father’s father – was a pilot in World War II, but that “wasn’t a driving force” for his career path moving forward growing up. It was his brother.
Tragically, Bob Whitney died by suicide in 2020 after struggling with depression. Since Bob’s death, Tom Whitney has marked the ball with his brother’s dog tags from the Air Force, according to Ryan French (Monday Q Info on X, the site formerly known as Twitter).
“I was lucky to have a brother who pulled for me so hard,” Whitney told French. “I choose to remember how lucky I was for the good times.”
Whitney now has the rare opportunity to achieve two incredible accomplishments in life. He was a decorated alum of the Air Force Academy and quickly became responsible for overseeing, maintaining, and, if needed, launching nuclear missiles to help protect the United States. He also will hit his first shot as a PGA TOUR member this week in a place where he grew up. His four kids – Skyler, Zoey, Owen, and Bobbie – and his wife, Jess (who also graduated from the Air Force Academy) are all a big part of his support system. He couldn’t do it without them.
“I approached this journey a little backwards,” Whitney said with a laugh. “Guys are single or married but they’ll start their golf career and once they’ve had success and are stable, they start the family. And the way it happened for us, we had one kid by the time I started pro golf full time, and we had two kids before I had status on the Korn Ferry Tour, and now we have four kids before I made it to the PGA TOUR. But I can’t even imagine doing this journey any differently.”
Whitney’s PGA Tour career is now, well, ready for launch.
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