Every Tuesday afternoon, a few dozen disabled veterans soak up everything they can from Long Island professionals about driving, chipping and putting. They love every minute of it. Mostly they like the fact that, for at least one day a week, "handicap" is merely a golf term.
"I really love sports and I never thought I could play golf. They got me out doing it and all of a sudden, I'm a maniac," said Artie McAuley, 69, of Richmond Hill, Queens, who lost his left arm in a stateside car accident during the Vietnam era. "Last week, I played Sunday, Thursday, Friday and at the clinic on Tuesday."
He took up the game three years ago through a Manhattan Veterans Affairs program that sponsored a trip to Westchester Country Club. McAuley's game has been refined by the Tuesday classes at Woodside Acres, the former Woodcrest Club in Muttontown. This past Tuesday morning, he shot 40 on the par-35 Northport VA course.
The whole veterans group was in Northport that afternoon for tips on etiquette and course management, and practice for a big tournament Wednesday against upstate veterans. It all is part of the PGA of America's HOPE, "Helping Our Patriots Everywhere," which was brought to Long Island this fall by Woodside Acres head pro Paul Glut, a former Marine.
Glut has been doing things to support veterans for years, such as wearing red every Friday as part of a national push to back military families. When he heard about the Met PGA's HOPE effort, he signed up. The HOPE program is open to all veterans but is especially geared to those with disabilities. So Glut studied how to teach people with cognitive disorders ("I try to make them laugh, to have fun with it," he said). He also practiced swinging with one hand or from a wheelchair, just to identify with the golfers he would be coaching.
During the spring, he commuted to West Point one day a week for the HOPE clinics there. This fall he recruited numerous fellow Long Island pros to volunteer -- some came every week, others whenever their schedules allowed. This week, for instance, Huntington Country Club pro Jim Smoot spent a good deal of time on the first hole, explaining everything from where to stand near the tee box to why 90 percent of golfers hit slices.
McAuley, who played in a veterans tournament last week at Lawrence Yacht and Country Club, said the pros set him up with clubs that have special grips. "They help me hit the ball straight," he said. Another veteran, who needs a wheelchair to get around, was equipped with a swivel-seated cart from which he can hit balls.
John Devine of Massapequa, who calls himself a 66-year-old teenager, has been playing golf for years but has learned a lot on recent Tuesdays. "They're touching all the issues," said the man who lost his right leg in Vietnam. "Most of the lessons I've had in the past seemed to focus mostly on driving and as you know, that's only about one-third of the game."
Most important to him, though, is the fact the Met PGA is doing this. "There was none -- zero -- of this kind of stuff in 1977. I have to say, watching all the new guys getting all the love, it still kind of hurts as Vietnam vets. To be included in this, it's a longtime payback for guys," he said.
As far as Glut is concerned, that makes the effort worthwhile. "You build a bond with them because a lot of times they might feel forgotten," the pro said.
Devine knows it's a good feeling to be like any other golfer who takes lessons and half expects to play like a pro. "I can't say that I'm making a giant leap here. I'm frustrated," he said, with a laugh.