The Green Zone

While often lacking in acclaim, military golf courses serve a higher purpose
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AS TENSIONS ESCALATED between the United States and Iran in January of this year, 52 F-35s lined up and took off in close proximity from Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, in a spectacular demonstration of force that made global headlines. Hill is home to the 388th and the 419th Fighter Wings, the first operational and reserve wings in the Air Force to operate the new F-35A Lightning II, known as the Joint Strike Fighter. Coordinating such exercises with $100 million machines is anything but easy, so upon their return it’s likely a few pilots took the short stroll across the runway toward Hubbard Memorial Golf Course to cool their heels. 

For my first round at Hubbard, I was hosted by a two-star general who retired as base commander and remains a staple in the community. I arrived from a meeting that had run long, and barely had enough time to change and get to the first tee: a downhill par 5 measuring 570 yards from the tips. Without range time to remind me, I forgot to account for the thinner air in the high elevation of northern Utah. On my second shot, attempting to lay up from the rough, I blazed an iron through the group ahead that was still putting out. The general wasted no time driving me down and suggesting an apology. I dutifully complied, knowing it wasn’t really a suggestion from the highly decorated warrior. The embarrassment was quickly lost, though, in gorgeous views of the snow-capped Wasatch Range to the east and the Mars-like Great Salt Lake to the west.

Don’t bother to look for Hubbard in any glossy ratings or high-minded architectural studies; no category of course receives less of that attention than military designs. Few professional observers take the time to inspect the tracks lined up against the ends of runways, woven behind barracks and training fields or placed just off the docks of our nation’s military installations. Yet the more than 150 golf courses found on U.S. Department of Defense property are some of the most cherished—and perhaps some of the most important—courses in the world.

Such anonymity is, in part, the nature of the beast. Behind the wire means behind the wire, whether it’s nuclear-armed submarines or dogleg par 4s. But while some of these courses remain inaccessible to most for obvious security reasons, a surprising number are open to guests of service members, or even to the general public, as they must, by law, remain budget neutral to the Pentagon’s bottom line.

Yet even the accessible military golf courses still don’t garner much attention by today’s standards. Outside of the Donald Ross Fort Bragg design and a few A.W. Tillinghast holes at Fort Sam Houston, these courses were not designed by golden-era titans, nor are they the product of modern-day celebrity architects. And those who did the building didn’t have a PGA Tour stop in mind. Most courses are too old to have been part of the minimalist movement, and today’s tight budgets will not allow for serious renovations.

But, in my experience, most regulars don’t mind the lack of headlines and glamour; in fact, I’ve been told it’s probably better that way. Military courses serve a higher purpose than testing the pros or entertaining the wealthy elite. Take the example of George Cobb: The architect best known for designing the par-3 course at Augusta National and the original layout of Quail Hollow Club came into the profession as a Marine in World War II. The golf prowess and landscaping expertise he honed at the University of Georgia landed him orders to design a golf course at Camp Lejeune to assist with rehabilitating wounded veterans. It was so well received that he went on to design a dozen or so more on or near military bases.

While the challenges of a Pine Valley or an Oakmont are certainly cleansing in their own right, they are unlikely to provide recuperation, especially for the many service members who returned mid-century and were just getting introduced to the game. As Joe Passov noted in a 2007 Golf Magazine piece on Cobb’s work, that initial project set the tone for his overall design philosophy: “To heal and to stimulate, not punish.” He used golf as medicine and therapy to bring some measure of peace through activity, learning and nature.

I became familiar with Cobb’s work early in my golf life thanks to our shared Southern roots: Many of his later works still thrive in those towns and rural communities. But it wasn’t until I headed north that I got my first exposure to military golf at perhaps its most famous facility: the 54-hole layout on the south side of Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington, D.C.

Known to frequenters today as President Obama’s favorite place to sneak in a round with advisors or bend the ears of Congressional leaders during negotiations, I happened to have access to its courses through a government job when I lived in the area. Getting to Andrews was relatively easy even in D.C.’s notorious traffic: Starting from the Capitol building, my coworkers/playing partners simply took Pennsylvania Avenue the opposite direction from the White House, over the Anacostia River and down into southern Maryland. We would lug our bags out on Sunday afternoons or after work during the summer, present the proper credentials and squeeze in as many holes as possible before sundown.

Once we arrived, the deviations from a typical golf round were immediate and stark. It may be hard to get into places like Augusta or Cypress Point, but neither of their gates is guarded by M4-toting military police charged with protecting some of the country’s most valuable assets. After they checked our badges and bags, we were firmly directed to immediately bear left into the parking lot, lest we encounter vehicle obstacles that would stop a speeding bus on a dime.

On several busy days, we missed our tee time due to unexpected delays at the gate. “DVs [military shorthand for ‘distinguished visitors’] just came in; you know how it goes,” an MP grunted one day when the line finally started moving. “Your tee time is on the South Course? Yeah, I doubt you’re getting on there now.”

The courses at Andrews abide by the USGA’s Rules of Golf, but local rules take prominence. At exactly 5 p.m. each day, a recording of “The Star Spangled Banner” is trumpeted across the base and all players stop mid-stride, removing their hats in observance. I’ve never seen anyone fail to stop, but I imagine the repercussions would be more than stroke and distance.

