Injured soldiers get back in the swing of things

DEL MAR — Thanks to a recent partnership with the Del Mar Golf Center, Tony Perez is able to help more combat-injured troops get back into the swing of things through Operation Game On.
The program, created by the Rancho Santa Fe resident in 2008, is available to soldiers returning from Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom who are severely physically and mentally injured and going through rehabilitation at Naval Medical Center San Diego.
Participating troops receive 10 one-hour golf lessons from PGA-certified instructors followed by a professional fitting session by Jim Flick and the staff at The Kingdom at TaylorMade Golf.
With funds raised by Operation Game On they also receive golf equipment
that includes custom-fitted TaylorMade clubs, bags, Adidas shoes, gloves and balls, as well as playing opportunities throughout the county.
Thanks to the generosity of sponsors such as The Nice Guys of San Diego, which donated more than $18,000 for the purchase of discounted TaylorMade clubs, the program is available at no cost to the soldiers, hospital or military.
Perez is no stranger to the sport. Both his sons, Pat and Mike, are professional golfers. In addition to playing the game, he has also served as the announcer for the Buick Invitational for 21 years.
While working the Torrey Pines Golf Course event in 2008, Perez, a Vietnam veteran, asked if combat-injured troops could help announce.
“The PGA tour gave their blessing because that’s the first time that’s ever been done,” he said. “After their announcements we went to lunch and it turns out they were avid golfers prior to their call of duty. One gentleman was a double amputee, two had lost a leg and another lost his right arm from the elbow down.”
Perez made a few phone calls. TaylorMade “stepped up,” he said, Flick donated his time and Operation Game On was a go.
The program, which initially offered six weeks of lessons, started with those four soldiers at the Balboa Park Golf Course because of its proximity to the medical center.
Since moving to Del Mar, Perez has been able to expand the program to 10 to 15 troops and offer advanced classes.
Matthew Clay, general manager of the Del Mar Golf Center, which is operated by the 22nd District Agricultural Association, said he was proud to have the facility used “to help the troops that put their lives on the line for us.”
Perez said program participants are mostly men between 20 and 25 years old.
“They’re so young,” he said. “And to see them just being able to walk, to swing — this is a lot more than just teaching golf. We’re giving these kids an opportunity to gain their confidence and get back into society.”
He said about 95 percent of the participants are first-time golfers.
“At first they’re reluctant,” Perez said. “A lot of these troops don’t know each other. But once they start playing, the more we go on, the more camaraderie is established and then the jokes start with which branch of the military is the best.
“In my book they’re all heroes,” he said.
“This is about doing the right thing for what they’re doing for America,” he said. “There’s too many coming back like this. There’s more amputees that arrive.
“Their minds are messed up. Their bodies are messed up,” Perez said. “But because of golf they focus on something a little bit different other than their injuries. We’ve had kids with post-traumatic stress disorder that have just changed dramatically. It’s incredible.
“It’s very hard for these troops to realize what’s happened to them,” he said. “They’re very young. They’re very active. They were trained to be warriors and now they have to settle for a different lifestyle. It takes a lot of courage to come and learn how to play golf. It’s not easy.”
Perez said his most inspiring moment came after that lunch during the 2008 Buick Invitational. The guest announcers said they wanted to follow a golfer. Because their injuries made it difficult for them to walk the course, Perez got them admission to the 18th hole.
“Tiger Woods was just coming up the fairway,” Perez said. Woods noticed the soldiers alongside the green. After he birdied the hole, he took the ball, autographed it and gave it to one of the warriors.
“People were silent,” Perez said. “Typically, when Tiger leaves, everybody leaves. I’d say there were about 1,000 people around that green.
“As Tiger left, nobody left until we turned around and were walking down the slope,” he said. “One guy reached over the ropes and said, ‘You guys are my heroes.’ And he started clapping. And then it got louder and louder and louder. I started crying, my friends started crying. Unbelievable. As soon as we got to the sidewalk, then everybody took off chasing Tiger.”
Although it’s exciting to see an injured soldier hit the links, Perez said his greatest satisfaction has little to do with birdies or eagles.
“My reward for success is when I get that hug and they don’t want to let go,” he said.
For more information or to donate to Operation Game On, contact Perez at pgapop@gmail.com or (858) 832-1836.

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