By Tim Rogers, NOPGA Contributor
Akron, Ohio: It was cold and damp and the wind was whipping around Portage Country Club like it was on a mission.
After all the great golfing weather Northern Ohioans had experienced this summer, Wednesday morning was a slap in the face, an insult, an affront. Wednesday morning was not an optimal day for golf.
But — and that is a mighty large but – Wednesday might as well have been a sunshiny day for the 50 or so players involved in the inaugural Northern Ohio PGA’s Foundation PGA HOPE CUP. No one complained about the cold. No one complained about the damp. No one bemoaned that it wasn’t 85 and sunny.
With the sky colored a dreary gray they assembled just outside the stoic clubhouse, accompanied by NOPGA professionals – team captains if you will — in preparation of playing a scramble over the Portage back nine.
They sat in their golf carts and posed for a group picture and laughed in the face of Mother Nature. Many wore shorts when long pants might have been a better option. Others wore traditional golf shirts, eschewing long sleeved wind-shirts or rain jackets.
All of them, however, wore smiles.
This was a celebration and their faces said they were happy to be there. They were going to have a good time, come hail or high water. And, in the end, a grand time was had by all.
“It was all my guys talked about,” said Windmill Lakes Golf Club professional Dan Dauk, who conducted three PGA HOPE events this summer and captained a team from PGA HOPE: Macedonia. “They all loved it and they were all grateful to be there. They said it over and over. I know I had a great time.”
For the unaware, PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere) is a national program that introduces golf to our veterans and active duty military to help enhance their physical, mental, social and emotional well-being.
The program includes a six-to-eight-week curriculum led by PGA Professionals trained in adaptive golf and military cultural competency. The program is funded by PGA REACH and supplemented by PGA Section Foundations, meaning it is free to all members.
NOPGA Executive Director David Griffith estimated that the NOPGA Foundation and the 11 PGA HOPE programs will impact more than 250 veterans and active military personnel in Northern Ohio in 2023.
NOPGA Hall-of-Famer Renee Powell founded the first PGA HOPE program in Ohio at her family’s Clearview Golf Club in East Canton 12 years ago. Since then, 10 more programs have been founded throughout Northern Ohio.
Powell, the second Black woman to compete on the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour in 1967, addressed the group.
“Thank you all for your service to our nation,” said Powell, who visited Vietnam in 1971 to support U.S. troops through the USO. “If it weren’t for you, we couldn’t live the way we do. We would not be able to live in safety and we couldn’t live in freedom. My heart goes out to all of you and I can’t thank you enough.”
Jason Strejcek, who was raised in Brook Park but now lives in Strongsville, was one of those Powell was speaking to. He enlisted shortly after the attack on our country on September 11, 2001 and spent eight years (2002-2010) as a Naval combat medic with the Marines, serving three tours – 21 months — in Iraq.
It was during his first tour in the Middle East that Strejcek suffered a shoulder injury that has been operated on five times.
The injury occurred when the light armored vehicle (LAV 25) he was riding in was hit with an improvised explosive device (IED). As a medic he rushed to the aid of the vehicle commander, who was trapped in the vehicle’s turret.
“The only way I could get him up was to pull him straight up,” Strejcek recalled.
In doing so he tore his biceps, his triceps, his deltoid, and rotator cuff. Even today he has a hard time lifting his right arm above chin level. He is a 100 percent disabled veteran.
That was just one of several incidents that serve as a constant reminder and take him back to his days overseas. Some are pleasant. Others not so much.
He tells a story of a 7-year-old boy whose stomach had been ripped open by shrapnel when his house in Ramadi – the house next to the one Strejcek was living in — was hit with a bomb launched by insurgents. He patched the youngster up as best he could in the field and put him on a helicopter to a medical facility in Balad. Several weeks later the youngster returned to Ramadi, a war survivor.
The smell of wintergreen, the flavor of the smokeless tobacco the vehicle commander was chewing at the time of the rescue, is an immediate flashback. The commander did not survive.
While Strejcek does not dwell, the mental scars are present. He talks of how PGA HOPE has helped not only his mental state but his golf game as well. He raves about Washington Park teaching professional Steve Morgan, an Army veteran himself.
In an email he sent to NOPGA Foundation Director Danielle Monas, Strejcek wrote how Morgan had taken the time to teach him the mechanics behind the swing and the logics of each drill.
“His insights were instrumental in rectifying my slice and improving my overall technique, fostering a newfound passion for golf in the process,” he wrote. “Within six months under Steve’s guidance, I have seen substantial progress.”
Strejcek, 44, won Wednesday’s long drive contest with a blast estimated at 300-plus yards.
Others have told stories on how PGA HOPE helped them overcome emotional issues. “One gentleman told me how before enrolling in PGA HOPE he had been afraid to leave his house,” said Griffith.
Strejcek, a registered nurse who trains other medical personnel, said he does not like crowds. He said golf provides an emotional outlet. With PGA HOPE he associates with golfers who might have lived similar experiences, leading to a mutual understanding of what they have gone through.
And, it led to Wednesday when a cloudy day wasn’t going to spoil anything. In fact, watching them play warmed your heart.
Click here for photos of the day.