On Feb. 18, 2009, Simon Jones was stationed in Afghanistan serving the United Kingdom as a commander in the Royal Marines, one of the world’s elite commando forces. Jones and his section commander were on routine foot patrol, walking through a field, clearing a safe route for the 45 men in their section to follow. An Improvised Explosive Device (IED) detonated. Jones’ section commander lost both legs. Jones, knocked unconscious, suffered injuries to his legs, arms and back. The men were rushed from the area on a helicopter.
Earlier this week — 10 years later to the day — Jones and five fellow veterans walked The Duke’s Course at St. Andrews. On a brisk, clear morning, they caddied for club members, learning the intricacies of club selection, green reading and how to build trust with a golfer in a four-hour window. Each evening since February 4, they’ve received intense instruction from grizzled professionals, enjoyed meals together and shared their military experiences. On Sundays, they walk the Old Course and become acquainted with the slopes, humps and rolls on the hallowed ground as they prepare to caddie there later this month.
Jones hails from Liverpool, home of the Beatles, in the shadows of Hoylake where Bobby Jones, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy have raised the Claret Jug. His five fellow caddies come from the U.K., Canada and the United States. They arrived in Scotland at the beginning of February, thanks to the passion of Don J. Snyder, an American author and caddie, paired with the generosity of Herb Kohler Jr., CEO and president of the Kohler Co., which owns the Old Course Hotel and The Duke’s Course.
The six men comprise the first class of the Caddie School for Soldiers. By the end of the month, they’ll be trained and certified, able to gain employment at any course in the world.
Jones is aiming even higher.
“I think I’ve picked it up quite well,” he said. “I would love to get on any Tour, some kind of Tour, and maybe one day I could be on Henrik Stenson’s bag. He’s my favorite golfer. Why not?”
Don Snyder, 68, wrote novels and non-fiction for 40 years, including the 2003 movie Fallen Angel, based on his book. He traveled to Scotland in 2008 to learn how to become a caddie so he could loop for his son, Jack, an aspiring professional golfer. Snyder, the son of a soldier, showed up every day, rain or sun, walking Kingsbarns Golf Links and the Old Course at St. Andrews, among others. When Snyder read “Broken Tees and Mended Hearts,” PGA and LPGA professional Judy Alvarez’s 2011 book about her work with wounded warriors, he began dreaming of a Caddie School for Soldiers.
Davy Gilchrist was the caddie master at Kingsbarns in 2008 and hired Snyder. Gilchrist, twice the Caddie Master of the Year in Scotland, is also an accomplished player, having qualified for the 2010 Senior Open Championship at Carnoustie. He and Snyder spoke again last summer as the idea for the caddie school came to fruition. Snyder wanted Gilchrist, along with St. Andrews master professional David Scott, to train the veterans, teach them how to caddie. Maybe a month of intense schooling could help them find an occupation as they become reacclimated to society.
“They’ve had a tough life, a hard time so we’re just doing all we can to help them get some kind of life back,” Gilchrist said.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says that 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat.
“They’ve found it very, very hard to be integrated back into society. The guys were sitting with their thoughts all day, not being able to change things. We’re working as a team in a different aspect with no danger there. They’ve got reason again to get up in the morning and come out. They’ve really exceeded my expectations early on.”
Gilchrist and Scott train the men Monday through Friday. Kohler gave them playing rights at The Duke’s Golf Course for the month and also supplied the caddies and staff with rain gear and clothing. They eat lunch together in the clubhouse and use the main room of the clubhouse for additional training.
The six caddies are living together in a big stone house in the village of Elie on the North Sea. They have privileges on the wonderful Elie Golf House Club course and welcome guests for fireside chats on the history and rules of the game.
Those evenings are the best part of the entire experience according to Richard Rec, a 30-year-old American who served eight years in the Army, doing two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
“We all may come from diverse backgrounds but we all share similar history,” Rec said. “Being able to open up to guys about not only how it’s going with caddying but to talk through things that we don’t get to talk through with other people has been really good for everybody involved. It’s part of that healing process that everyone needs as a veteran, to be able to talk with other people and share similar stories that we can understand and relate to.”
Rec, a military policeman in the U.S. Army reserve, began playing golf three or four times a week just a year ago, introduced to the game by his wife’s uncle, a former Division I golfer. He enjoys being outside on a golf course, working with people 1-on-1 and learning more about the game. The native of Monroe, Michigan, which is 45 miles south of Detroit, hopes to use the knowledge gained this month to land a job at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio when he returns home.
Jones, 30, struggled to adjust to civilian life after being discharged from the service.
“It was quite frustrating, very hard, difficult for a young guy,” he said. “My mom and sister, my family didn’t understand the trauma I’d been through. They were hard, tough times, really.”
An avid golfer, he turned his focus from teaching golfers to caddying for them when he realized he probably wouldn’t be able to shave his handicap to four, which is the U.K. maximum for golfers wishing to pursue professional status.
Walking the Old Course on those Sundays has been the highlight of what Jones described as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“You would think coming into this, that it’s an individual occupation,” he said. “But it’s not — the amount of teamwork on the tee box, on the fairways and especially on the greens, I didn’t realize at all how much teamwork is involved. That’s been quite satisfying really to still be able to work in a team.”
Gilchrist rides along in a cart and watches the men caddie. Their rapid progress has been stunning. He’s reached a point where he’s trying to find mistakes. The members for whom they’ve caddied have offered glowing reviews.
Having resources such as Gilchrist and Scott has accelerated the veterans’ growth.
“They bring an absolute wealth of experience to what we’re doing here,” Jones said. “I thoroughly believe that if we were going to turn up at any course in the world now, I’d probably be further ahead than most caddies there thanks to what they’ve passed on to me in such a short time.”
The other veterans attending the school are Canadians Kevin Dunphy and Troy Killingbeck; Scott Hale of Edinburgh (UK) and Rob Linge of Norfolk (UK). The six men were recommended by The Blesma Organization and OnCourse Foundation in the UK, the Veteran Golfers Association in America and Tom Martineau, a decorated Canadian veteran of service in Bosnia, who advises Canadian soldiers.
Sky Sports TV crews followed and filmed the caddies for a six-minute piece which aired earlier this week. Snyder told Gilchrist recently he believes funding exists to continue the Caddie School for Soldiers with six more veterans next year.
Snyder started the program because he believed it could serve as a conduit for the veterans, allowing them to find their footing again as they tried to leave behind the battlefield and find their place as a civilian. The words from the veterans say it’s already accomplished much, much more.