Game Changers

How the Story of a Fallen Hero Inspired Kevin McKinley to Honor Veterans Through Golf

By Ryan Adams, PGA
Published on

Kevin McKinley, now the PGA Executive Director of First Tee – Northern Michigan, initially heard the Brock Bucklin story at the 2008 PGA Annual Meeting in Orlando, Florida.
McKinley was deeply moved as he heard PGA Professional Lt. Col. Dan Rooney — the founder of the Folds of Honor Foundation — share a story about Rooney’s 2006 flight home to his family’s golf course in Michigan. 
Rooney revealed how, after landing, the commercial pilot invited the passengers aboard to remain seated while Corporal Brad Bucklin deplaned to escort the body of his twin brother, Corporal Brock Bucklin, home from Iraq. Rooney said how he somberly watched Brock’s 4-year-old son, Jacob, stand helpless on the tarmac as his father’s flag-draped casket came down the cargo ramp and wondered what the youngster’s future held now that his father had been killed in action.
By the time Major Rooney had told hundreds of PGA Professionals in attendance that the Brock Bucklin story had inspired his mission of assisting the families of fallen military personnel by providing academic scholarships through Folds of Honor and Patriot Golf Days, McKinley was admittedly teary-eyed. 
Yet he was also determined to do anything within his power to assist military personnel and their families going forward.
Honoring the ultimate sacrifice
It was Rooney’s moving speech that inspired McKinley, then the PGA Director of Golf at Treetops Resort in Gaylord, Michigan, to lead his course in becoming one of the most successful fundraising facilities for Folds of Honor and military families over the next 10 years through Patriot Golf Days. 
McKinley, the recipient of the 2017 Patriot Award, also created the Military Golf League for Veterans, active service members and their spouses, and hosted the Patriot Shootout for several years – an annual Labor Day Weekend tournament that offers Veterans and military members a free weekend of golf while raising funds for Folds of Honor at Treetops. 
“I grew up in Muskegon, Michigan, not far from Grand Rapids where Brock Bucklin grew up. When I realized that this inspiring story (shared by Major Rooney) took place near my hometown, I decided to reach out to the Bucklins with a letter,” discloses McKinley, who invited the Bucklins to join him at Treetops for a special Patriot Golf Day event in 2008 to honor Brock Bucklin’s ultimate sacrifice.
“When Duane Bucklin (Brock’s father) called me to let me know they’d be honored to attend our event, I knew I needed to step up the planning and make it as perfect as I could to honor their family’s sacrifice,” remembers McKinley, now at At-Large Director on the Michigan PGA board. “Upon first meeting the Bucklins, I believe God provided me with the correct words to say and the correct demeanor when in their presence. We have hit it off and the family has become like extended family to me.”
McKinley with the Bucklin family.
McKinley with the Bucklin family.
McKinley, who was also named the 2017 Michigan PGA Golf Professional of the Year and is a six-time Section Award recipient, has spent hundreds of hours hosting special events and programs for Veterans, active military personnel, and the families of military operatives. But why get involved? After all, PGA Professionals already spend long hours at their facilities and McKinley oversees one of the busiest facilities in the Midwest.
“Why get involved as a PGA Professional?” asks McKinley. “It’s an easy answer – it’s the right thing to do."

The relationships I have built with our nation’s heroes and families of those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice are well worth every extra hour worked, and then some.

Kevin McKinley, PGA
An opportunity for Veterans to play
McKinley borrowed a page from the highly successful PGA Jr. League to create Military Golf League at Treetops Resort in 2016. He had been running Patriot Golf Days each year and saw a need for a more frequent program to fulfill the recreational and therapeutic needs of Veterans, activeduty personnel and their families through golf.
“I wanted to create something that allowed me to interact with Veterans and actives on a consistent basis,” says McKinley. “Our tremendous success with PGA Jr. League sparked the idea to create a format that would truly allow all skill levels, all genders, all ages and all experience levels to participate.”
McKinley originally introduced the Military Golf League with a specific disabled Veteran named Tim (last name withheld by request) in mind. The program quickly attracted 42 players by the original sign-up date, but because McKinley refused to deny entry to anyone interested, the program quickly swelled to 60 players. It was hugely successful in helping Veterans and active military personnel work their way back into normalcy after injuries or setbacks.
McKinley painting names on the Tee of Triumph, which honored Michigan's fallen soldiers.
McKinley painting names on the Tee of Triumph, which honored Michigan's fallen soldiers.
The Tee of Triumph
The Tee of Triumph
“The program was conceived for Tim, a 100-percent disabled Veteran through mental injuries he received through his service,” notes McKinley. “Tim would only play alone that first year. The following year, he began to play with another disabled veteran, and even decided to eventually join the weekly men’s league and take lessons.”
To keep the cost down for Military Golf League, McKinley applied for a grant from a local community foundation.
“As part of the grant process, I was required to give a 15-minute presentation and when I asked
Tim to discuss how golf has changed his life, he readily stepped up and talked,” says McKinley. “Tim’s quote, ‘If it wasn’t for golf, I don’t think I’d be alive’ really hit home.”
Forging relationships with heroes
McKinley is a humble, hard-working PGA Professional who is proud of his Christian upbringing. His father, John McKinley, introduced him to golf at a young age and served as Kevin’s high school golf coach. His mother, Susann, set an example of “giving back” and “making a difference” in everything McKinley has done during a distinguished career as a PGA Professional.
He has received numerous thank-you letters and letters of appreciation for his work with veterans, active military personnel and families of fallen heroes. Veterans view McKinley as a true patriot, but he attempts to downplay his role.
“The letters are great, but they somewhat embarrass me,” admits McKinley. 
McKinley speaks in 2014 about Sgt. Monroy.
McKinley speaks in 2014 about Sgt. Monroy.
His relationship with Sgt. Robert E. Monroy underscores the unique resilience in helping Veterans find a niche back in society after heroically serving their country. Sgt. Monroy served two tours in Iraq and was told during a routine checkup after his second tour of duty that he had esophageal cancer from breathing the toxic fumes from the burn pits in Iraq. 
He had his esophagus removed and believed he was cancer-free. But a visit to the doctor a few years later indicated the cancer had spread. His prognosis in May of 2013 was to live only 9-12 months.
“Sgt. Monroy first came to Treetops in September 2013 as a non-golfer,” recalls McKinley. “We gave him a set of golf clubs, a few lessons and most importantly, a brotherhood of supporters through a contest called the Dream 18. The relationship with Robert was amazing over the next year and a half – yes, he outlived his prognosis. I was able to travel with Robert to a (Detroit) Red Wings game and to the Patriot Cup (golf event) in Oklahoma. Through connections he first made at Treetops, he was able to live out his dream and watch his beloved Packers beat the Cowboys in the 2015 NFC playoffs at Lambeau Field. At the time, Robert was very ill.”
Sgt. Monroy passed away a week later. At the time of Sgt. Monroy’s passing, McKinley was in Orlando at the PGA Show. Without hesitation, McKinley hopped a plane back to Michigan to deliver the final speech at his friend’s funeral.
Because that’s the right thing to do.