One Local Champion Provides Sunshine To Illinois Golfers
By Bryan Patterson
Donna Strum and Kathy Williams watched Manny Ortega tee up his ball and squint down the first fairway. Manny took a cut at the ball and held his finish, the ball taking off into the humid, mid-summer air. It was a normal day at the Sunshine Course in Lemont, Ill. People who had never played golf before were having fun like all golfers do -- teeing it high and watching it fly.
Woody Austin, left, and Gerry Meyer sidle up during a "Play With A Pro" Day.
Until a year ago, Ortega had no idea how much he loved golf, because he didn’t have a place to play. A military veteran and a patient at the local V.A. hospital, Ortega has a debilitating back injury that he suffered while serving in Iraq. With the help of Donna Strum, a recreational therapist and executive director of Revelation Golf, a USGA-supported non-profit organization based in Elk Grove Village, Ill., along with Kathy Williams, Revelation’s assistant director and an LPGA teaching professional, Ortega is able to play a game he never thought possible following his injury. Both Strum and Williams, the creators of the Illinois Military Veterans Golf Program, worked hand-in-hand to define the Ortega’s physical limitations and test his motor skills before they suggested a shorter backswing in order to take the pressure off Ortega’s back. Now, thanks to this very special three-hole par-3 course and the unique programs that operate here, Ortega and other wounded warriors enjoy the same thrill that all golfers feel when they hit a good shot.
The Sunshine Course is unique in so many ways—grass ramps for single-rider golf cars, large greens that are flush with the fairway, and an expansive practice putting green able to accommodate multiple single-rider golf cars at the same time.
The Sunshine Course at the Midwest Golf House Complex in Lemont, Ill., was built with the mission of providing free course access for individuals who would not otherwise take up the game. The Chicago District Golf Association’s Sunshine Through Golf Foundation received a $75,000 USGA Construction Grant in January 2000 to support the construction the short course, located on eight acres across the street from Cog Hill Golf and Country Club. Opened in early 2002, the Sunshine Course has gone above and beyond its original mission and each week welcomes numerous junior golf programs and golf programs for individuals with disabilities throughout Chicago and its western suburbs.
“The tees and fairways are always plush, and I’ve never seen a day where the greens weren’t rolling perfectly,” said Alex Nolly, the foundation’s manager of administration. “The Sunshine Course is kept in such nice condition, because that’s the type of course that its regular users deserve. What a lot of people don’t know about the course is that it’s also a major center for turfgrass research in the area.”
The Sunshine Course is a great success because of the efforts of everyone who works under the Midwest Golf House roof – and in particular because of the contributions of one staffer who’s much more likely to be found outside, ready with a welcome smile.
For the past few summers, Gerry Meyer has been the first Sunshine staffer to greet junior golfers when they arrive at the course. If it’s a program for individuals with disabilities, Meyer is right there, helping them tee up the ball, making sure they are aimed at the target, and assisting players in operating single-rider golf cars.
Meyer, 48, suffered a minor brain injury at birth, but today is a fully functional and most avid golfer. He is an athlete with the Orland Park Special Recreation Association (OPSRA) and has been involved with Sunshine Through Golf Foundation’s Sunshine Series Camp for the past seven years at Silver Lake Country Club in Orland Park, Ill.
Gerry Meyer’s father, Gerry Meyer Sr., describes his son’s involvement with the program: “He’s so passionate about working with the kids out at the Sunshine Course, and you can really see how the kids connect with him. He’s the type of guy who would drop everything to make someone else’s day is that much better.”
Added Nolly: “Gerry loves helping others, and that’s exactly why we have continued to hire him the past few summers to assist us in running the Sunshine Course.”
“Gerry really didn’t take up the game until later in life when he became an assistant coach at the Orland Park Program,” Gerry’s dad explained. “After that, he and I started to take part in father-son tournaments at our home course, and Gerry started playing in all kinds of tournaments all over the Chicago area. Right now he’s attempting to qualify for the Illinois State Special Olympics Tournament.”
Meyer has worked full-time at a local grocery store for the past 20 years, but his dedication to golf and to helping others is evidenced by his interaction with the individuals with disabilities who use the Sunshine Course.
The Orland Park Special Recreation program director, Jan Somerfield, said, “Gerry is the ultimate role model, because he is a great golfer and he is very even tempered. He has a very supportive family, and the values of determination, hard work, and dedication that he learned from his family are the same values and mindset he brings to the golf course to help people.”
For all that Meyer has given to others through the game, he has been rewarded by being given the opportunity to play with a few of the PGA Tour’s top players in Sunshine Through Golf Foundation’s “Play With a Pro Day.” In 2007, Meyer teed it up with both Brandt Snedeker and Woody Austin. In 2008, he played with Bob Burns.
During the 2007 BMW Championship at Cog Hill, Meyer had the opportunity to forge a special bond with Snedeker. During Friday’s round, Snedeker spotted Meyer in the crowd and asked him if he had tickets for the weekend. When Gerry replied that he didn’t, Snedeker went out of his way to leave tickets for Saturday and Sunday’s rounds at the Will Call facility for Meyer.
“Brandt showed what a great ambassador for the game of golf he is, and I also think it showed how easy Gerry is to get along with and how quickly he develops close relationships through the game of golf,” said Gerry’s father.
For the past 10 years, the USGA Grants Initiative has supported the Sunshine Through Golf Foundation with a total of six grants totaling $135,640 as it continually brings the golf experience to individuals with disabilities like Meyer. The USGA Grant Initiative helps programs like the Sunshine Through Golf Foundation by providing funding to give participants access to practice ranges and golf courses as well as the use of adaptive golf clubs and single-rider golf cars. Success stories like Gerry Meyer and the Sunshine Through Golf Foundation keep the USGA Grants Initiative at the forefront of philanthropy as it strives to fulfill its mission to provide golf opportunities to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the game.
“We are grateful for the support of the USGA in helping us bring these programs to our target demographic,” said Brittany Ottolini, assistant executive director of the Sunshine Through Golf Foundation. “We fell feel strongly that these programs need to continue for the special needs population. These programs have been a huge success and we look forward to only growing them and building the groundwork for them to stand on their own.”
By continuing to attract participants and staff members like Gerry Meyer, the Sunshine Through Golf Foundation will foster a self-sustaining program that continually changes lives through golf.
Bryan Patterson is a USGA Fellow based in Colorado Springs, Colo. For more information about the USGA Grants Initiative, click here. For further details about the Sunshine Through Golf Foundation, click here.