Giving back to those who served

Walter Boles is in a good place.

Forget, for the moment, that he's a Navy veteran, having spent the 1970s in the service.

Forget that his three-decade attempt to reacclimate to civilian life was, by common standards, rousingly unsuccessful.

Forget that he's a drug addict.

Walter Boles is in a good place, and golf, he's certain, has much to do with it.

Maybe that's why the resident at the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City remembers precisely when he took up the game.

"August, Two Thousand Eleven," he says, punching the words. "The day I checked in here."

Golf, too, is now an addiction, albeit far less destructive than the meth for which he's been clean of for 21 months. Boles plays 30 times a month. Yes, every day.

Golf is also an affliction, but he didn't immediately know that.

"When you don't know how to play in the beginning, you don't know you're supposed to be angry when you make a bad shot," says Boles, who was born in Klamath Falls and graduated from Eagle Point High School. "You can hit the ball as hard as you want and nobody gets hurt."

That naiveté is mostly gone. He's gotten better, as you'd expect for the amount of golf he plays on the SORCC's nine-hole course. Now he must come to grips with bad shots, must find ways to improve.

One way presented itself recently.

Boles was among a dozen players who took advantage of an upstart initiative, the Down Range Golf Program, that is jointly offered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the PGA of America. Local PGA professionals Norm Blandel and Vince Domenzain conducted a clinic at the SORCC's practice facility two weeks ago, going over the basics of putting, chipping and making full swings with irons and woods.

The goal is to encourage disabled or otherwise challenged veterans to be more active and healthy in their communities through golf.

Blandel, responding to a request for volunteers from the Pacific Northwest Golf Association, was in a group of 22 professionals who attended one of the first such clinics in the U.S. last month at American Lake Veterans Golf Course in Lakewood, Wash.

The clinic here was modeled after it and served as a precursor for the Southern Oregon Military Appreciation Tournament today at Centennial Golf Club, where Domenzain is general manager and director of golf.

The tournament theme will be decidedly armed forces, with a number of American flags adorning the entry way, military vehicles on display, a color guard and men in uniform tending the flag — again, the Stars and Stripes — that will fly on the stick on the 18th hole.

Miss Oregon, Nichole Mead, will be a fitting special guest. In honor of her brother, who served in Iraq for 15 months, she promotes civilian support of soldiers returning from war.

The Newport native and Oregon graduate will also play in the tournament.

The 132-person field filled quickly, and a couple of the foursomes will be made up of players from the local Down Range clinic, Boles included.

Blandel and Domenzain have connections to the military and relish the opportunity to help veterans. Blandel served in the Marines from 1969-71. Domenzain has a number of family members who were in the military, including his father, who served in World War II.

They embraced the Down Range effort.

"We want to get to where the veterans are out on the golf course," says Domenzain, "and use it as a tool and a way to grow a little bit. They can put their energy toward that and take some of the distraction of their other issues away."

"There's a tremendous focus in giving back to veterans, and rightfully so," says Blandel. "When they come home, we need to do everything we can. And golf is such a great vehicle to bring into people's lives."

Both were touched as they worked with their new students.

In Washington, Blandel helped a quadriplegic, accompanied by his wife, on the putting green. The man, using one arm, could barely make a stroke back and through the ball. With a bit of instruction, he improved to the point he could hit it several feet.

Blandel set a ball down, watched the veteran hit it, then placed another ball and repeated the drill.

"Here's a gentleman who could hardly respond," says Blandel, "but after the fifth or sixth time of doing the same thing and him watching the ball roll, I could see the smile on his face. And boy, that was special."

At the SORCC clinic, the pros fielded a number of questions.

One player asked Domenzain how to get spin on the ball. The man learned to play only with wedges and had a very strong grip, the better to get more distance from short irons.

"Needless to say," says Domenzain, "he delofted the club ... he had a pretty impressive shut-down wedge."

Domenzain showed him a grip closer to neutral.

"It was pretty enlightening for him to weaken his grip," says Domenzain. "When he hit a shot, he couldn't believe it went so high. He said, 'Oh yeah, that'll stop.'"

Boles is a splendid example of what the program can achieve.

He took up golf to get exercise — he lost 60 pounds — gain a release for his anger and take his mind off this new challenge of sobriety. He made friends, stayed out of trouble and experienced more and more good days.

One of them was at the Down Range clinic. Another was Monday, when Boles made his first hole-in-one. He employed a sort of bump-and-run technique with an 8-iron on the 120-yard ninth hole. He first thought it might be good for a birdie, then rejoiced over an ace and bought donuts for the gang. Not drinks, mind you.

Finally, he got to share an accomplishment.

"I've let them regale me with their holes-in-one," he says.

Boles has gained enough perspective to know golf days aren't always that good.

In that regard, it mimics life.

"You can do everything right and have a bad result," he says, "and you can make every mistake you can think of and a shot will turn out really well. I think playing golf and learning to accept how you're doing on a daily basis gives you better insight on how life really is."

Most clinic-goers, says Boles, expressed interest in growing the program and introducing returning brethren to golf's recuperative powers.

"Every one of us knows exactly what it was like and what you're gonna go through," says Boles. " ... When I came back, I was very narcissistic. It was me, me, me. I didn't care about anything else.

"It's real hard to be involved in something like (the clinic) and not make connections outside yourself."

He'll soon put what he's learned to the ultimate test when he re-enters the community in about three weeks, or about the time he turns 60.

Some things he'll leave behind. Golf won't be one of them.

Have a local golf story idea? Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email

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