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TEE TALK: Filling a void for veterans

EAGLE POINT — This is what Patrick Oropallo had to offer.

Another world.

If only for a sliver of time on a glorious summer afternoon at a place, a golf course, far from home, the head professional at Eagle Point Golf Club provided an escape for a group of military veterans so in need.

“The first day we came out here, I was really going through some stuff,” said Golden Johnson, an Army vet who was born in Texas, raised in Portland and played in the Benson High basketball program behind one A.C. Green.

“Really going through some stuff,” he said again, almost a whisper. “I was all in my feelings, as they would say.”

It was 2 1/2 weeks ago, the first lesson in a series of five for which Oropallo volunteers his time and expertise. His is a response, in part, to keeping the game alive for patients at the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in nearby White City in the wake of the closure of their golf course.

Veterans Memorial, a nine-hole layout and vital therapeutic resource since it was built in 1989, was shut down on Nov. 1, the result of an edict from the Veterans Administration Central Office, which declared, essentially, that VA facilities would no longer be in the golf business.

That course, that outlet, has been sorely missed.

Now there’s an alternative.

Another world.

Johnson was in a trance on the clinic’s first day, going through stuff, when Oropallo approached.

The pro who had never served asked the Gulf War combat veteran what he thought about while on the course.

Johnson is not a golf newbie. His dad was a scratch player and introduced him to it at about age 10.

A lifetime ago, of course.

“I thought about my dad,” said Johnson, “and many a day that him and I were out here just golfing together. And my whole attitude changed because I just forgot about that other stuff.”

About 12 percent of Gulf War veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Veterans Affairs website. Drugs and alcohol are common ways to cope, to try to debrief. Abuse abounds.

“Golf puts you out here in nature,” said Johnson. “Everything that you deal with on a daily basis is gone. It just goes away.”

The clinics at Eagle Point are an offshoot of the Veterans Golf Club of Southern Oregon, which was formed in 2015 to introduce veterans to the benefits of golf and create playing opportunities at many Rogue Valley courses.

Club members were resolute in their mission after Veterans Memorial was shuttered.

The club is headquartered at Quail Point Golf Course, and Tony Yanez serves as president. It puts on 12 tournaments a year, makes it affordable so as not to turn any veteran away and provides golf equipment as needed.

“It was nice having the VA because we run about 12 tournaments a year, and about six of them were out there,” said Yanez. “Now we have to go to other golf courses. It’s more expensive and depends more on donations and sponsorships.”

Area courses have been very accommodating, he added.

Yanez, a 24 handicap who, as a Snoqualmie, Washington, City Council member once worked with Jack Nicklaus as he built a course there, now plays regularly at Eagle Point. Over coffee last winter, Oropallo asked Yanez how he could help veterans.

One way was hosting a tournament, which Eagle Point did in April.

Moreover, said Yanez, he needed someone to give lessons.

Oropallo was involved in the now-defunct Down Range program five years ago, a joint effort between Veteran Affairs and the PGA of America. He witnessed the benefits golf imbued in the players.

It wasn’t a tough sell.

“I didn’t personally serve,” said Oropallo, “but I felt like I wanted to give something back. I’m not financially a rich person, but I’m rich in golf knowledge, and that’s what I can share.”

They set it up. There was room for eight players to be shuttled to the course for each series, which would include four weeks of lessons, then a play day.

First it was putting, where Johnson had his epiphany. Session 2, on Wednesday, was chipping. Next will be the full swing, and in Week 4, the players will be introduced to the driver.

Etiquette will be woven into each session. Wednesday’s clinic began with a player asking if cellphones on the course are a “faux pas.”

When the program was announced, a dozen or so vets signed up. Two weeks in, that number is up to 40-some and will necessitate additional series.

Oropallo understands.

“When the golf bug bites you, it kind of consumes you and it’s kind of fun,” he said. “I think some of the guys need that diversion from their programs. That’s pretty heavy what they’re going through, whatever they’re going through. I think golf can help.”

Unlike Johnson, Phillip Edwards had virtually zero background in golf.

A former Army supply man at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, Edwards grew up in New York City. He had golf clubs, he said, but he used them for canes, “walking around looking cool.”

“Never played until I came out here,” he said. “I wanted to try just different stuff. Growing up in New York City, there was not a lot of golfing, fishing.”

Johnson worked with him briefly before going to Eagle Point. To Edwards’ delight, he got a couple shots in the air.

Longtime PGA professional Guy Hupe, a former owner of Bear Creek Golf Course, assisted Oropallo on Wednesday. The 84-year-old took up the game at age 12 and had plenty of wisdom to share.

Oropallo made a couple key points to the group about chipping: Narrow stance, ball set up off the right foot for right-handers, weight on the front leg, a descending, pinching strike. The swing is akin to a long putting stroke, maybe with an 8-iron or pitching wedge, not the most-lofted club in the bag.

“It’d be like trying to knock in a nail with a screwdriver,” said Oropallo. “You could probably do it, but it’s not the right tool for the job.”

Get the ball rolling, he emphasized. Minimum air time, maximum ground time.

The players divvied into two groups and rotated through.

Preparation and technique were important, results not so much. Oropallo encouraged the players to learn from their first shots and make adjustments.

“Your golf ball is your teacher,” he said.

Swing with a feel, not with a thought.

One player hit what the teacher called a perfect chip, just like mother’s porridge. Not too hot, not too cold, just right.

Oropallo was upbeat throughout: If you see good things, feel good things, you’ll experience good things.

Off to the side, Johnson nodded.

“I think this is awesome,” he said. “Patrick is not just a coach or a teacher, he’s a motivator. To give back what golf’s given him, just to us, it’s huge. The first day we came out here, we were just stoked when we left.”

Who knows how many of the players will latch onto the game, will be bitten by the bug.

Edwards, who now has a use for clubs other than as canes, can’t say.

“Maybe one out of 30 or 40 of us will catch the fever,” he said. “One would be worth it, keep the mind occupied with something positive.”

And discover another world out there.

Have a local golf story idea? Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribunePatrick Oropallo, the head professional at Eagle Point Golf Club, demonstrates a chip shot to a group of veterans from the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics on Wednesday.