The sun rises over the St. Louis sky. Fans, volunteers, organizers, and golfers congregate at Bellerive Country Club, for the historic final round of the PGA Championship. The pins are set in their Sunday locations. Greenskeepers and maintenance staff are implementing their final preparations before the course begins to show its beauty and toughness for the players.
The Wanamaker Trophy sits at the first tee, eerily standing tall and still, waiting to be claimed. Golf fanatics run to their spots on the course, hoping to snap a historical photograph of their longtime golfing idol. The announcer exclaims his recurring “On the Tee” mantra, as players set to begin their concluding round at the season’s final major. And with the booming sound of the golf ball, launching itself off the tee and onto the course, another Sunday final round at a major championship would commence.
These are the perennial sentiments that many of us have felt on a golf course, whether it is playing at a local club with friends and family or competing for a major championship. From the tranquil morning noises of nature to the wistful sound of contact between the club and ball, the golf course affords us with the feelings and blessings of living in a free society. There is a deep sensation of escape when playing golf as players detach from their current responsibilities and obligations to focus their time on themselves, the surrounding beauty and the joys of friendly competition. This is freedom, the state of not being enslaved, the fundamental right to act, communicate and think without obstruction and restraint and the everlasting reality that our Founding Fathers and military heroes fought for generations ago.
But in today’s present society, the young generation often takes for granted the freedom that was guaranteed to them by their ancestors. A lack of education and interest in history has created an apathetic generation of youth, who appear disinterested and indifferent to the sacrifice the brave men and women made so that they can live in a free, democratic society. This is what the PGA of America, through their programs and charitable partners like Folds of Honor, are trying to accomplish each and every day, which is to use the game of golf as a conduit to support the veterans, to encourage youth participation in the sport and to provide young people with opportunities to get employed in the sports industry. This is a story that salutes the heroes involved in providing philanthropic impact to grow the game of golf within communities across America.
Major Ed Pulido took the ultimate sacrifice when he decided to enlist in the United States Military. But his life would forever change during his deployment to Iraq.
“In August of 2004, I was directly hit by a roadside bomb that would change my life forever,” stated Major Ed. “I would need my left leg amputated. When I came home from Iraq, I always knew I wanted to honor those that have been disabled in combat. This is why myself and Major Dan Rooney founded Folds of Honor.”
Folds of Honor is a veterans organization that has a singular, noble mission. Its purpose is to provide educational scholarships to spouses and children of America’s fallen and disabled service-members. Majors Dan and Ed have spent their life after service reminding citizens that it is their obligation to honor the sacrifices of those who preserve the freedoms we so easily take for granted.
“20,000 scholarships have been awarded in the 11 year period of existence,” stated Major Ed. “My two girls are the second and third scholarship recipients so it is personal for me. Through Folds of Honor, we are making sure kids are getting a quality education, telling their stories of growing up in a military family in order to empower the American people.”
Golf and the military have had an intersectional relationship for generations. Major Rooney was an avid, passionate fan of golf. Many of the professional golfers, both past and present, have military connections within their family. The integral bond between golf and the military contributed to the initiation of Patriot Golf Day, Folds of Honor’s biggest fundraiser. With the generosity of PGA of America, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and PGA professional golfers, Patriot Golf Day has generated over $22 million in 10 years. Major Ed credits the partnerships formed with golf’s governing bodies to help accelerate the financial support for veteran families.
“PGA of America, USGA, and PGA Tour players (like Gary Woodland) have stepped up to the plate in a big way to not only support our heroes who take the oath of office but also to help out their families,” Major Ed said. “What started as a “give a dollar to the military” initiative has now turned into a year-long event that goes until Labor Day weekend. We do special events throughout the year called Patriot Events. These get communities and country clubs excited as we bring a speaker who served in the military to share their story. We are grateful for the generosity of the game of golf as it gives individuals a sense of feeling important about making a contribution and connecting to the military.”
The influence of Folds of Honor on improving the lives of military families has extended far beyond the founders of the organization. Rocky Sickmann, a former Marine who served in the Marine Corps at the U.S. Embassy in Iran, found inspiration and purpose in helping those who fought in the military when he became the Folds of Honor Senior VP of Budweiser Accounts in 2016.
On November 4, 1979, 52 American diplomats and citizens were held hostage in the U.S. Embassy. Rocky was one of those marines held captive and uses that moment of tremendous adversity as motivation to now help educate people about the legacy of war heroes.
“In 1980, eight heroic servicemen died attempting to free me and the rest of the Iranian Hostages. Their sacrifice is one I will never forget. I know first-hand that freedom doesn’t come without sacrifice. For that I am incredibly honored to serve with an organization that is dedicated to helping families whose loved ones make the ultimate sacrifice for our country,” Sickmann says.
As a result of his work at Budweiser, Rocky has been able to utilize the partnership between the American beer company and Folds of Honor to showcase the positive change when it comes to supporting military families.
“Budweiser has given us validation and enables us to create transparency. We have to make sure that we are very good stewards, that 87 cents of every dollar goes to families through our programs,” Rocky says.
But with a younger generation that has displayed an apathy toward the past and historical accomplishments by the troops, Major Ed and Rocky both agree that it is Folds of Honor’s duty to educate the youth about the legacy these soldiers left behind, so future military conflicts can be prevented and their lives were not taken away in vain. And the game of golf, through the PGA of America, can be the channel for achieving Folds of Honor’s mission.
