Golf program for veterans spreads HOPE among heroes

ByToby Hershkowitz and Mark Nuñez via Localish logo
Thursday, November 3, 2022
Golf program for veterans spreads HOPE among heroes
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PGA of America's HOPE program is saving veterans' lives through the game of golf, one putt at a time.

LYONS, N.J. -- When Garret Hrynko came home from Afghanistan in 2016, his life was spiraling out of control. He'd lost a close friend, Kyle Gilbert, downrange. The battlefield had taken its toll. Self-destructive behaviors were pushing him to the brink. At his lowest point, he knew he needed a little hope. And hope is exactly what saved him.

"I ended up trying to end my life in February 2020, a little bit before I'd found the HOPE program," said Hrynko, a 27-year-old who served three years active duty in the U.S. Army followed by a stint in counterintelligence. "HOPE has really laid the foundation for me to continue on a positive trajectory with recovery."

PGA HOPE, a free weekly golf clinic for veterans taught by PGA professionals, is the flagship program of PGA REACH, which is the charitable arm of the PGA of America, a 29,000-strong organization of golf professionals across the country.

"HOPE stands for 'Helping our Patriots Everywhere,'" said Chris Hunt, the executive director of the New Jersey Golf Foundation, which worked with PGA of America to start New Jersey's first HOPE chapter at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Lyons.

Over six to eight weeks, veterans receive free lessons from PGA professionals, who themselves must pass a special course to become instructors.

"You go through a full day of adaptive training; prosthetics above the knee, below the knee," said Don Rea, vice president of the PGA of America. "Maybe it's PTSD. Maybe it's a brain injury. With the training at a high level, we're not throwing anybody in there."

Of about 475 PGA professionals in New Jersey, Chris Hunt estimates at least a dozen are veterans themselves. He says they're all involved with PGA HOPE.

"I've been in the business 43 years as a PGA professional," said Ron Reed, a U.S. Army Green Beret from 1969 to 1975 and instructor at the VA. "When I found out they had a program that could help the vets, I jumped in."

"If you're just down and out for the day, they can put the golf instruction aside, just having a one-on-one talk almost like therapy," Hrynko said.

But that late September day, he wasn't there for therapy. He was perfecting his swing for one the country's premiere courses.

"I have the privilege of going down to Congressional Country Club in mid-October for PGA HOPE's Health and Wellness Week. And it's going to be connecting with a lot of other veterans like myself, sharing our stories of perseverance," Hrynko said.

The event ran October 13-18, with HOPE Ambassadors like Hrynko from across the nation uniting at the revered course in Bethesda, Maryland. There were group sessions, skills clinics, and of course, 18 holes in the autumn air.

Dave Stockton, a two-time PGA Championship winner and 1991 Ryder Cup Captain, was in attendance as an instructor. On the practice green, flanked by a group of rapt veterans, he pointed to a tiny area next to the cup.

"How far out do you think I pick a spot?" he asked. "My world is one inch, and I'm damn good at it."

To Hrynko, this philosophy means much more than a way to improve his short game.

"He sees his world, everything is one inch," Hrynko said. "The program, it just took that one inch that I had to take and turn it into miles."

New Jersey's PGA HOPE footprint has expanded from the pilot program at the VA in Lyons to more than six sites helping 250 veterans across the state. There are 162 HOPE chapters in the U.S.

But Hrynko thinks smaller these days, one inch at a time.

"I never imagined an opportunity like this to truly pay it forward," Hrynko said. "I want to get in touch with as many veterans as I can, but if it's just one individual's life I can change, akin to how my life has changed, to me, that's all I could ask for."

Before leaving Congressional, Garret hit a monster drive on 18 and sunk an 8-footer to finish the last hole of the weekend one under par. He waived three fingers at his fellow veterans.

"Gentlemen, we've got a bird," he said, laughing, giving daps to his friends, and soaking up the last of this experience before moving on to the future.

It's a future full of hope.