More than just a game: Tulsa-based golf program helps veterans

Robert Rodriguez played his first round of golf at age 29 while still in the Air Force. He quickly fell in love with the game.

“A friend at work invited me to play and I just enjoyed it,” Rodriguez said. “I just took a passion for it. It’s a very difficult game.

When he got out of the army, he played sparingly.

“I tried to play as soon as I retired,” he said. “But at that time, I didn’t have many friends. It was hard to go out and meet new people to play golf.

At Eastern Oklahoma VA, where he works as an IT manager, Rodriguez befriended Navy veteran Waco Blakley, coordinator of the VA health systems overhaul. Blakley is also a PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere) ambassador in Tulsa. He invited Rodriguez to attend the first PGA HOPE course in the spring of 2021 at Indian Springs Golf Club.

Mission to have a positive impact on life

The program is free for veterans and is funded by PGA REACH, a charitable foundation whose mission is to positively impact the lives of youth, service members and diverse populations.

The PGA has an agreement with VA that allows VA recreation therapists to refer veterans to the program as a form of therapy.

“It gives me the opportunity to improve my well-being,” Rodriguez said. “What I mean by that is that I can get out and exercise but more importantly it has given me the ability to socially engage with others. Knowing that all participants were veterans made me feel better. We all had a common bond and by the third lesson we all seemed able to talk to each other and even share some of our military experiences.

Opportunity to create camaraderie

Prior to the first course in 2021, Blakley laid the groundwork for the Eastern Oklahoma VA health care system to orient veterans to the program.

Helps veterans reintegrate into their communities

“Waco was instrumental in getting the program off the ground, said Dr. Nathan Williams, director of Whole Health. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for veterans to learn a new skill, encourage activity, build camaraderie with other veterans and enjoy the great game of golf.

Kyley Tetley is the PGA’s Director of Education at Indian Springs. He said he’s been rewarding teaching the game to veterans, especially those who haven’t played before.

“To see them learn to play golf and see their reaction when they hit a golf ball and see it go in the direction they wanted is pretty cool,” he said. “Once I realized how rewarding it was for them and what they got out of the program, it meant so much more to me.”

PGA professionals are also certified in adaptive golf and military culture.

“It makes for a great environment for veterans of all eras who choose to participate, especially our veterans who have recently left military service,” Blakley said. “PGA HOPE helps veterans reintegrate into their communities through the social interaction the game provides.”

Rodriguez one of four veterans selected to play in Secretary’s Cup

Making the program a bit more special is the opportunity for local veterans to compete in the nationwide PGA HOPE Secretary’s Cup. This tournament will take place this year in Indian Springs on May 16th.

This annual event began in 2016 and is held during PGA Championship week. It is named after the Secretary of Veterans Affairs in recognition of the agreement between PGA REACH and VA. Each team is made up of four veterans and one PGA or LPGA professional.

Rodriguez is one of four local veterans selected to take part in the prestigious tournament.

“It’s an honor to be asked to represent the South Central PGA HOPE Chapter in the Secretary’s Cup,” Rodriguez said. “I am grateful to PGA pro Tetley for selecting me. I am hopeful our team can win. We have two players who are strong off the tees and two who are great with their short game.”

PGA HOPE currently has a waitlist for the Tulsa chapter, but Blakley said the schedule will add new chapters in the Tulsa metro.

“We are excited about a new chapter starting this spring in Owasso at Bailey Ranch Golf Club,” he said. “Future plans include adding another chapter to Tulsa for 2023 to expand opportunities for our veterans.”

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