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Takeaways from the 2015 Warrior Open

Article by George W. Bush Presidential Center October 2, 2015 //   7 minute read

The Bush Institute hosted its fifth annual Warrior Open at Las Colinas Country Club in Irving, Texas, this week. The golf tournament paired military veterans with professional golfers,  including such PGA stars as Lee Trevino, the Dallasite who won six majors during his career. Here are key takeaways from the gathering:

The Scene

On Wednesday, the pro-am began early, with former President George W. Bush appearing on The Golf Channel’s Morning Drive show, live from Las Colinas Country Club. The President made it clear that the event is more than a golf tournament. The annual tournament, he emphasized, is a way to call attention the vets playing and to highlight how returning veterans can use their leadership skills to benefit their larger communities, including their employers and businesses.

President Bush then greeted each pairing as they teed off from the first and tenth tees. As the golfers motored down the course in golf carts with American flags attached to them, they were met along the way by about 1,000 spectators.

The galleries included celebrities like Texas Rangers pitcher Derek Holland. But the celebrities were not the center of attention. The veterans were. Trevino personified that when he bellowed “beautiful” as one of his threesome hit an approach shot within 10 feet of the hole.  One of the world’s most accomplished golfers made sure the attention was on the skill of veterans who had persevered against their combat injuries to compete on a golf course.

Why Golf?

Veterans do not accidentally turn to golf. The game often becomes a way to help them recover from the physical and mental traumas they experienced on the battlefield.

Jacque Keeslar, a retired U.S. Army sergeant first class, said he got serious about the sport after his first year back from military service. Before teeing off on the 15th hole Wednesday morning, Keeslar, a double amputee, described how golf helped him regain his physical balance and mobility.

“Just walking the terrain is challenging,” he said. Golf provided a way to learn how to do that, as well as simply provide good therapy. “You get to be out in the woods, even yell and scream,” he explained with a smile. “Sometimes that is a good release.”

Conquering the Four Inches

Indeed, for players with post-traumatic stress, or challenging physical injuries, the release that comes from golf is therapeutic. Other physical activities can provide therapy, but golf has unique qualities that help with rehabilitation.

Andrew Bachelder, the veteran who won this year’s tournament, explained in a Dallas Morning News article how the game had helped save his life. After returning from his service in the Marines as a staff sergeant, where he survived a mid-air helicopter collision, Bachelder was near suicide in 2012. His mother suggested he sign up for the Warrior Open.

Bachelder now has played in the tournament three times, and says golf is fundamental to his recovery. “When you hit a really good shot or drain a long putt, you don’t feel anything except for excitement,” he told the Morning News. “You don’t have to think about the pain every day.”

The game’s demand for mental concentration also has helped his recovery. “Ten percent is the swing and contact,” he said. “The other 90 percent is the four inches between your ears. When you can conquer those four inches, you can conquer it all….That’s what I am trying to do. I’m trying to conquer the four inches.”

Learning Balance, Staying Focused

Golf is fundamental to rehabilitation in other ways, too. For one thing, balance is paramount to golf. PGA Tour professional Paul Stankowski took time to explain how being out of balance is detrimental to playing the game.  He then paused and added: “Being out of balance is detrimental to anything you do in life.”

Stankowski said he learned early the importance of grip, stance and posture in playing the exacting sport. “But they all lead to balance,” he continued. “Balance, rhythm and patience come next.”

Learning those elements teach golfers how to stay centered, which Stankowski described as being critical to succeeding in the game of golf and in meeting life’s larger challenges.

Billy Paul, a command sergeant major, underscored these same points.  “Golf makes you humble. You can’t do all things all the time. So, you have to keep after it, until you get it right,” he said after hitting a long and straight tee shot. “This applies beyond golf. You have to stay focused on everyday activities, like how to be a good father and a good husband. If it were not for my wife, I would not be here.”

Teaching Leadership Skills

Golf may be an individual sport, but it teaches broader leadership skills. As Paul indicated, the game demands determination, which any effective leader needs. You can’t just quit after a bad shot. It’s up to you to keep playing.

Many veterans return from their service with skills that would benefit their communities and employers. The question is, how to how to prepare for and effectively make the transition.

Speaking at a concluding luncheon, Col. Miguel Howe, the director of the Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative  pointed to the role that veteran Jae Barclay is playing in Houston as a businessman, community leader, husband and father. Barclay, a retired Army captain is one example of many that highlight the leadership role our Warriors and their families are embracing as they return home to their communities.

Families are a major part of a successful transition, so this year’s Warrior Open focused on their pivotal contributions. Army Major Abigail Vincent, wife of Bryon Vincent, a retired Army captain playing in this year’s tournament, spoke of her family’s experiences at the same luncheon. She described how they worked as a family as Captain Vincent made the move from military to civilian life. In the coming months, the Military Service Initiative will continue concentrating on this key part of bridging the military/civilian divide.