The nation’s only golf course designed specifically for facilitating the rehabilitation of wounded and disabled veterans officially doubled in size on June 4 with the opening of the new “Nicklaus Nine” at American Lake Veterans Golf Course in Lakewood, Wash.
Jack Nicklaus donated his design services for course’s back nine so that more of the nation’s veterans could experience the remarkable healing powers of golf.
“It is a very interesting thing to watch these guys that come home after serving our country and to help them transition back to society,” Nicklaus said. “Golf has been a big, big boost to a lot of the guys that have post-traumatic syndrome or challenges transitioning into the mainstream of society.”
The “Nicklaus Nine” debuted during American Lake’s annual volunteer appreciation tournament. The grand opening featured a ceremonial ribbon-cutting by Joanne (Tatum) Hatner, whose father, Joe, was the director of the VA Hospital during the first ribbon-cutting ceremony for the course’s first nine in 1957, an event she attended.
“It is a therapy [for veterans] that is indescribable, until you are involved in it,” Hatner said.
Following the ribbon cutting, Tacoma native Ken Still, 81, a former PGA Tour player and a teammate of Nicklaus on the 1969 U.S. Ryder Cup team, hit the ceremonial first tee shot while representing his close friend Nicklaus, who was tending to responsibilities as founder and host of the PGA Tour’s Memorial Tournament that weekend.
“It was a beautiful day,” said Still, who recruited Nicklaus to get involved in the expansion and improvement of American Lake, including Nicklaus donating the design and his efforts related to fundraising. “We had 200 volunteers and they were the first ones to play the nine. My wife [Linda] sang God Bless America. We had a great time. Everything was such a positive. Everyone had a smile on their face at 8 a.m.”
The course is ADA-accessible and is run by over 200 volunteers, and operates without any federal funding or paid employees. In 2015, the course ranked No. 1 on Golf Digest‘s 2015 list of “The 9 Most Cheerful Courses in America.”
“We are all exceptionally excited about the opening of the Nicklaus Nine,” said Bruce McKenty, course manager. “It has been a long time coming and our veterans deserve a first-class golf course for all the sacrifices they have made for our country.”
Nicklaus visited the site several times to personally oversee construction and assess its progress.
“Kenny called me, oh, I don’t know, six or seven years ago,” Nicklaus said, “and he told me, ‘Jack, I need your help. We’ve got nine holes of golf out here, and it’s playing 40,000 rounds a year. We need more golf.’ All these veterans, they’re unbelievable, and I want to help them.
Ken then said, ‘I want you to design another nine holes, and fix up the first nine.’ Well, we’ve raised the money; we’ve gotten the [additional] nine holes designed and built; and next we will renovate the first nine.”
American Lake is open to all veterans, their families and guests. This includes active duty, as well as retired military, National Guard and reserve members. The only non-veterans allowed to play are employees of the Veteran’s Administration. Anyone can also play as a guest of someone who qualifies.
For more information, visit veterangolf.org or call 253-589-1998.