By Murray Evans
In his day job as a chaplain at the Eastern Oklahoma VA Medical Center in Muskogee and the Tulsa Behavioral Medicine Clinic, Carter Check constantly seeks out ways to “foster resiliency and create meaning” for U.S. military veterans whose isolation might otherwise lead to thoughts of suicide.
In his search to find new ways to connect with veterans, Check – who served in the U.S. Army in South Korea and in Georgia, where he was raised – has added golf to his proverbial toolbox of assets, thanks to his work through the PGA HOPE program.
“All of the things in my life are converging on one specific goal – saving veterans’ lives,” Check said. “PGA HOPE offers an alternative pathway for community and connection to combat the very things I believe are killing our veterans, like loneliness and social isolation.”
PGA HOPE is a national program that introduces golf to veterans and active-duty military members as a way to enhance their physical, mental, social and emotional well-being. It’s the only adaptive golf program that has a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which enables medical staff to refer veterans to the program as a form of therapy.
The program offers golf through a developmental curriculum taught by PGA professionals who are trained in adaptive golf and military cultural competency. The program is funded through the PGA of America’s charitable foundation, PGA REACH, and supplemented by PGA Section foundations, so the cost of programming is free to all veterans. There are currently more than 215 PGA HOPE chapters across the country, and the program will positively impact more than 7,500 veterans this year, according to the PGA.
Through a longstanding partnership between PGA REACH and Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., 20 veterans (including Check) and two squad leaders (including Waco Blakley of Beggs) – all graduates of their local PGA HOPE programs – participated in October in an immersive four-day event that included advanced golf instruction and wellness training. Two-time PGA Champion and 1991 U.S. Ryder Cup Captain Dave Stockton served as a special guest, interacting with the veterans during the week. In addition, U.S. Navy Adm. William McRaven was a featured speaker at the PGA National Day of HOPE Sponsor Dinner.
After finishing the week, participants like Blakley and Check return to their communities to serve as program Ambassadors, looking for ways to promote PGA HOPE.
“PGA HOPE is an impactful program for veterans,” PGA President Jim Richerson said. “PGA HOPE National Golf and Wellness Week offers an incredible experience for these American heroes, as it provides in-depth training from PGA professionals to take back to their communities and help fellow veterans utilize golf as a means of rehabilitation and fun.”
Just a few years ago, neither Check nor Blakley– a former U.S. Marine from Weatherford who later served in the Oklahoma Air National Guard – had more than a passing interest in golf.
In the spring of 2021, Blakley, who now works as a health systems redesign coordinator for the Eastern Oklahoma VA Health System, saw an email about PGA HOPE and was intrigued. The offer seemed too good to be true – the program would provide a PGA professional as a coach and was designed to be sensitive to the myriad needs of veterans and military culture.
“I was working for a homeless program at the time, and I thought this would be great, so I threw my name in the hat,” Blakley said.
Blakley was part of a group of 10 veterans who soon began working with Kyley Tetley, the director of instruction at The Club at Indian Springs in Broken Arrow. Only four made it through the six weeks of coaching.
“Some had never picked up a club,” Blakley said. “I had never had any formal coaching at any point. As an athlete, I thought I could swing the sticks but I am still pretty awful. But it was pretty interesting.”
Blakley volunteered as a PGA HOPE graduate at the Senior PGA Championship at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa in 2021, which led to him being nominated to become a PGA HOPE Ambassador for the PGA South Central Section. He went through the week at Congressional later that year and returned this year with Check, who now also is a program Ambassador.
The pair is working to grow PGA HOPE chapters throughout the South Central Section, which includes Oklahoma. The key to expanding the program in the Section is finding PGA professionals who are willing to learn how to teach and coach veterans, Blakley said.
Check said he twice turned down Blakley’s offer to take part in PGA HOPE, because Check believed he didn’t have the time. But he eventually got into a class at Indian Springs, not long before this year’s PGA Championship at Southern Hills.
“It was a good time for me,” said Check, who’s currently pursuing a doctoral degree in integrative chaplaincy from Vanderbilt University. “The nature of my job, I think self-care is super important. I carry a lot of critical stories, I bear a lot of burdens, so it was a good outlet for me personally. In golf, you have to focus and be intentional on that golf ball. It reminds me I have the ability to not think about what’s going on around me and I have resiliency in me to get through to the next day.
“What I learned going through PGA HOPE was not just that it was great for me personally. From week one until when we graduated, I watched these men and women have fun and improve and I saw things I was currently writing about for my dissertation. It was like being in the petri dish and at the same time, I was falling in love with the game, too. It was about creating connections and community. I was watching their stories change. Everybody has problems, but if you can connect someone to purpose, purpose helps you fight through problems.”
During the week at Congressional, the wellness and healthy living training portion of the program was conducted by leaders in Veteran wellness from Cohen Veterans Network (CVN) of Stamford, Conn. The overall curriculum covered nutrition, stress management, mental health and life skills – all subjects Check and Blakley deal with on a routine basis.
“Congressional Country Club has hosted PGA HOPE programming since 2017, and we see first-hand the immeasurable benefits of using golf as a form of therapy for military veterans,” said Mark Giarraputo, the president of Congressional Country Club. “These are America’s heroes who have sacrificed so much for our great country and we are proud to support this initiative. PGA HOPE, through the community and game of golf, offers a terrific platform for Congressional to recognize and start to repay those who have given so much.”
The event at Congressional served as a prelude to the 6th PGA National Day of HOPE, which will be this Friday – Veterans Day, Nov. 11. The PGA National Day of HOPE celebration has two goals: Commemorate our nation’s heroes who protect our freedom and raise awareness and support for PGA HOPE, the flagship military program for PGA REACH.
The PGA National Day of HOPE Campaign will run from October 11 to November 11 with a goal to raise over $200,000 for local PGA HOPE programming throughout the country. Blakely is a strong believer in the worthiness and usefulness of the program.
“A Marine friend said something that stuck with me,” Blakley said. “What do you think about when you’re over the top of a golf ball? Nothing. Say you have 110 shots in a round. That’s 110 opportunities that a veteran is not in their home, or has a chance to converse with another veteran, or can smile or be happy for the first time in a long time, or socialize. Then there’s the physical aspect. PGA HOPE covers so many facets in life, just by picking up a golf club. It’s vitally important for me to get me and women out of their comfort zone. If I can get them to pick up a golf club, I’ve accomplished something.”