Part I: Golf And The Military

Both instill and promote shared values and characteristics

By Hunki Yun, USGA
August 31, 2011

Arnold Palmer served a three-year stint in the Coast Guard from 1951 to 1954. (Courtesy the Department of Defense)

First of two parts. 

The largest, most famous army in golf is the one led by Arnold Daniel Palmer. For decades, its far-flung troops would amass at theaters such as Augusta National, Oakmont and Bay Hill, marching across the fairways in support of their general. Even now, despite being retired from competition for nearly two decades, Palmer enjoys the kind of loyal following of which any commander would be envious.

Arnie’s Army, of course, is not a real military unit. But there is a strong connection between the armed forces and Palmer’s devoted followers. Palmer recalls that during the 1959 Masters, soldiers from Fort Gordon, located just miles from Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club, volunteered as scoreboard operators. Palmer looked up at one of the boards, and one of the GIs was holding a sign that read Arnie’s Army.

The same year, the Augusta Chronicle used the phrase in the headline for a column written by sports editor Johnny Hendrix, popularizing the alliterative moniker that quickly entered golf’s lexicon and became an effective recruiting tool.

Palmer himself served in the military – a three-year stint in the Coast Guard from 1951 to 1954. During basic training in Cape May, N.J., Palmer designed and built his first course, a rudimentary nine-hole pitch-and-putt layout, and played area courses as often as he could, given his responsibilities.

After transferring to the Ninth District Headquarters in Cleveland, Palmer served in the Coast Guard Auxiliary and had more opportunities to play and practice, thanks to a flexible schedule and the largesse of a local course, Pine Ridge Country Club. He was able to supplement his income with earnings in money games, and began playing competitively again in 1953 after a two-year hiatus. He won the Ohio Amateur, and qualified for his first U.S. Open and his first U.S. Amateur since 1950.

After missing the cut at the U.S. Open at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, near his hometown of Latrobe, Palmer advanced to the fourth round of the U.S. Amateur at Oklahoma City Golf and Country Club, losing to Don Albert. (Palmer won the U.S. Amateur the following year.)

“I have to say that my three years in the Coast Guard was three years that I value very highly,” Palmer said in 2008, when he received the Lone Sailor Award from the U.S. Navy Memorial. “I think that the experience of being in the Coast Guard had a lot to do with the success I’ve had in golf.”

Soldiers And Commanders 

Golf and the military instill and promote shared values and characteristics: integrity, honor, respect, discipline, fortitude. The institutions also have a strong common history; the first written mention of golf is directly linked to the military. In 1457, King James II of Scotland banned golf because the pastime was preventing soldiers from practicing archery. 

But few leaders since have matched James II’s antipathy toward the game. Conversely, their passion for golf has grown, especially in the United States. In the 20th and 21st centuries, nearly every commander in chief has teed it up regularly at some point in their lives.

The biggest icon for military golf has been Dwight Eisenhower, who was a five-star general of the U.S. Army before serving as the 34th President from 1953 to 1961. Eisenhower, who played nearly 100 rounds a year while in office and was a frequent playing partner of Palmer, gave golf a very visible standard bearer and was a major contributor to the growth of the game in the decades following World War II.

“He’s taught this whole country how to relax through golf,” said Babe Didrikson Zaharias in 1954. “Everybody is going at a mad pace – never taking any time out – and it remains for the President to show the rest of the country how to really live and do important work.”

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Patriot Golf Day 

The United States Golf Association recognized Eisenhower’s stature in the game by naming in his honor the trophy of the World Amateur Team Championship, first played in 1958. “I visualize it as a potent force for establishing friendship between yet another segment of the populations of nations,” Eisenhower said at the time.

While Eisenhower was leading the Allied Forces during World War II, many golf stars also contributed to the war effort. Prior to joining the Army Air Corps, the predecessor of the Air Force, Ben Hogan won the Hale America National Open Golf Tournament, held in 1942 at Ridgemoor Country Club in Chicago. Designed to be a substitute for the U.S. Open (the USGA cancelled its championships from 1942 to 1945), the Hale America Open raised more than $25,000 for the United Service Organizations and the Navy Relief Society.

Other top players enlisted into various services: Army Air Corps (Hogan, Bob Jones, Horton Smith), Army (Lloyd Mangrum, Ed “Porky” Oliver, Jim Turnesa), Navy (Jimmy Demaret, Jack Fleck, Sam Snead).

