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Golf pros, disabled veterans team up for a fun day of instruction in Lakewood

Club in hand, wheelchair user Joe Sapienza used stories from his own life to motivate disabled veterans trying the game of golf for the first time since serious injuries changed their lives.

Golf gave him peace, Sapienza said. He wants to share it.

“Anything to just take your mind away from everything,” the Vietnam War veteran told his students Monday. “I just concentrate on the ball and the club.”

His love for the game was as clear as the blue skies at the annual National Down Range Golf Clinic at the American Lake Veterans Golf Course in Lakewood.

The event paired about 80 military veterans with 10 PGA pros who took time to coach former service members on how to adapt the game to their disabilities.

The idea was to show veterans that they can get outdoors and try a competitive activity despite serious injuries. Many people who discover the golf course learn about it from VA doctors or physical therapists encouraging them to find hobbies they might enjoy.

“A lot of guys think their life is over. They come here and find out it’s not,” said Roger Gatts, a former Army first sergeant who’s the assistant manager at the course on the grounds of the American Lake VA Hospital.

Participants came with different levels of experience and different disabilities. Some were young, athletic veterans coping with traumatic brain injuries or amputations. Others had not worn the uniform in decades.

“I thought it would be a challenge to do something different,” said Phillip Jones, 50, of Lakewood. It was his first time on a golf course.

Jones suffered a spinal cord injury while training with the Army in Germany in the 1980s. He started a civilian career and over time noticed he had lost feeling in his legs.

He can still walk, but with difficulty.

“I’m blessed to still be able to walk,” he said. “A lot of guys with spinal injuries are in wheelchairs.”

Jones’ challenge at the clinic centered on learning to maneuver a special golf cart called a SoloRider along a green and positioning it close to a ball so he could swing. The cart’s seat tilted in such a way that he could get his feet on the ground without putting too much stress on his back or legs.

He had a few good chips and putts that encouraged his coach.

“This is your first time?” asked Steve Reuhl, PGA coaching pro at Columbia Super Range in Everett, after one of Jones’ better putts.

Monday’s event was Reuhl’s second time coaching at the annual clinic. He came back because “it’s meaningful. These guys really appreciate it. And we all appreciate them.”

The clinic was set at a nine-hole course that has fully embraced adaptive golf as a fun form of therapy for veterans of all ages. For the last four years, legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus and his design firm have worked to add nine holes to the American Lake course with a special focus on the needs of disabled golfers. Fundraising for that project continues.

Sapienza darted around the course Monday in a mechanical wheelchair, paying special attention to veterans who have mobility limits similar to his.

He helped Jones and Navy veteran Bobby Vance find their feet in their adapted golf carts and gave them pointers on swinging with one arm if they feel too much pain using both hands.

“We’ll play as many holes as you want,” Sapienza said. “Your body’s going to tell you when you’ve done too much.”

Sapienza came home in fairly good shape from Vietnam but suffered paralyzing injuries in a 1978 car accident. He’s a competitive guy who doesn’t like to stay around the house too much.

“You’ve got a choice in life,” the Puyallup resident said. “Stay at home and rot, or get out and live.”

He’s at the American Lake course as a volunteer several days a week. It’s a peaceful place, he said, especially when he gets deep into the course.

“Everything just goes away,” he said. “It’s a stress reliever if you let it.”

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