The phrase “Arnie’s Army” was coined on the back nine at Augusta National Golf Club during the 1959 Masters by a service member from Fort Gordon who was working the scoreboards. Noticing a group of Arnold Palmer’s fans, all in uniform, he made a small sign and held it up: “Arnie’s Army.” The sign caught Palmer’s eye, and in his post-tournament remarks, he made a point to thank his “army” of fans. The phrase stuck.
To celebrate Palmer’s legacy, Birdies for the Brave teamed up with Callaway Golf to honor two local wounded veterans by providing them with the unique opportunity to be fitted with their own set of custom golf clubs on the practice facility at Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Fla., during the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard. In addition to the fitting, the warriors enjoyed a behind-the-scenes tour of the Callaway Equipment Truck, where TOUR players are fitted on-site during tournaments, and of course, they enjoyed a legendary beverage combination of half iced tea and half lemonade, named the “Arnold Palmer.”
Both veterans were very appreciative for the opportunity to emulate what it’s like to be a professional golfer on the PGA TOUR.
“The experience was everything I’d hoped for and more,” said U.S. Air Force (Ret.) Mike Strickler. Strickler served the country from the early 1980s to early 2000s. While deployed with the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing during Operation Desert Shield, Strickler was executing a combat departure from the aircraft at Khamis Mushait Airbase in Saudi Arabia when his left foot was crushed between two heavy equipment pallets. He underwent medical care and remained deployed, serving through Operation Desert Storm. Upon his return to the U.S., he underwent reconstructive surgery and remained on active duty before re-deploying, this time with the 506 Air Expeditionary Group at Kirkuk, Iraq. During combat operations, his left foot was severely injured yet again while maneuvering a Humvee during a firefight. He underwent another surgery, returned to the U.S., and retired from active duty. As a result of combat, Strickler now has prosthetic joints, plates and pins in his left foot to allow flexibility. He picked up golf as a means of rehabilitation and recovery, and now serves other veterans through his work with the Orlando VA Medical Center.
Equally as appreciative was U.S. Army (Ret.) Chris Garcia. Garcia joined the service shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and served until he was medically retired in 2012. During his time in the service, Garcia completed three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. While on routine surveillance in Iraq, Garcia struck an improvised explosive device (IED). The blast resulted in minor injuries to his right eye, which later required a cornea transplant, as well as Grade 3 A/C joint shoulder separation in his right shoulder. He encountered two more IEDs during his deployments, sustaining minor injuries each time and eventually medically retiring and returning to the U.S. After receiving an 80 percent disability rating from the VA and being diagnosed with PTSD, Garcia entered the K9s For Warriors program, where he was paired with a service dog named Jake to help cope with his PTSD.
“Golf is a wonderful way for wounded heroes to heal from the physical and psychological wounds of war, as well as a great coping mechanism as they reintegrate into civilian life,” says the PGA TOUR’s Matthew Gregory. “We feel privileged to work in partnership with Callaway Golf to express our sincere appreciation and give something back to those who do so much to keep America safe and we’re excited to add two more members to Arnie’s Army.”
In addition to their commitment to providing wounded heroes with golf clubs through the Callaway Warrior Club Fitting Program, Callaway has contributed more than $8 million to various military support causes. For more information about the Callaway Warrior Club Fittings in partnership with Birdies for the Brave, please visit www.birdiesforthebrave.org/callawaywarriorclubfittings.
Photos by Matthew Gregory/PGA TOUR