For veterans haunted by memories of war, a few hours on the golf course can transform days of isolation and flashbacks into afternoons of cheers and companionship.
The PGA HOPE program teaches veterans, many of whom are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, to golf. The idea is that getting out on the course will improve their physical and mental health and social well-being.
About 15 veterans graduated from the most recent installment of the program at the Country Club at Mirasol on Wednesday. It was the fifth PGA HOPE session offered to veterans in northern Palm Beach County. Nearly 400 veterans have participated in the South Florida PGA Foundation’s program since 2015.
The West Palm Beach VA Medical Center can refer veterans to the program.
Most of the lessons are on the driving range, but for the final day, the fledgling golfers shoot nine holes on the course. When they graduate from the six- to eight-week program, their instructors encourage them to exchange phone numbers so they can keep golfing together.
Don Cunningham, a Coast Guard veteran from Palm Beach Gardens, knew he couldn’t just go out and play golf by himself. Instead of chasing his ball into the woods, he’s learned the right way to hit it.
“This is a phenomenal program the PGA has,” Cunningham said. “I got a little bit of discipline, definitely patience.”
Mary Anderson-Kokell, of Stuart, and her service dog, a yellow lab named Allie, went through the program a few years ago at John Prince Park, west of Lake Worth. Now she is a mentor who supports the other veterans and tries to recruit women who could really use the game of golf.
It was intimidating at first, because she was one of only two women, and the only one to graduate from her program. She had always wanted to play golf, but she gained so much more, she said.
“I suffer from PTSD, and it allowed me to get out of my house,” the Vietnam-era Army veteran said. “It gets you out into natural light, sunshine and friends.”
As she learned to play golf, she also learned patience, understanding for fellow veterans and kindness for herself, she said. Allie, her service dog, is patient, too. She usually sits in the shade of the passenger seat of the golf cart and stays there most of the time, Anderson-Kokell said.
Lead instructor Dave McNulty cheers on his golfers when they make a birdie and teaches them etiquette beyond the basic rules of the game. When his group finished their round Thursday, he told them to take off their hats and shake hands.
Sometimes, though, the teacher learns from his students.
“I learn something new every day from these guys — patience, perseverance,” McNulty said.
Larry Zaffuto counts himself lucky to have gotten out of Vietnam without a scratch. But the U.S. Army intelligence veteran lost a couple of fingers and has other fingers that were broken in a leaf blower incident. The VA hospital outfitted him with a prosthetic, so he can still play a round of golf.
PGA HOPE is “fantastic,” he said.
“The instructors were very good, very conscientious. Mirasol was very kind in letting us use their facility,” Zaffuto, of West Palm Beach, said.
Before the lessons, he was skidding the ball, dribbling about 20 yards. Now, he’s hitting better. Plus, there’s the camaraderie.
“It’s nice. It’s encouraging,” Zaffuto said.