Wounded warriors treated to Callaway club fitting at THE PLAYERS
May 6, 2014
By Michael Curet, Special to Together.PGATOUR.com
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla.-Wounded Warriors Gabe Watt and Steven Jones never dreamed the day would come when they would be fitted for a custom-set of Callaway golf clubs, nor did they think they would ever be standing on the driving range at THE PLAYERS hitting balls with the world’s best golfers on the PGA TOUR.
The soldiers got that and more Tuesday, including a free golf lesson from PGA TOUR member John Rollins – as part of Birdies for the Brave’s outreach program with Callaway Golf to provide combat-injured veterans with an opportunity to rehabilitate through golf.
Watt, a 32-year-old California native now living in Rockledge, Florida with wife Jenny and 2 and ½ year-old daughter Gabriela (named for him), was struck in the foot and nearly bled to death by a boulder the size of a large trash can in 2002 while deployed in Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom. Watt and his fellow troops had been sent out to locate caves full of Russian rockets hidden by the Taliban. The injury occurred after the detonation of the rockets. Watt underwent three separate surgeries and needed donor bones and a piece of his hip to repair his foot.
“If it would have hit me in the head or anywhere else, it could have killed me,” said Watt. “The foot or the hand was about the only place it could have hit me that it wouldn’t have killed me.”
Marine Steven Jones, a native of Henderson, North Carolina who now resides in Port Saint Lucie, Florida, spent only five months in Afghanistan before he was sent home in June 2011 after a .50 caliber machine gun flew out of the MATV he was riding in and knocked him unconscious. Jones was the turret gunner on top of the vehicle. He was medically retired from the Marine Corps in 2014, was a recipient of the Purple Heart and has been diagnosed with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
Watt and Jones were truly given the “pro” treatment upon meeting Callaway Golf Representatives Mike Sposa, Dean Teykl, and Steve Mata in the equipment trailer, receiving a Callaway cap, glove and crash-course in the fitting process. Within minutes, the group headed to the range and began hitting balls. It didn’t matter that a few balls drifted off-center. This was a thrill of a lifetime.
“It’s an honor and it’s very humbling,” said Sposa, a former professional who has worked with Callaway for three years and been part of this program each year. “We have seen just about every injury and have seen guys who have never held a golf club to those who were pretty good golfers before their injuries. We’ve had double-amputees. I’m still getting emails from some of the guys two years ago saying how much they love the equipment and they’ve gotten hooked on golf. We’re not giving back a lot, but these guys seem to have fun for the few hours we get them on Tuesday. It’s great.”
Rollins had no problem delaying his work on the range and practice round to honor the two gentlemen in the only way he knew how.
“It’s because of these guys that we’re able to come out here and play golf for a living,” said Rollins. “Playing golf pales in comparison to what these guys do. I just gave my time to guys who have sacrificed their lives for us to have our freedom protected in the country that we live in.”
As Watt and Stevens finished up their hitting lesson, they walked down the range and were able to meet a few of the pros.
Longtime PGA TOUR member Jerry Kelly could not help but stop to thank the Wounded Warriors for their service.
“They’ve done so much for us,” said Kelly. “I appreciate them all so much. They just cannot hear it enough. I love these companies that take the initiative to get the boys swinging again. If we can give them golf to have some fun again, it gets the normalcy back.”
Watt, like he has done with many things in his life, will happily move on from his old set of clubs, a misfit assortment of hand-me-downs from a friend.
“I never played golf growing up,” said Watt, who admits, “God blessed me that day when I didn’t see that rock coming. It hit me and it hurt, but it was definitely a blessing because my life is better for it.”
Watt says that he was on a path of self-destruction even after he was in the army. "I was a 21-year-old kid who was totally selfish. Now I know that I have a lot more to live for than just going out and partying every weekend.”
“Before the Army, I had no college education and I was living on my brother’s couch. I was a pizza delivery driver with a broken down car and I had no money in the bank. There was no life goals or aspirations. I was just surviving day to day. It wasn’t even a life. I was just existing. Even if I hadn’t gotten hurt, the army would have provided me a lot of opportunities to be better than I was. Because I got hurt, I was able to become a better person and have a better life."
Nowadays, Watt works with elementary-age kids in before and after school programs, in addition to conducting summer camps.
“It’s a labor of love,” Watt said. “Every kid is different and every day is different. It’s just fun to watch them grow and learn. I get paid to goof off with kids. Is there a better job than that? Playing golf professionally is a good job too, but I’m not good enough.”
Jones, who sustained injuries in the leg, back, neck, and jaw, still experiences some problems with his back. However, it’s not enough for him to give up golf. He has always tried to play at least once a month. Introduced to the game by his grandfather, when back in North Carolina, Jones tries to play at Camp LeJeune every chance he gets.
“I know I am lucky to be here,” said Jones, 26, who married his high school sweetheart Katherine. “I try not to play 18 holes too often because I will get sore. But it’s not too bad.”
Jones currently volunteers with military non-profits in Port St. Lucie and enjoys fishing and shooting, in addition to his love for golf.
In the short-term, he hopes to finish his education after spending two years prior to his deployment at North Carolina State University majoring in forestry management.
For more information on Birdies for the Brave, visit birdiesforthebrave.org.
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