Daniel Vance - Disabilities

It’s a small world. After talking only a few minutes over the telephone with 63-year-old Roger Gatts, assistant manager of American Lake Veterans Golf Course near Tacoma, Washington, I learned he and I grew up only a few miles apart in southern Ohio.

American Lake Veterans Golf Course has been turning heads. In 2004, a group of military veterans began raising money to make this nine-hole golf course accessible and exclusively for veterans with disabilities.

Later, one of the golf course board members had an idea. He called Jack Nicklaus for help in redesigning the golf course for accessibility. “Our board member, Ken Still, had played on the 1969 Ryder Cup team with Nicklaus,” said Gatts. “They had been friends ever since. Ken told Jack what we needed and Jack said he would love to do it. He said there would be no charge because of what these disabled veterans had sacrificed for their country.”

Gatts himself has PTSD from serving on the demilitarized zone in Korea. He and all the other 215 workers at the nonprofit American Lake Veterans Golf Course are strictly volunteers. They keep course conditions crisp for 3,500 disabled veterans playing golf every year.

Said Gatts, “We have guys missing legs, missing arms. Some are paralyzed, have a traumatic brain injury or have PTSD. We have Vietnam- and even WWII-era veterans. One of our golfers was in the first wave on Omaha Beach on D-Day. A lot of the guys coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan think it’s the end of the world to lose a leg or arm, but it’s not. They find out life goes on. We help them get back into life through the game of golf. That’s what we’re all about.”

Recent Medal of Honor recipient Leroy Petry, who lost an arm in 2008 heroically saving the lives of fellow Army Rangers, golfs at American Lake. Another golfer, Jim Martinson, lost both legs and a finger in Vietnam. He won the Boston Marathon wheelchair race in 1981, and has become a bogey golfer.

Many of the golfers use specially made golf carts that traverse accessible sand traps, greens, and tee boxes. Nicklaus has been designing a new back nine and soon will be working on making accessibility improvements to the front nine.

Gatts said, “Nicklaus said he would like to duplicate what we are doing here throughout the nation.”