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PGA program helps veterans

The recreation hall at the Department of Veterans Affairs facility in Albuquerque regularly posts a schedule of upcoming activities on its bulletin board.

Jim Hungerford, a disabled veteran who served in the Air Force, saw a posting for golf in early spring, and he didn’t hesitate to sign up.

“When I saw that, I said, ‘That’s me, I’m in,'” Hungerford said.

What Hungerford signed up for is a collaborative initiative between the PGA of America and the Department of Veterans Affairs coined the PGA HOPE program, an acronym for Help our Patriots Everywhere.

“As many veterans struggle with the transition back into civilian life, the game of golf delivers camaraderie and a new level of enjoyment that provides them with hope,” said PGA President Derek Sprague in a release from the PGA website in March 2016.

This is the second year of the program, which initially reached 20 of the PGA sections across the United States, but is now implemented in each of the sections across the country.

“They had different sites targeted (at the beginning), and Albuquerque happened to be one of them for the PGA Hope Program,” said Cat Ivie, recreation therapist and coordinator for adaptive sports at the Albuquerque VA site. “The PGA was awesome. They did all of the leg work, found the course and staff that wanted to help, and basically they called me in for the training so I could be available to help with disability-specific training.”

Gerome Espinoza, director of player development for the Sun Country PGA, acts as the section’s facilitator of the program.

Espinoza stepped in to assist with giving lessons to veterans when needed, but his primary function was to secure the site for the program, and arrange for the golf professionals to lend their expertise.

“Sandia (Golf Club) hosted it, and it was 1½ to two hours of golf lessons every Tuesday,” Espinoza said, adding that the program ran for nearly two months ending in late June. “Our group of pros at Sandia did a good job, and they should get some of the love for donating their time, and the vets just loved it.”

The veterans that participated at Sandia had various physical impediments that often required adaptive techniques. Hungerford said he has had double hip replacement surgery, “and I don’t have the greatest knees.”

Ivie said some of the veterans’ are, “visually impaired, had mobility issues, knee replacements, shoulder surgeries.”

Those issues, Ivie said, took a temporary back seat to the classroom-and-the-range setting where veterans absorbed valuable professional golf advice, but also had the opportunity to interact with their peers.

“The vets just ate it up, and they loved the pros,” Ivie said.  “We love the PGA, and PGA HOPE is doing great things for our veterans.”

This year’s program at Sandia averaged 15 to 18 veterans, and that attendance was consistent throughout the program’s nearly two-month duration.

Some of the participants, like Hungerford, had some golf experience, while others were getting their first taste of the sport.

“They were getting lessons on course etiquette, the full swing, chipping, putting, and a variety of other things,” said Ivie, who also participated in the program. “I was probably the worst player there.”

Espinoza said that most of the veterans made great strides and “improved greatly.”  By the end of the program, some of the veterans had the opportunity to go out and play a few holes on Sandia’s layout.

“I can tell you from last year’s group (of veterans) to this year’s, this year’s batch of players was pretty skilled,” Espinoza said.

Through his participation in the PGA HOPE program, Hungerford admits that he now has the golf bug. In May, he made the trip to Biloxi, Miss., to compete in the National Veterans Golden Age Games’ golf competition.

He put together a golf set, new grips, a golf bag, and added a sand wedge to his set through thrift store purchases, and hopes to hone his game for next year’s Golden Age Games, which will be hosted by Albuquerque.

The thrill of competition aside, Hungerford is simply thankful golf reentered his life.

“(Golf) has really benefited me,” he said. “I’ve lost some weight, it helps me release stress, and it gets me outdoors, which I love. I can go out for four or five hours, I’m walking and I’m outdoors. (For that time), it keeps my mind off some of my troubles.”

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