HISTORY
American Lake: The Golf Course With Heart August 25, 2010 By Rhonda Glenn

Pepper Roberts (left) and Ken Still beam after the USGA check presentation Thursday. (John Mummert/USGA)

It was just an old golf course. Built around 1955, its nine holes were probably laid out by maintenance workers from the Veterans Administration. At least, that’s all anyone remembers.

Forty years later, unfunded, sun-scorched and with a sprinkler system that worked fitfully, if at all, American Lake Golf Course near Tacoma, Wash., was threatened with extinction.

The U.S. government in 1995 discontinued all funding for VA golf courses. Money would be spent on medical needs and rehab, not on golf courses, and the American Lake course might have gone back to dirt.

Which would have been sad.

Since 1955, thousands of returning veterans had found solace at American Lake. Suffering from the disabilities of war, golf helped them feel whole.

American Lake gave them golf, and they weren’t about to give up on American Lake. Even 15 years ago, volunteers maintained the course. Mostly veterans, they mowed the struggling grass, raked the bunkers and tinkered with the balky sprinkler system. They were guys who loved the place, but they needed help.

That’s when Harold Pepper Roberts, Ken Still, Gene Lynn, Jack Nicklaus, the USGA and a host of construction people with good hearts began to get on board. They saw a need and, one after another, they helped to fill it.

Today, American Lake Golf Course is a thriving place. It has lots of players but, more importantly, here military people with disabilities have found a course that they can play.

The USGA, which has provided several grants to the course, will present another $25,000 grant to American Lake during the U.S. Amateur Championship, which is being conducted Aug. 23-29 at nearby Chambers Bay.

The USGA is proud to join in supporting this most worthy effort to make the experience of the game possible for many who have sacrificed and served, said Gene McClure of the USGA Executive Committee. We want golf to provide enrichment to their lives. This course and program are unique opportunities to accomplish this goal and the values which the USGA shares with American Lake Veterans.’’

American Lake is already a success story, one that is becoming better, and a lot of willing golfers are part of its ascent.

It’s surprising, in some regards, said Roberts. The story is a good story. The course is run 100 percent by volunteers. It’s pretty humbling.

Roberts was a retired golf professional who, at 70, began giving free lessons to veterans and other golfers at American Lake. But Roberts noticed that a lot of people who came for lessons couldn’t play the course.

Many of them were disabled, he said, and if you couldn’t walk, you couldn’t play.

Roberts first asked about repairing the sprinkler system. American Lake’s new manager, Jim Smith, and his assistant, Mike Kearney, were determined to put the course in better shape so work on the system began. When Roberts noticed an 86-year-old volunteer worker operating a backhoe, he asked him about his golf game.

He told me he hadn’t played in two years because he couldn’t walk the course, Roberts said. I went home that night and told my wife I was going to get some golf carts.

Roberts not only got the carts, he got a seat on the board of directors. That’s when he brought a friend to play the course, a friend who had a little money.

By the time we’re down on the third hole, he committed himself to help put in a sprinkler system, so we got that started, Roberts said.

One of the biggest American Lake supporters has been former PGA Tour professional and 1969 U.S. Ryder Cup Team member Ken Still. It was Still who brought Jack Nicklaus on board.

About eight years ago, Pepper Roberts called and said he’d like to get me involved, Still said. I said, ‘I don’t want to be involved, I’m in too many programs,’ but I drive out and in 10 seconds I’m signed up.  When you see wounded warriors who were fighting for us while we’re sleeping, it hooked me.

We were at a board meeting and somebody said we needed to get Jack Nicklaus involved. So I called Jack and he answered. I said, ‘I need to get you involved in American Lake.’ He said, ‘Count me in. You never asked me for anything, so I’m in.’

The Nicklaus group became involved in a big way. This summer, Nicklaus, regarded by many as the greatest golfer of all time, took part in a golf clinic for veterans at American Lake. He also committed design services from his company to create a second nine at American Lake. Nicklaus design associate David Savic got the project, which pleased him no end.

I’ve never been any place, as far as a golf course, that had so much interesting, positive energy, Savic said. It’s the heart and soul of what we probably need to get back to, as far as places to play in this country. I’ve never seen people so active at their course. They really love their place. It’s not about the Nicklaus group getting recognition, it’s about doing something that’s right. This is a really good thing.

Friends of American Lake Veterans Golf Course, a nonprofit corporation created in 2004, launched fund-raising to support improvements, not only to keep the course operating but to make it more accessible to golfers with disabilities.

After more than $470,000 was raised, the new irrigation system was completed by volunteers, and their average age was 74. The practice range was turned into a three-hole short course where new golfers can not only learn the game, but also learn to maneuver the new single-rider golf carts that help disabled vets get around the course.

Golf course and equipment maintenance, driving range support, club repair, marshaling, cart maintenance, you name it and it’s done by volunteers. Lyle Hanks was wounded in the first wave at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, then healed soon enough to rejoin his unit at The Battle of the Bulge and was later awarded the Bronze Star, Combat Infantryman’s Badge and Purple Heart. Hanks, who has volunteered at American Lake for 18 years, repairs golf clubs.

And there are others, such as Pat Gailey , a retired construction manager who has garnered almost $1 million in support, through direct or in-kind donations, from local construction companies. Gene Lynn, chairman of the Capital Campaign, has been one of the largest single contributors to the American Lake project.

Today, American Lake Golf Course looks great. The course is in fine condition. Contributions made possible the new covered driving range, a covered pavilion, larger tees, handicap-accessible bunkers and greens. First Swing clinics are co-sponsored by the National Amputee Golf Association. Pepper Roberts and Ken Still give clinics and lessons to veterans at no charge.

There is still much to be done. Volunteers constantly battle with outdated, hand-me-down maintenance equipment that often needs band-aid and barbed wire repairs. And those new nine holes need to be built. But American Lake, the little course with heart and devoted volunteers, is on the upswing and there are many more years of golf ahead.