The only golf course in the U.S. designed specifically for facilitating the rehabilitation of wounded and disabled veterans officially doubled in size earlier this month with the opening of the new “Nicklaus Nine” at American Lake Veterans Golf Course in Lakewood, Wash., just outside Tacoma.
The Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course is the 400th Nicklaus Design to open worldwide since Jack Nicklaus embarked on his course design career in 1969. The Golden Bear donated his design services for American Lake Veterans Golf Course so that more of the nation’s veterans could experience the remarkable healing powers of golf.
“It is a very interesting thing to watch these guys that come home after serving our country and to help them transition back to society,” Nicklaus said. “Golf has been a big, big boost to a lot of the guys that have post-traumatic syndrome or challenges transitioning into the mainstream of society.”
“We’ve got a lot of men and women coming back home, and they need our help,” he added. “I will never forget meeting a gentleman who, after coming home from Vietnam, tried several times to take his own life. Then he was introduced to American Lake and the wonderful people involved there. That association, along with the game of golf, helped save his life.”
The “Nicklaus Nine” debuted during American Lake’s annual volunteer appreciation tournament. The grand opening featured a ceremonial ribbon-cutting by Joanne (Tatum) Hatner, whose father, Joe, was the director of the VA Hospital during the first ribbon-cutting ceremony for the course in 1957, an event she attended.
“It is a therapy (for veterans) that is indescribable, until you are involved in it,” Hattner said.
Following the ribbon cutting, Ken Still, 81, a former PGA TOUR professional and a teammate of the Golden Bear’s on the 1969 U.S. Ryder Cup team, hit the ceremonial first tee shot while representing his close friend as Nicklaus tended to responsibilities as founder and host of the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide, which also pays tribute to servicemen and women.
“It was a beautiful day,” said Still, who recruited Nicklaus to get involved in the expansion and improvement of American Lake, including the Golden Bear’s donated design and his efforts related to fundraising. “We had 200 volunteers and they were the first ones to play the nine. My wife (Linda) sang God Bless America. We had a great time. Everything was such a positive. Everyone had a smile on their face at 8 a.m.”
The course is ADA-accessible and is run by 200-plus volunteers and operates without any federal funding or paid employees. In 2015, the course ranked No. 1 on Golf Digest’s 2015 list of “The 9 Most Cheerful Courses in America.”
“We are all exceptionally excited about the opening of the Nicklaus Nine,” said Bruce McKenty, course manager. “It has been a long time coming and our veterans deserve a first-class golf course for all the sacrifices they have made for our country.”
Nicklaus visited the site several times to personally oversee construction and assess its progress, after Still involved him in the project.
“Kenny called me, oh, I don’t know, six or seven years ago,” Nicklaus said, “and he told me, ‘Jack, I need your help. We’ve got nine holes of golf out here, and it’s playing 40,000 rounds a year. We need more golf.’ All these veterans, they’re unbelievable, and I want to help them.”
“Ken then said, ‘I want you to design another nine holes, and fix up the first nine.’ Well, we’ve raised the money; we’ve gotten the [additional] nine holes designed and built; and next we will renovate the first nine. ”
American Lake Veterans Golf Course is open to all veterans, their families and guests. This includes active duty, as well as retired military, National Guard and reserve members. The only non-veterans allowed to play are employees of the Veteran’s Administration. Anyone can also play as a guest of someone who qualifies.
The importance of American Lake to our military men and women, and the importance it has in the game of golf, is not lost on the Golden Bear, and it was only fitting that a milestone for Nicklaus Design has become a stepping stone for accessible golf at military facilities nationwide.
“I could not be happier that American Lake turned out to be Nicklaus Design’s milestone 400th golf course,” Nicklaus said. “Everything that American Lake stands for parallels our mission at Nicklaus Design, and that is to give people a place to recreate and congregate, and to design a course that best services the needs of the people who play there. It’s been a labor of love to be involved in the planning, fundraising, groundbreaking and design of the Nicklaus Nine at American Lake.
“I have always said that, in some ways, golf course design is a vehicle for me to give back to the game of golf. This time, we get the opportunity to give back to the men and women who have sacrificed their lives and limbs so we can live free in this country. To thank our nation’s heroes in this small way really is my privilege. It is the least we can do for the 1% of Americans who protect the other 99% of us, reminding us that there is nothing free about freedom.”
American Lake Veterans Golf Course http://veterangolf.org/
Nicklaus Design www.nicklaus.com/design