Colorado Springs, Colo. – It's a long way from the mountain trails of Afghanistan to the fairways of The Broadmoor at the U.S. Women's Open. But the USGA believes it is an important journey to make.
To that end, the USGA designated Monday's opening practice round of the 66th U.S. Women's Open Championship as Military Appreciation Day. A number of activities took place, none more compelling than a four-hole golf scramble between three soldiers from nearby Fort Carson and LPGA Tour star Stacy Lewis.
The military Wounded Warriors included Army Capt. Jason Mazella, 25, Staff Sgt. Jason Wilcox, 25, and Sgt. Chris Helton, 27. All three sustained injuries in battle. On Feb. 10, 2010, Mazella was 15 feet from a rocket explosion that shattered both of his legs, ripped open his nose and sent shrapnel through his face and neck. Doctors were able to save his right leg by grafting part of his calf and he spent the better part of last year on crutches.
Wilcox was a squad leader in Afghanistan. He has required two major shoulder operations to address wounds he suffered in combat. Monday’s competition was waged instead with golf clubs and balls.
|Freedom Plaza At U.S. Women's Open|
In the end, the military prevailed. Mazella hit the green with his approach from 160 yards out at No. 18, and Wilcox dropped an 18-foot putt for a match-winning eagle. Most important, the soldiers spent the rest of the day reveling in the experience. It was awesome, Mazella said.
Meanwhile, for once in her career, Lewis was happy to swallow her competitive pride. I think it's so important what these guys do, said Lewis, whose grandfather served in the Army during World War II.
They sacrifice a lot for us. To be able to give back a little bit and give them a fun day, it's the least that I can do. It means a lot to me and it means a lot to a lot of people out here. There are a lot of military connections out here, not just players but caddies and others. It affects everybody.
Sports and military appreciation is not a new concept. A number of stops on the LPGA Tour feature a Military Appreciation Day during tournament week. But the efforts at The Broadmoor are especially appropriate, because Colorado Springs is a veritable mecca of military activity.
In addition to Fort Carson, the U.S. Air Force Academy is just down the highway from The Broadmoor. Peterson Air Force Base, where the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is headquartered, is also in Colorado Springs.
NORAD command and control is exercised through the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center, the very mountain that provides the backdrop for this week's national championship.
Schriever Air Force Base, located 10 miles east of Peterson AFB, is the home of the Missile Defense Integration and Operations Center and the Space Innovation & Development Center. It also serves as the main control point for the Global Positioning System.
Brigadier General Bradley W. Butler, recently retired from the Air Force, was among the military personnel enjoying the first-round action on Thursday, and he felt right at home.
There's no doubt, across the nation, we benefit from the relationship with the USGA and what they do for the troops and their families, Butler said. It's across the board, and especially what they do for our Wounded Warriors. The players themselves give a lot, they'll go to hospitals and visit the troops. We're real fortunate in that way.
The Broadmoor always has been real supportive in town for our companies and industries that support the troops, and the nonprofit organizations. And of course, you have to love these athletes and what they do.
Reigning Women's Open champion Paula Creamer is among many players who feel tethered to the military service. Creamer's father, Paul Creamer, flew for the Navy.
My whole dad's side of the family is all military, said Creamer, who flew in an F-16 with the Thunderbirds earlier this year over Oakmont Country Club, site of her 2010 Women’s Open victory. My cousin was in the Marines, my uncle in the Army and my grandpa was in the Merchant Marines, so my foundation is military. I definitely feel very close to that, and I support our troops 130 percent.
They're heroes in my eyes. I'm lucky I'm able to come out here and play golf and do what I do, while they're over there putting their lives on the line for our country.
Service members and their families were admitted free of charge during Monday's practice round. Admission for military personnel is discounted 50 percent the rest of the week. In addition, a special reception area near the clubhouse has been set aside for military members and families and designated as Freedom Plaza.
On Thursday, ITT, Summit Technical Solutions, Webster College and the University of Colorado teamed up to sponsor a special lunch for some 130 airmen, soldiers and their families at the plaza.
It's a nice lunch and celebration, said Brian Sutton, CEO of Summit Technical Solutions, which is headquartered in Colorado Springs. Our contribution is inviting all these worthy, great Americans out here to have a lunch and enjoy the activities. It's an honor for us to do it.
It's a long way from the deadly serious circumstances of combat to a golf championship. But this week, it is a road the USGA and contributing sponsors at The Broadmoor are all too proud to pave.