ACCESSIBILITY
Organization Uses Golf to Help Make Veterans Whole Again January 4, 2019 By Jordan Schwartz, USGA

Vets Whole in One aims to transition veterans back to normal life through mindful meditation and golf. (Alex Rogers)

ClayMerchent playing his tee shot at the 11th hole during the first round of stroke play of the 2018 U.S. Junior Amateur at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J. on Monday, July 16, 2018. (Copyright USGA/Darren Carroll)
Clay Merchent playing his tee shot at the 11th hole during the first round of stroke play of the 2018 U.S. Junior Amateur at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J. on Monday, July 16, 2018. (Copyright USGA/Darren Carroll)
Clay Merchent playing his tee shot at the 11th hole during the first round of stroke play of the 2018 U.S. Junior Amateur at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J. on Monday, July 16, 2018. (Copyright USGA/Darren Carroll)

Lenny Cataudella served 20 years in the United States Navy, including 12 months with boots on the ground fighting in Afghanistan. Like many veterans, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with symptoms such as anxiety, depression, poor sleep and a lack of interest in life.

Seeking help, the 56-year-old joined a group called Merging Vets & Players (MVP). Started by sportscaster Jay Glazer in 2015, MVP works to bring former military and retired athletes together to discuss life after the uniform.

Earlier this year, a bunch of MVP members were invited to join a new organization dubbed Vets Whole in One based in West Los Angeles, Calif. The nonprofit looks to transition those who have experienced the horrors of war back to normal life through mindful meditation and golf.

“The game has made me enjoy life again, make new friends and focus on something,” said Cataudella, of Hermosa Beach, Calif. “It gives you a new lease on life.”

Vets Whole in One is the brainchild of longtime PGA teaching professional Jim Dennerline. Growing up in Kansas, he learned the game from his father, who was also an instructor. Dennerline began teaching the game while playing at the University of Kansas and enjoyed it so much that he made a career of it.

“My real breakthrough was when I started working with veterans seven years ago,” Dennerline said. “I can’t explain the appreciation they show me. The general public is fun, but it’s a whole different appreciation from these vets. The last seven years have been so wonderful for me.”

Dennerline worked with other veterans organizations but grew frustrated with the red tape, so he decided to create one of his own.

“We’re trying to introduce golf to veterans to help them get back into life,” he said. “We had to get them to quiet their minds because the golf ball requires 100 percent of your focus and a lot of them are distracted.”

The loud ringing in Danny Saez’s ears is a result of his time in the Navy.

“Tinnitus can be very subtle, but in my case, it’s very severe. But when I get on the golf course, it disappears,” he said. “That’s my happy place.”

Saez, a longtime USGA member from Culver City, Calif., fell in love with the game in 2005 while he was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. That’s when he came up with the dream of starting a business that would give back to veterans through golf.

Eight years later, he met Dennerline at Heroes Golf Course in Los Angeles and began working as a greenkeeper. That relationship led to Saez serving on the Vets Whole in One advisory board.

“My goal is to give back to vets like myself,” he said. “The therapy it provides, the mindfulness that we provide as a program, there’s nothing like it.”

Fellow advisory board member Alex Rogers of Santa Monica said it’s been a very successful inaugural year for the organization in terms of helping vets through golf.

“The physical aspect of just getting out in nature, the concentration of focusing on that little ball makes everything else go out of focus,” he said. “The socializing is another huge aspect.”

When Stephen Islas, 69, returned from Vietnam in January 1972, he didn’t trust anyone and therefore he didn’t open up to anyone. Instead, he threw himself into meditation. More than four decades later, he’s using what he has learned as Vets Whole in One’s mindfulness expert.

“When we gave our first classes, they started feeling relaxed and opening up with each other,” said Islas, of Playa Vista, Calif. “There was a lot more laughter the more classes that we had. I had guys come up to me and thank me for the knowledge.”

Islas serves on the board of directors with Dennerline and Nate Boyer, a former active duty Green Beret who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before making the University of Texas football team as a walk-on at 29. He became the oldest rookie in NFL history when he joined the Seattle Seahawks as the team’s long snapper at 34.

“I have this propensity to take things on later in life,” said Boyer. “Golf was my next passion and I started playing a lot. I got addicted to it.”

Boyer also met Dennerline at the course located on Veterans Affairs grounds in Los Angeles and bought into the mission of Vets Whole in One.

“It’s just a peaceful game,” Boyer said. “It’s all about rhythm and tempo. Especially the younger vets in postwar time, they don’t have good rhythm and tempo. They’re just living these high-tempo lives. There’s such a thing as lack of traumatic stress and it can become difficult to find your place.”

Thomas Harris, 44, of Lawndale, Calif., enjoys spending time with other veterans. That’s why he joined MVP and Vets Whole in One.

“The real healing begins when you open your mouth and you’re willing to share about your experiences,” he said.

Jordan Schwartz is the creative and content lead for the USGA Foundation. Email him at jschwartz@usga.org.