On May 27, 1959, the nine-hole American Lake Veterans Golf Course is dedicated. For the next 36 years, the course will help in the rehabilitation and recovery of veterans at the American Lake Veterans Hospital. When the Department of Veterans Affairs stops funding its maintenance and operations in 1995, volunteers will assume these responsibilities, but with little money the course will fall into disrepair. Eventually retired teacher Harold "Pepper" Roberts (1931-2014) will incorporate a nonprofit organization to make improvements, beginning with a new irrigation system. The most significant improvement will be a new 18-hole layout -- including a second nine known as the "Nicklaus Nine" -- built to accommodate disabled veterans, designed, at no charge, by legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus (b. 1940).
Golf Course at the Veterans Hospital
The American Lake Veterans Hospital opened to serve veterans on March 15, 1924. Its specialty was psychiatric-disorder treatment. In 1927 a farm was established on the northern edge of the hospital grounds. It was considered therapeutic, in that having patients working outdoors and with animals would improve their mental health. The farm raised pigs and chickens and had an orchard, providing food for the hospital. By 1954 the Veterans Administration had changed its attitude toward farms as therapy. The farm at the American Lake hospital closed that year, and a portion of it was identified for use as a nine-hole golf course. Hospital staff, patients, and maintenance workers constructed the course.
The American Lake Veterans Hospital Golf Course was dedicated on May 27, 1959. Dr. Joseph Tatum (1895-1975), the hospital manager, snipped a red ribbon at the first hole to officially open the course. Two foursomes, one of professional golfers and the other of amateurs, were the first to try out the links. The players included outstanding local golfers. Among the amateur foursome were two presidential relatives -- Major General Louis Truman (1908-2004), Fort Lewis commanding general and a cousin of former President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), and Edgar Eisenhower (1889-1971), brother of the current president (and former five-star general) Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969). Edgar, a better golfer than his famous brother, was a Tacoma lawyer who had won a number of Pacific Northwest golf tournaments.
Major General Truman was also an excellent golfer, but unfortunately his golfing image was inescapably linked to the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. On that Sunday morning, then Captain Louis Truman readied for a golf outing with Lieutenant General Walter Short (1880-1949) and Admiral Husband Kimmell (1882-1968), the army and navy commanders at Pearl Harbor. As they were preparing for their weekly golf game, Japanese forces attacked the American base. Captain Truman went on to distinguish himself in World War II and the Korean War.
The four professionals at the 1959 course dedication were local women golfers. The foursome's leader was Pat Lesser Harbottle (b. 1933), who had won the U.S. Women's amateur tournament twice. Shirley Fopp (1919-2002) was another professional. She had won the Washington State Women's Public Links championship and was also a national downhill ski champion.
Helping Veterans Rebuild Their Lives
The American Lake course became popular with hospital patients and local veterans. Over the next three decades it helped patients recover both physically and mentally. However, in 1995 the Veterans Affairs Department decided to terminate golf-course funding, instead spending those funds on patient care. The American Lake course was taken over by a group of volunteers, who would operate and maintain it. By 2000 it had 20,000 plays per year. However, the course was in terrible condition. The irrigation system leaked and the fairways were burned brown.
In 2001 Harold "Pepper" Roberts, a Korean War veteran and retired high school teacher, joined the volunteer team and sought to improve the course and its operations. Pepper Roberts completed the paperwork for nonprofit status, creating the Friends of American Lake Veterans Golf Course Foundation. He served as the foundation's first president. The 160 or so volunteers, most of them veterans, in the Friends made their first major project a new irrigation system to properly water the course. They obtained donated materials and did much of the construction themselves, with men in their 70s digging trenches.
The oldest worker was 86-year-old Ray Sumner (1918-2009). During a work break, Pepper Roberts asked Sumner when he last played golf. He replied that it was two years ago, that he could no longer walk the course. This comment led to the group's promise that the American Lake Veterans Course would become a golf course for all veterans to play.
An initial step toward this goal was the purchase of SoloRiders, single-rider golf carts designed for the disabled. The carts had seats that swiveled and elevated to a degree that provided the needed support for a disabled player to swing a club from the cart. They also had special tires that made it possible to drive onto putting greens without damaging them and to get in and out of sand traps.