Those Andrews experiences sparked my own military golf mission: I began researching and seeking out new courses whenever I traveled to other bases. I was lucky enough to check the Robert Trent Jones–designed Blue Course at Eisenhower Golf Club at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, off my list. It is gorgeous and often hailed as the best course in the armed-forces rota, though many soldiers and sailors I’ve met will not concede that title to the airmen.

The first time I laid eyes on the championship courses at Eglin Air Base near Fort Walton, Florida, it was from 3,000 feet above, out of the back door of a V-22 Osprey on the way to watch air-to-ground live-fire demonstrations (one of the few times in my life I was happier being at work than on the links). The aptly named Eagle and Falcon courses could fit anywhere in the golf-saturated Sunshine State, with their sandy soils playing through scrubby pines and golfers wary of lurking reptiles around water hazards.

While visiting relatives in Memphis, I was happy to find the Glen Eagle Golf Course at the Naval Support Activity base north of the city. Open to all, it is one of the best-regarded courses in western Tennessee, with a few world-class holes like the par-3 eighth, which calls for a long iron over a water hazard to an elevated plateau green guarded by bunkers on three sides. Sticking the green from 200 yards seems about as easy as landing on an aircraft carrier, but a generous bailout area to the right makes the hole approachable for all.

The more I learned, the longer my military golf bucket list grew. Some of the destinations certainly helped the allure. Kaneohe Klipper Golf Course at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kailua is another Obama favorite, and boasts seaside views that could rival any on the islands. In the sparse landscape of Alaska, the Moose Run Golf Course at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage claims to be the northernmost 36-hole facility in the world, and both of its tracks are routinely called some of the best in the state.

The Pentagon’s golf properties aren’t limited to U.S. territory, with well-respected courses at American bases throughout Europe and Asia. Carney Park Golf Course, which serves Navy families near Naples, Italy, has the distinction of being routed through a dormant volcano; the Army’s Camp Zama Golf Course in Japan is viewed as one of the military’s most challenging, with water coming into play on more than half the holes. An ominous reputation haunts Naval Station Guantanamo Bay due to the terrorist detention center located there, but the nine-hole course dubbed Lateral Hazard provides a needed break for service members and families stationed far from home. There were even two holes laid down in Mosul, Iraq, during the height of the Iraq War.

I’ve played other military courses that may be less memorable for scenery and design, but the value to their communities is undiminished. Some are nothing more than mowed-over fields with flagsticks at the end of them, but they are the only golf course within a day’s drive. As any golfer, civilian or otherwise, will attest, lasting memories and bonding experiences are more likely to be had on a dusty dog track with the right company than on a top-100 course with the wrong mindset.

It’s that special intersection of activity and camaraderie that makes military golf so vital. The scars of war run deep—physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Doctors and researchers learn more every year about the devastating impact of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, and policymakers in Washington try in good faith to discover and rapidly field solutions. But, judging by the statistics, conventional efforts are not keeping up. In 2019, suicide rates among active-duty Air Force members were at their highest in three decades; 2018 saw the highest rate of suicide across the armed forces since they started tracking such cases in 2001. Among the veteran population, the suicide rate increased 50% between 2007 and 2017. Studies now show that veterans are 1.5 times more likely to commit suicide than someone who has never served. That’s why so many military and veterans organizations are looking to sports and other activities to supplement medical and psychological treatments. From the arts and music to fly-fishing and mountain biking, the therapeutic effectiveness of exercise, being outside and engaging with others is widely recognized and being employed to help serve military members and their families.

The prescribed benefits of golf are nothing new. President Woodrow Wilson is reported to have played 1,200 rounds of golf during his time in office from 1913 to 1919, all at the behest of his physician as a means of relieving stress and, later, grieving after losing his wife. Eisenhower, Kennedy, both Bushes, Obama and Trump are among other commanders-in-chief who would attest to the remarkable ability of golf to help one decompress and manage extraordinary levels of stress. Multiple charity organizations use golf trips as therapy for combat-injured veterans.

Back at Andrews, where ceremonial lockers in the men’s lounge are named after these golf-mad presidents, most holes are cut through the native oaks and hemlocks of Maryland parkland. But several on the East and South courses travel below the runways that are home to the 89th Airlift Wing and its VC-25 aircraft, better known as Air Force One. This area, cleared of trees for flight operations, transports golfers for a few swings to Scottish-links style land, with fairways flowing over rolling hills that hide quirky green complexes. It was on this ground where I truly understood the task that Cobb and others had been assigned.

One fall evening, we stood on the 10th tee of Andrews’ East Course, a par-4, Cape-style hole that demands a forced carry over tall grasses and a pond to a fairway that runs diagonally away to player’s right. The safe shot requires a clearance of only around 150 yards to a generous landing zone straight ahead, but at the tee you are tempted to fade your shot in alignment with the bending fairway, trusting your shot shape and the suddenly present wind to keep you out of the hazard.

Directly behind the 10th tee sits the end of a runway where, on that day, F-16s from the D.C. Air National Guard had been conducting touch-and-gos all afternoon, but the base was now dormant as the sun set and left a golden haze in the air. The tall grasses were already brown and the fairways were starting to follow with the graying-green color that perfectly complements the fiery leaves clinging to the trees. My personal need for rehabilitation was much less than for others who had walked the course, but the sound of the evening breeze brushing through the dry grass nevertheless had a detoxifying effect on the mind. For that moment, we all just stood quietly and melted into the landscape.

It may be hard to get into Augusta or Cypress Point, but neither of their gates is guarded by M4-toting military police charged with protecting some of the country’s most valuable assets.