Getting Back On Course

Olney Golf Park hosts a special program for disabled veterans that allows them to work on their golf games in a supportive setting.Video by Atkinson & Co.
By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 21, 2008

For golf professional Jim Estes, it began with a casual conversation with one of his customers at Olney Golf Park, where the former University of Maryland golfer and onetime PGA Tour player has been teaching since 2001.

Billy Bartlett, a Vietnam veteran, had become involved in a program that took wounded soldiers rehabilitating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center from often catastrophic injuries incurred in Iraq and Afghanistan out to dinner once a week at a downtown Washington restaurant. One night in 2005, he invited Estes to meet some of the veterans, and not long after, he also took Estes to the hospital.

"I was just blown away by how serious some of their injuries were," Estes said. "And then I started thinking about how these young kids have been so traumatized. To tell you the truth, I felt tremendous guilt. I kept thinking that I couldn't live with myself if I didn't do something to help their lives. It was just something that touched me, and I knew I had to get involved."

Estes went to Olney Golf Park owner Tim Landres and told him what he had in mind. Initially, Estes wanted to offer an open invitation to the facility for any interested wounded veteran. Landres never hesitated, telling Estes that golf balls would be free for any of them.

In the beginning, a few soldiers began to show up at the Montgomery County facility, a full-service driving range and teaching facility with practice greens, chipping areas and bunkers. They would go to the range and start swinging away, and any chance Estes had in between his full load of lessons, he would try to offer swing tips and advice.

"As we went on, Jim became more and more involved and more and more devoted to it," Landres said recently. "He's done an amazing thing here, and he's really been able to touch so many of their lives in such a positive way."

Serving Soldiers

Over the past two years, Estes, 43, has conducted a free golf clinic for the soldiers every Saturday morning in the spring. A section of the range is cordoned off for use by the men and women who make the 30-minute trip from Walter Reed. Every week, in a more formal group session, Estes focuses on a different aspect of the game: bunker shots, chipping, putting, the driver. But he and other staff members also offer individual instruction for anyone who asks.

Estes has seen nearly every possible injury, from double or triple amputees playing with state-of-the-art prosthetic feet, legs, arms and hands, to others with shrapnel wounds, spinal cord injuries and neurological deficits. Some also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. One young man, a former powerlifter, lost half his frontal lobe in an explosion in Iraq and came to the clinic last year wearing a bicycle helmet to protect his swollen brain.

Somehow, Estes manages to find a way to get them to make contact with the golf ball, sometimes sitting on a golf cart designed for disabled players. He rarely asks them how they were hurt, but as he gets to know participants better, he hears most of their stories and says he remains awed by their courage in dealing with their disabilities while trying to regain some sense of normalcy.

"You can't worry about their injuries because they don't worry about them," Estes said. "By the time they get here, they're over that part of it. They just want to play."

Dennis Walburn is a retired lieutenant colonel who lost his left leg above the knee when a car bomb exploded as he was on a routine patrol in Mosul, Iraq. Both the clinic and the game have had a significant impact on his life and his recovery.

Walburn, who now works as a civilian in the defense industry and lives in Woodbridge, was injured on May 28, 2005. By the time he made it to a combat hospital, his blood pressure had dropped to 60 over zero, and he says: "I bled to death twice on the operating table, but somehow they got me back. The leg had to be amputated, and when I woke up a day and a half later, I was in Germany. My right leg was pretty bad, too, but they were able to save it. It looks like a shark took a chunk out of it, but it still works."

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