“What I’m seeing with young people is they need an infusion of patriotic spirit and thought process. It can’t be passed in the bloodstream. It needs to be fought for and protected,” said Major Ed. “Young people understand in this nation, it’s okay to be who you are and what you want to be, but it’s also okay to understand the history and our Founding Fathers created something very special. Our job is to preserve it and the beacon on the hill known as America.”
“There are 41 sections of the PGA of America across this country and members have decided to focus their mission on helping veterans and connecting with their families. When you hear a story of a family that’s lost their loved one, PGA professionals are doing something to support a family that might be left behind or may not have the support they need,” said Rocky. “As everyday Americans go out and play golf, we are doing something purposeful and using the game as a way to say thank you for providing security and patriotic nature.”
As Brooks Koepka walked up the 18th fairway at Bellerive, in the forefront of a thunderous applause for the soon to be crowned 100th PGA Champion, he was not the only winner in St. Louis. In the 100 years of the PGA Championship, the golfing world was celebrating the philanthropic efforts of the PGA of America in its PGA REACH Foundation, with the aim of growing the game of golf for generations to come.
The mission of PGA REACH is to positively impact the lives of youth, military, and diverse populations by enabling access to PGA Professionals, PGA Sections and the game of golf. The Foundation has three pillars that focus on youth, inclusion, and military. The PGA Jr. League is the youth pillar of PGA REACH, with the purpose of providing an accessible opportunity for kids to get actively participating in the game of golf. With 42,000 participants in 2017, the program works with PGA Sections and local youth organizations across the United States to offer an alternative, social golf format, which will serve as a transitionary tool for young golfers into preexisting junior programs.
The flagship program of the diversity and inclusion pillar of PGA REACH is called the PGA Works Fellowship, which provides valuable entry-level opportunities for individuals from diverse backgrounds to be educated about all facets of the golf industry, particularly foundation programming. Rachel Mabee was a passionate fan and player of golf, leading her on a journey that would eventually see her now currently being the Program Specialist for the PGA Works Fellowship.
“When I first started at PGA Works, it was a brand new program,” describes Mabee. “There were only three fellowship recipients in one section. Now there are 10 Fellows in 10 sections across America, demonstrating a tremendous amount of growth in providing diverse students opportunities in the golf industry.”
As a Fellow, the individual is required to work one full year at an entry-level position in a PGA Section office, playing an active role in carrying out the mission and values of PGA REACH. In an industry like golf that has long been dominated by a homogenous group of people, the Fellowship is focusing on engaging a diverse demographic of candidates, who will become future difference makers in growing the game of golf across the country. The long-term goal of the program is to have Fellows in the 41 sections across the PGA of America organization.
“While the Fellows are working in the section office, they learn about the myriad of opportunities out there in the golf industry,” says Mabee. “They will be acquiring skills in marketing, sponsorship and foundation programming over the 12 months of employment. The more they put into the fellowship, the more they will get out of it. Individuals do not necessarily need to be passionate fans of golf; as long as they are receptive to developing a skill set, they have the opportunity to be successful in the golf industry.”
One of these Fellows who has made a positive impact for the Gateway Section in St. Louis is Fernando Molina. Molina earned his undergraduate degree in sports management and was the first Fellow to be selected for the Gateway section. Given his Hispanic background and experience in the sports industry prior to joining the Fellowship, Fernando was seen as a perfect candidate to develop his skills that would lead to a successful career in sports and entertainment.
“This sport has been dominated by male Caucasians. No one has ever seen young Hispanic people being involved in the golf industry,” says Molina. “I am using my own Hispanic flavor in how I approach my day to day activities within the Gateway Section and PGA members are noticing this. This is great for the sport of golf.”
As a PGA WORKS Fellow, Molina will be working towards promoting the purpose of the PGA REACH Gateway Foundation, including assistance with PGA HOPE programming (the military pillar of PGA REACH), PGA Jr. League, the 100th PGA Championship, and Drive, Chip & Putt. He will also aid with foundation administration, operations, and fundraising events.
“I’m honored to be named a PGA WORKS Fellow and have the chance to work with PGA Golf Professionals daily, with the mission of working toward changing the face of the golf
industry,” Molina said. “I know this Fellowship will provide me with the right tools to grow
professionally in the business of golf, as well as raise awareness about the importance of
diversity and inclusion, not just in the golf industry, but in every aspect of life.”
Through its programs with PGA REACH and partnerships with veterans organizations like Folds of Honor, the PGA of America is not only implementing programs to support the military and their families but also to educate society that freedom is not free. As Ozzie Smith, Hall of Fame shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals, stated, a sustainable infrastructure must be put in place so that these programs can be effective and thrive into the future.
“PGA Reach has created a program called PGA Hope, dealing with veterans who have nothing to live for and are battling depression,” stated Smith. “Through PGA Hope, veterans come from all over the country to learn about the game of golf and be part of friendly competitions. They didn’t have anything else to do, but once they got involved with PGA Hope, they have something to live for again.”
As Christopher Reeve once said, “Once you choose hope, anything is possible.” Our brave men and women who served in the military gave us the ultimate gift of freedom. So we can go play the game of golf. So we can attend major championships and witness history being made by our golfers.
It is now up to us, the young generation, to reciprocate the favor by being more open and welcoming of the past and the courage of our war heroes. And utilize the beautiful game of golf as the mechanism to intersect diversity, military and youth into optimistic, philanthropic change for the future.