LAKEWOOD — Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that what started as a favor to a good friend has become a passion for golfing legend Jack Nicklaus.
That’s what happens to people at American Lake Veterans Golf Course, whether it’s those who play the course or the volunteers who run it.
To them, this golf course, the only course in the country completely accessible to disabled veterans, is about something much more important than golf.
It’s about changing lives and giving hope.
But with just nine holes, the course was having trouble meeting demand, and that’s where Nicklaus comes in. His company is designing a second nine holes for free, and after more than three years of fundraising, Friday was the groundbreaking ceremony.
“This is one of the greatest days in my life,” said Ken Still, 78, the former PGA Tour player who is on the board of directors of Friends of American Lake Veterans Golf Course.
Still has been passionate about the course for years. He has seen what golf has done for severely injured veterans, and the boost it can give them, both physically and mentally. At American Lake, the greens and bunkers are accessible to the disabled and special carts make play possible for those who walk with difficulty or not at all.
In 2009, Still called Nicklaus, his longtime friend, and told him he should get involved and design a course. Nicklaus, 73, didn’t hesitate.
“I really didn’t know what I was getting into at the time, but when I came out here and met the people, I knew I made the right decision,” Nicklaus said Friday. “I didn’t have the privilege to serve my country when I was younger, and to be a part of this is special.”
Nicklaus said he has been told many times by disabled veterans who play at American Lake that the course helped save their lives, that it helped them regain confidence and was a place for support. Nicklaus would like to see courses like it across the nation.
“But we have to start somewhere, and we’re starting here,” Nicklaus said.
About $2.5 million has been raised in the past three years, leading to the groundbreaking. Another $2.5 million will be needed for equipment and for the tweaks Nicklaus wants to make on the front nine, according to Korean War veteran Pepper Roberts, founder of Friends of American Lake Veterans Golf Course.
Gov. Jay Inslee was supposed to speak at the ceremony, but canceled. But with this group, he wouldn’t have been the headliner, anyway. Among those shoveling the first bit of dirt was Leroy Petry, awarded the Medal of Honor in 2011 for his actions in Afghanistan.
Petry, who lost his right hand when a grenade exploded in 2008, said he plays the course as often as he can. His oldest son, Austin, a freshman-to-be at Central Washington University, is the youngest of more than 150 volunteers at the course (the oldest is 94), which is completely managed and maintained by volunteers.
“Mr. Nicklaus said he didn’t serve his country, but this serves so many,” Petry said. “What he is doing will serve generations.”
Aaron Boyle, 24, joined Vietnam War veteran Jim Martinson in hitting ceremonial shots from specially designed carts down what will be the 10th fairway. Boyle lost his right arm and right leg and nearly lost his left leg when he walked onto a land mine in Afghanistan in 2010 while serving as an Army sergeant.
As a youngster, Boyle played at the golf course with his grandfather, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to play after his injuries.
“I wondered what would people think, but my dad took me out last summer, and all these great memories came back to me,” he said.
Now, Boyle said he tries to play three to four times a week. He said it was fortunate he was a natural left-hander, although he said it’s been tough learning to swing one-handed.
“This course has meant a lot to me,” he said.