SERVING THE GAME
Renee Powell helping female military veterans find their way through golf August 29, 2011 By Rhonda Glenn, USGA

Former LPGA Tour player Renee Powell (left) is helping female military personnel find enjoyment in the game of golf. The players are celebrating after Barb Hickman (right) holed an 8-foot birdie putt. (Jay LaPrete/USGA)

East Canton, Ohio – Golf’s companionable atmosphere is famous for inspiring friendship. At Clearview Golf Club last month, 15 women who are military veterans found the game, and each other.

 

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When golf professional Renee Powell initiated the program, inspiration seemed to come from every direction. A veteran who was wounded in Vietnam encouraged her. Powell too is a veteran, of sorts. In 1971 she went to Vietnam at the behest of the USO and the U.S. State Department to give golf clinics for U.S. troops. The memories of that trip linger.

When Powell spoke of her plans for the golf program for women, the unnamed veteran pulled a piece of paper from his wallet and handed it to Powell. “I’ve carried this since Vietnam,” he said, telling Powell he wanted her to have it because she understood.

A verse on the paper said:

We are bewildered and weary, 

 Lonely to the point of madness, 

 And if we should shout and curse 

 Through our quiet dreams, 

 Forgive us. 

 We are merely looking for a way to go home.” 

 

Bob Denney, senior writer for The PGA of America, told Powell of a program, PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere), which helps returning veterans. Denney noted that thousands of women veterans return from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan with injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder.  

More inspiration arrived when Vietnam veteran Kevin Perrier sent Powell a photo from her 1971 Vietnam tour, saying, “Thank you for coming to Vietnam at a time when many of our soldiers thought that the world had forgotten about them.”

“Forty years later it was still important for him to tell me that,” Powell said. “It was another signal to me that the women veterans’ program was something I needed to do.”

Getting started, however, was a formidable task.

“Trying to find women veterans is so difficult, it’s unbelievable,” Powell said.

But Powell is unafraid of challenges. In 1962, she was the first African American to play in the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship. A few years later she was the second African American on the LPGA Tour. Today with her brother, Larry Powell, Renee runs Clearview. The course was built in 1946 by her father, a returning World War II veteran, to give all golfers a place to play. Clearview has always been open to everyone and today the course is a National Historic Landmark.

Powell’s search for golf prospects was aided by Hollis Burkes, a Desert Storm veteran. Burkes contacted a woman vet with whom she had shared a tent in Saudi Arabia and then telephoned others. Her recruiting pitch was, “We haven’t seen each other since Desert Storm. We need to get together for this golf series.”

With added help from the Veterans Administration, 15 women veterans showed up. All but a few were new golfers.

“The first meeting was so emotional,” Powell said. “We had women from the Vietnam era, Desert Storm and the Iraqi Freedom campaign – Army, Air Force and Marines. The younger women thanked the Vietnam era women and they were crying together. I felt like an outsider.”

Beth Whitmore, a judge, served in the U.S. Air Force from 1968-72. While the clinics helped Whitmore to correct faults in her golf swing, she believes the veterans’ unity is even more important.

 “Even though our backgrounds and branches of the service are different, we weren’t finding a connection in the standard veterans’ organizations,” Whitmore said. “This is the first time I’ve been with women veterans where we could share our experiences. What I really appreciated is that the PGA and Renee are willing to help women veterans, collectively, to be able to sit down and share, to be able to look at each other and say thank you. It’s something I have not been able to do since I left the service.”

Inspired by the group’s closeness, Whitmore is working to establish a website. Women golf professionals in the Northern Ohio PGA Section quickly volunteered their time to help Powell with instruction when contacted by executive director Dominic Antenucci.

Through golf, the women vets share camaraderie they haven’t found since their military service. One night, after working with Powell on short-game technique, they gathered for photos in front of Clearview’s American flag and historic landmark sign and broke into a rousing version of the Air Force fight song.

The group’s chosen name, “Clear View of Duty, Honor, Country,” was chosen by Whitmore. While the five-lesson program for July has ended, the group seeks to expand.

“We need to get our Web page and our structure going,” said Whitmore, “and we need to reach out and try to find more women locally to participate in our group. They may not even want to play golf but if they want to find fellowship, playing golf is not that important.”

Burkes and Powell put together a manual for beginning golfers, based on a military manual, which spells out the lessons from the clinics. Two of the women veterans are visually impaired, so Powell and Burkes are preparing an audio version.

Later this month, the vets will play a few more holes together in what Whitmore, using military jargon, calls a “performance review.” They’re seeking to recruit more women veterans for another clinic series. Their connection is ongoing. They’ve been invited to the Whitmore family farm in September for a picnic and informal golf contests. A Christmas tea and luncheon is also planned.

“These women veterans are like a family getting together after not having seen each other in years,” Powell said. “This military family never even knew each other, but the game of golf is amazing in how it can bring people together.”

In a way, golf has helped these women, who have served their country so well, to finally find their way home.

Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. E-mail questions or comments to rglenn@usga.org. 

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