A covered driving range, a three-hole practice area specially designed for the disabled, and an activity pavilion followed. As the course improved, more people used it, and by 2009 more than 30,000 rounds were played per year. The Friends saw a need for a second nine holes. Friends volunteer and board member Ken Still (b. 1935), of Fircrest, was a teammate of Jack Nicklaus in the 1969 Ryder Cup and longtime friend of his, so he called to seek his assistance. Many consider Nicklaus, known as "the Golden Bear," to be the greatest golfer of all time. The golf legend quickly offered to have his golf-course-design firm develop plans for a second nine holes, along with improvements to the first nine, at no charge. The second nine holes would come to be dubbed the "Nicklaus Nine."
Nicklaus's design -- valued at $500,000 -- would be a one-of-a-kind 18-hole layout specifically for disabled golfers. It was a special project for Nicklaus, who wanted to give back to the military by assisting wounded veterans, stating if it helped one it would be worthwhile. To build the course would cost more than $3 million, which had to come from private donations. During the planning for the 18-hole course, other improvements continued, with an 8,400 square-foot clubhouse opening in April 2010. The clubhouse had an indoor practice area with a simulator. On September 17, 2010, a nine-hole practice putting green was added.
"Nicklaus Nine" Opens
In 2010 a fundraising group was formed with Nicklaus as co-chairman. The group included General John Shalikashvili (1936-2011), who had served several tours at Fort Lewis and had retired to nearby Steilacoom. Shalikashvili was former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- the first foreign-born soldier, and the first have risen from the ranks of the enlisted, to hold that position. Shalikashvili had never played golf, but for this effort was willing to take a swing. He was disabled by a stroke and so employed the SoloRider. (Sadly, General Shalikashvili had a second stroke and died on July 23, 2011, at Madigan Army Hospital on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.)
Nicklaus visited the site of the new course several times and also sponsored clinics and fundraisers. At a June 2010 clinic for wounded veterans, he brought hybrid clubs produced by his Nicklaus Golf Equipment Company and presented one to each participant. One participant, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel J. Dudek (b. 1969) from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, who was paralyzed from the knees down, demonstrated his skills using a SoloRider golf cart for support. Dudek was commander of the Warrior in Transition Battalion, a unit providing medical care and other assistance to return soldiers to regular duty or aid in their transition back to the civilian community. Dudek was himself in the Continuation on Active Duty program with rehabilitation making it possible for him to remain on active duty. He participated in a number of reconditioning activities, including hand-cycle races and triathlons. Dudek illustrated the army's commitment to retaining quality personnel who have been wounded. In the past such individuals would be released regardless of their desire to continue to serve. Returned to regular duty, Dudek was promoted to training officer.
Jim Martinson (b. 1946), who lost both legs in Vietnam War combat, received a club and conversed with Nicklaus. For Martinson, sports competition and golf helped overcome bitterness. He became active in the Friends of the American Lake Veterans Golf Course, holding office positions. In 2012 Pepper Roberts stepped down and became president emeritus, with Jim Sims (b. 1939), a retired Marine colonel, assuming the presidency of the Friends. Sims was responsible for the many actions needed to build the course.
On August 30, 2013, the course ground breaking was held with many notables in attendance, including Nicklaus, Washington governor Jay Inslee (b. 1951), Lakewood mayor Don Anderson, Friends President Jim Sims, and retired master sergeant Leroy Petry (b. 1979), a Medal of Honor recipient living in Steilacoom. With the support of a SoloRider golf cart, Aaron Boyle (b. 1989), who lost his right arm and leg in Afghanistan, struck the ceremonial ball.
Construction began in 2014 and continued into 2015. The new course was dedicated on June 16, 2015, with Nicklaus, his family, and Ken Still and his wife Linda among those in attendance. On June 4, 2016, the Nicklaus Nine opened to veterans and guests. This was a glorious moment for the Friends of the American Lake Veterans Golf Course and the more than 200 volunteers who work without pay to operate and maintain the course. It opened at an opportune time with many wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking physical and emotional rehabilitation.
Both before and after the opening of the Nicklaus Nine, the American Lake Veterans Golf Course has been the location of events for disabled golfers. In July 2014 it hosted a Professional Golfers Association (PGA) clinic for disabled players. Ten professional golfers worked with 80 disabled golfers, helping them improve their game. The course also has had weekly participation by the Joint Base Lewis-McChord Warrior in Transition Battalion. The wounded warriors would come to the course to play golf and socialize.