While some like Mangrum, who won two Purple Hearts, and Fleck, who participated in the D-Day invasion of Utah Beach, saw action, other golfers were assigned relative sinecures. Military higher-ups recruited golfers like Snead, Hogan and collegiate champion Sandy Tatum (later a USGA president) to play with them and to put on morale-boosting and fundraising clinics and exhibitions.

Now as then, golf is a favored pastime for officers, and being a good player always helps a military career. Before being accepted into the Space Shuttle program, David Leestma was a Navy pilot who made sure to bring his clubs for months-long aircraft-carrier deployments.

“My skipper was a golf nut,” says Leestma, who played for the golf team at the Naval Academy. “And he always said, ‘You’re my partner.’ We got to play some gorgeous courses like Valderrama [in Spain].”

During World War II, many civilian golfers, most notably Byron Nelson, who was unable to serve because of a blood disorder, raised money through exhibition matches. Their charitable efforts for military personnel and their families were a precursor to noteworthy campaigns like Patriot Golf Day.

Now in its fifth year, Patriot Golf Day is actually an entire weekend, being held this year from Sept. 2-5. During that time, portions of green fees at participating courses will go to the Folds of Honor Foundation, which provides scholarships to children and spouses of military members who have been disabled or killed.

Founded by Dan Rooney, a PGA professional and a former F-16 pilot in the Oklahoma Air National Guard, Patriot Golf Day has helped more than 2,000 scholarship recipients. This year, Rooney anticipates signing up more than 4,500 courses for the four-day nationwide fundraiser.

‘We Make Driving To Lunch Competitive’ 

Rooney is a PGA professional and former collegiate player at the University of Kansas. There have been other good military golfers like Billy Hurley, who was in the Navy when he represented the United States in the 2005 Walker Cup Match. But no active service member has won the U.S. Open, although many veterans have won the national championship, including Mangrum, Hogan, Fleck, Palmer, Lee Trevino, Orville Moody and Larry Nelson. 

The protagonist of one of golf’s best late-bloomer tales, Nelson didn’t start playing golf until he was 21 – after he had returned from serving in Vietnam in 1968. But he was on the PGA Tour just six years later and won the 1983 U.S. Open at Oakmont, one of the most demanding courses in the country.

I was a competitive person but not demonstrative,” Nelson wrote in Golf Digest in 2008, “and the stress of Vietnam really made me rein in my emotions more. In Vietnam you had to let events sort of bounce off you to keep your sanity. That temperament is good for golf, to a point.” 

Whereas Nelson had yet to pick up a golf club while in the Army, Trevino and Moody were playing against each other in service tournaments, Moody for the Army and Trevino representing the Marines. “Hell, I could beat them all then,” recalled Moody, who was in the Army for 14 years before leaving the service in 1967 to turn professional. “I shot 63 every other round. Trevino couldn’t carry my putter back then. But I lost the touch. No competition.” 

Trevino beat Moody, known as “Sarge” because of his rank, to the PGA Tour. And in just his second year, Trevino won the 1968 U.S. Open at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. The following year at Champions Golf Club in Houston, the defending champion made a surprising pre-tournament prediction for the player who would succeed him: his old rival, Moody. And “Sarge” did just that, winning by one stroke for his only career victory on the PGA Tour. 

Trevino no doubt was drawing upon the competitiveness of service members that he experienced during military tournaments. That spirit still lives at the annual Armed Forces Golf Championship, even if the results have been one-sided.  

Since 2001, a team from the Air Force has won the men’s division every year except 2003, when the Navy won. Patriot Golf Day founder Rooney posits that the hand-eye coordination needed to be a flying ace transfers well to the golf swing. He also says golf is an ideal playing field for pilots, who are always looking to test themselves and each other. “We make driving to lunch competitive,” jokes Rooney, whose call sign was “Noonan” after the lead character in “Caddyshack.”  

It also doesn’t hurt that unlike other service members, who have to travel light, pilots have a compartment to stow their clubs. When giving tours of his F-16, Rooney says he always was asked whether the cigar-shaped container attached to the wing was a bomb. 

His answer: “No, those are my golf clubs.” 

It’s probably a coincidence that clubs fit perfectly in the travel pod, but one theory suggests otherwise. “The urban legend is that when they designed these pods,” explains Rooney, “the general approving them said, ‘The only thing I care about is that golf clubs fit inside them.’” 

Hunki Yun is a senior staff writer for the USGA. E-mail him with questions or comments at hyun@usga.org. 

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