PGA HOPE's Unique Camaraderie Ready to Shine at Secretary's Cup Ahead of PGA Championship
By Hayden Lewis, PGA
Joel Williamson, PGA, and Louis Whidbee.
Before the glitz and glamor kicks into high gear surrounding the 106th PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club, another Championship will take place.
As the golf world descends on Rochester for golf’s second men's major of the season, so too will 48 Veterans from across the country. They will join in on the action for their version of the PGA Championship – the PGA HOPE Secretary’s Cup hosted at Penfield Country Club on May 15.
In its eighth year, the Secretary’s Cup annually provides a unique and memorable experience for Veterans who have graduated from PGA HOPE programs, and the PGA Professionals who conduct those programs across the country – each arriving through a different version of their own golf journey.
One of those Veterans jumping head-first into all the action is Army Veteran Louis Whidbee. On the surface, Louis may look similar to other avid golfers – he’s never met a stranger and is always looking for ways to tune his game or squeeze in nine holes. As a retired Master Sergeant from the United States Army, the path he’s taken in golf has been unlike most and in the last few years, he’s been met with unimaginable heartache.
At the same time, however, he’s found a grace for himself and others who he’s met along the way.
Golf in a 'non-intimidating' light
Louis says he started playing golf during an era which saw legends like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus rise to the top of the golf stage. “I would always go out to play nine holes here or there and enjoy myself, but never had the time or the patience to really learn the game,” he remembers. Like a lot of people, Louis wanted to take his golf game more seriously, but never found the right groups or outlet to do so.
Fast forward a couple decades later, and the Delaware native now calls Temple, Texas his full-time home after being stationed in nearby Fort Hood – now renamed to Fort Cavazos. As Louis entered retirement after 30 years of honorable service, he found what he was looking for in golf, meeting PGA Professional Joel Williamson who, at the time, was starting a program called PGA HOPE at nearby Stonetree Golf Club in Killeen.
"We’re all on the same team and trying to get to the same place – golf just happens to be a way we can get there together."
PGA HOPE – Helping Our Patriots Everywhere – is the flagship military program of PGA REACH, the 501(c)(3) charitable foundation of the PGA of America. The six-to-eight-week program covers golf fundamentals to playing nine holes, and uses the game as a form of therapy – ultimately helping Veterans and Active Duty Military enhance their physical, mental, social, and emotional well-being.
“When I first heard about PGA HOPE here in the Temple and Killeen area, I was all over it,” says Louis. “It was a chance for me to get back out there and enjoy this great game and really dive into the relationships that you can build from it.”
“He’s quite the organizer,” says Joel. “Louis truly wants everyone he knows to be involved in PGA HOPE – and in golf for that matter.”
Joel, who serves as the PGA Lead Teaching Instructor at Stonetree Golf Club, has seen Louis grow first-hand since getting his start in PGA HOPE almost three years ago.
“PGA HOPE just makes total sense here,” says Joel, about one of the largest military bases in the world, Fort Cavazos, which sits just ten miles from Stonetree, and is a catalyst for the already thriving military presence in the surrounding community.
“You have an active duty military presence just down the road and a lot of Veterans, like Louis, who retire and come back to the Killeen-Temple region.”
As a U.S. Army Veteran who served in the Vietnam War, and also the son of a Veteran, Joel understands the values and life skills anyone can gain just by playing a round of golf. He says when he saw PGA HOPE programs starting to open in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, he knew he had to be the person to step up and lead a program for the Veterans in his community.
“It helps the Veterans, of course, but it also is so life-giving for me to be the one who shares the gift of golf with others,” notes Joel.
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Joel emphasizes that every Veteran who shows up to PGA HOPE is unique, and each comes from different backgrounds, war theaters and, in turn, can carry around heavy baggage.
“For the Veterans who are a little more reclusive or hesitant, PGA HOPE is perfect because it presents golf in this non-intimidating light,” he adds.
Louis, like many Veterans, admits he has PTSD but says he has seen a transformation within himself to become more of a caretaker and help those around him find their own peace through PGA HOPE.
“I definitely have a past I’m not proud of, but now I have an opportunity to lift others up, and show them what golf has done for me,” Louis notes.
This past summer Louis’ journey took a turn that no one saw coming, however, when he received devastating news that he had cancer growing on his right kidney.
“I got the call on a charter bus on the way back from Amarillo after we played in a Veterans’ event,” recalls Louis. “I remember Joel being right there with me the entire way home – comforting me and letting me know that there was a team behind me, and they would be with me every step of the way.”
Just two years prior, Joel, too, underwent surgeries and medical treatment as a result of cancer.
“You get that call and your head just spins,” he says. “It was something I knew I had to be there for Lou.”
Getting ready for the big show
The following September, Louis underwent surgery to remove the cancer from his kidney. There was even a question of whether Louis would be healthy enough to join the team and represent Stonetree Golf Club in the Northern Texas PGA HOPE Cup that fall – the Section qualifier to punch their ticket to the 2023 Secretary’s Cup.
Louis says the call he received that day was not going to define him. He was going to help his team.
“The rest of our team wasn’t worried one bit,” says Joel. “Even if Louis couldn’t be there to play, he’d still show up and find a way to help – that’s just who he is.”
And show up he did. Not only did the team take home the trophy, Louis even went on to win closest-to-the-hole bragging rights.
Adds Louis, with a proud smile: “That’s my team. Not only does it represent us, but it represents all the other Veterans in our Section – even the ones who are still finding their way.”
Louis’ infectious passion for golf and PGA HOPE is spreading far and wide across central Texas. He says he leans on the battle buddy system he learned in the military that keeps him pushing forward to invite more players into the game.
“If someone joins our group, it’s not up to them to get to know us – rather it’s up to the group to welcome this new individual and make them feel like they belong,” Louis says.
In total, Joel has seen over 70 Veterans graduate from his PGA HOPE program. With the help of Louis’ recruiting, he has been able to open up a new location for PGA HOPE at nearby Sammons Golf Course in Temple.
“We’re still seeing massive waiting lists,” notes Joel. “The program has really taken off and it’s growing as fast as it can. The opportunity to serve Veterans is essentially unlimited.”
This week, however, Joel and Louis will turn their focus to a new task at-hand as they both tee it up with fellow Northern Texas PGA HOPE Veterans Mark Anderson, Antonio Sanchez and Chris Ryan – an all-Army team – in the 2023 PGA HOPE Secretary’s Cup in Rochester.
“We’re really excited coming all the way from Killeen and representing the Northern Texas PGA Section,” says Joel. “We’ve gone out to play a few times to prepare – really having everyone together is always the best time, so it’s going to be that much more fun once we get to Rochester.”
Louis looks at this as the biggest stage he’s ever played on, but is still not backing down from a challenge – noting he wants to be the lead-man for the team off that first tee box.
“There may be some nerves there at the beginning, but I know I’m going to be fine because I have a team behind me,” says Louis. “We have so much pride in where we’ve come from and where we’re going. We have pride in our Section and in how we got here. How could you not have nerves? But we know it’s all good because we’re playing for something bigger than ourselves.”
The journey means a lot to Louis, Joel and the rest of their team – and it’s only just beginning.
“The beauty is that it’s not just us five going to the Secretary’s Cup representing the Northern Texas Section, and it’s certainly not our Section versus another Section,” notes Louis.