The nation’s only golf course designed specifically for the rehabilitation of wounded and disabled veterans, American Lake Veterans Golf Course (ALVGC), opened as a nine-hole track in 1957 on the grounds of the VA Hospital near Tacoma, Washington. Since its inception, the course has offered comfort and healing to many veterans in the form of rehabilitation, therapy, socialization, and support.
According to Bruce McKenty, who serves as the SLVGC general manager, “The course is dedicated to providing, teaching, and promoting the benefits of golf to veterans regardless of disability.” With that goal in mind, more than 230 volunteers donate their time and energy to ensure the course is ready and playable year-round. Volunteering is their patriotic labor of love. McKenty says there are no paid employees at the course, not even his position.
Volunteering has been the hallmark of these unique links, especially since losing government funding in 1995. Even though volunteers stepped in to try and continue operations, the course had fallen into disrepair. Then, in 2004, the Friends of American Lake Veterans Golf Course formed, making a world of difference. To date, the Friends of ALVGC have provided more than $10 million worth of improvements to the golf course.
According to McKenty, a 21-year U.S. Army veteran and recipient of two Purple Hearts, “Some of those improvements include building a $1.4 million Rehabilitation Learning Center, providing $3.5 million for the new nine holes, funding a $600,000 irrigation well and pump house, buying 12 mobility-impaired golf carts, and more than 74 new regular golf carts through the Cart Sponsorship Program.”
Volunteer efforts also included golfing great Jack Nicklaus, who has designed golf courses worldwide. The late Ken Still, a Tacoma native and professional golfer, teamed with Nicklaus in the 1969 Ryder Cup. The two have been friends for years. While a board member of the Friends of ALVGC, Still reached out to Nicklaus to assist in designing the second nine holes of the course, which he did entirely gratis.
Nicklaus designed the new back nine in 2014, and it eventually opened in June 2016. In addition, Nicklaus also redesigned the old front nine, which is now being renovated and should reopen to the public in early June. That redesign was intended to improve playability for disabled golfers and make it more compatible with the back nine, dubbed the “Nicklaus Nine.”
Lots of play at ALVGC
In 2019, American Lake Veteran Golf Course recorded more than 41,000 rounds. With that much play, volunteers stay busy throughout the year. Mowing the fairways, trimming trees, the 5 a.m. watering of the course, checking golfers in, repairing golf clubs, and giving golf lessons are some of the many volunteer efforts at the course.
Jim Sam, who’s retired from the Air Force, offers golf lessons in the new state-of-the-art Rehabilitation and Learning Center. “We average about six lessons or instructions a day,” he says.
One of the most impressive aspects of the golf course is Area 51, where a group of talented amateurs assist golfers with their golfing needs. Thanks to numerous generous donations from local citizens, Area 51 volunteers refurbish donated golf clubs. They then issue, free of charge, complete sets of clubs and a golf bag to veterans who need them. McKenty says that in 2019, they donated 215 sets of clubs, and since 2010, more than 1,600 vets have received golf clubs.
In addition, Area 51 volunteers distribute golf equipment, including gently used golf balls, tees and divot tools, almost-new golf shoes, golf towels, ball markers, club head covers, and much more. They also offer re-gripping and re-shafting of clubs.
Course green fees are a nominal $20 for all-day; cart rental runs $10 for 9 holes, and a bucket of balls is $4, $6, or $8, depending on the size. To take advantage of the golf course, you simply need proof of military service or proof that you’re a military dependent. Acceptable forms of I.D. include DD214, Military I.D., VA Medical Card, active-duty, National Guard, or Reserves.
A touch of class
Throughout the golf course, are numerous military acknowledgments on signs and placards. All holes are named after specific medals and are sponsored by a local organization, like the VFW, which supports three holes. You’ll find about 30 memorial benches throughout the course as well. The benches honor the numerous volunteers who have dedicated their time and energy to ensure American Lake Veterans Golf Course continues to thrive and serve veterans.
Once completed, the first hole redesign is sure to be a favorite. It’s poignantly called the Purple Heart hole. As you approach the green on the 301-yard par 4, your eyes are immediately drawn to the heart-shaped bunker filled with purple sand, protecting the front of the green.