The Coast News Group
Air Force veteran Bryan Taylor, right, gets congratulations from Tony Perez as the first golfer of the day to make a hole-in-one. Taylor hit from 100 yards out and donated half of his $500 winnings back to Operation Game On. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek
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Golfers go big to support injured troops

RANCHO SANTA FE —  Less than 20 minutes and 20 balls into the third annual 15-Inch Hole-in-One Cup Challenge, Air Force veteran Bryan Taylor became the first player of the day to sink one during the Operation Game On fundraiser, held Feb. 6 at Fairbanks Ranch Country Club.

And he didn’t do it the easy way. Taylor hit the oversized cup from 100 yards away, the third farthest distance.

The shot earned him $500, half of which he donated back to Operation Game On.

Taylor wasn’t the only golfer to walk away with bragging rights. In all, 12 holes-in-one were made into cups nearly four times larger than a traditional hole.

Players paid $150 for 20 golf balls, which they tried to get in cups either 50, 75, 100 or 150 yards away to win $150, $250, $500 or $1,000, respectively. Two winners hit the 50-yard mark, seven made it from 75 yards away and three sunk a hole-in-one 100 yards out.

The payouts would have totaled $3,550 but $2,100 was donated back to Operation Game On, which provides free golf lessons and equipment for severely physically and mentally injured troops, most of them undergoing treatment at Naval Medical Center San Diego and Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton.

Founder Tony Perez said from participants, sponsors, extra golf balls, spectators and the silent auction he raised about $40,500.

Participants were treated to free beverages, all of which were donated, Dang Brother Pizza, tacos by El Tapatio and sandwiches from Jersey Mike’s. There was also a silent auction featuring golf packages to play at area courses, golf equipment, jewelry and restaurant certificates.

A “For Those Who Just Aren’t Ready to Say Goodbye …” package offered a football signed by quarterback Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers logo merchandise and a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon whiskey. Valued at $902.99, it went for $300.

Many of the record 200 registered participants had attended at least one of the previous events. Among them was Jeff Gearhart, who made two holes-in-one at the inaugural event and took home tickets for a free round of golf at Pebble Beach.

“I had a great time,” Gearhart said about his first year at the fundraiser. “It’s fun and people have a change to mingle, all to benefit a worthy cause.”

Others were first-time participants, there to support Perez and what they described as a great charity.

Some were golfers, including Encinitas resident Marcus Reynolds and Brad McMurrey of Carlsbad, creators of YouTube’s The Marcus Cup golf comedy.

Denise Mueller, also from Carlsbad, was among those who do not consider themselves golfers.

Clocked at 147 mph, Mueller is the world’s fastest woman in the world on a bike. But she had only hit a golf ball once in her life, about 25 years ago.

Perez created Operation Game On in 2008 to give returning combat-injured troops suffering from physical and mental disabilities a custom introduction-to-golf package.

Participants receive lessons from PGA-certified instructors, a professional fitting session at The Kingdom at TaylorMade Golf and custom-fitted equipment at no cost to them, the hospital or the military.

Doctors, prosthetic specialists and counselors have found golf provides mental and physical rehabilitation that rapidly allows combat-injured troops to regain confidence and enjoy an active lifestyle again.

The program has expanded to provide the same opportunities for participants’ wives as well as Korean and Vietnam War veterans.

Perez said the idea for the 15-inch challenge came from his longtime friend, Mike Spacciapolli of First Citizens Bank, who credits former TaylorMade CEO Mark King for “inventing” the oversized target.

“I thought we ought to be able to do something fun with that,” Spacciapolli said. “Golf is supposed to be fun, right?”

Perez’s other fundraiser, the 10th annual Operation Game On Golf Classic, will be held Aug. 14 at Fairbanks Ranch Country Club.