Jim Estes had wrapped up a Friday in late fall 2005 at Olney Golf Park in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. After a long week of teaching golf, he decided to go out to dinner.
As is wont to happen from time to time, Estes ran into one of his clients, a Vietnam veteran named Billy Barlett. At the table, Barlett was dining with, as far as Estes could tell, a handful of disabled people with various injuries and maladies. Curious, Estes probed about Bartlett's dinner party.
Barlett explained that this was something he did on the reg. He would go to Walter Reed, the medical campus of record for American veterans, and find soldiers who were alone, hurting and just looking for some company. And he'd invite them out to dinner, on him, every Friday. The surprise invitees rarely turned him down.
Taken by the gesture, Estes offered his skill set to the veterans. Not knowing if they would take him up on the offer, Estes told Barlett they could all come to Olney Golf Park for free lessons and range balls. A former PGA Tour player was willing to teach them to play -- not that these soldiers knew that. So many of them were football players and big-time athletes in high school and college; golf wasn't on their radar probably ever.
Much to Estes' surprise, all of the veterans showed up to his lesson tee. And they kept coming for more. They had the golf bug.
Realizing this, Estes approached Olney Golf Park's management and asked what more they could do. The solution was a Veterans Appreciation Day at the often-busy facility in late 2005 and again in 2006, with the idea of raising money to purchase clubs and equipment for these veterans to get them up to speed on a game they were loving. The problem was that Estes couldn't find a non-profit who would take a donation with this rather specific intent.
It was then the idea of the Salute Military Golf Association was sparked.
Around Christmas 2006, Estes reached out to childhood friend Jamie Winslow, a Washington lobbyist who played college golf at James Madison University. Estes and Winslow grew up on a now-defunct driving range across from where Estes now worked after a career on the PGA Tour. Over drinks, Estes laid out his vision and implored Winslow to help. Winslow, who had no semblance of what starting a non-profit might entail, was interested but didn't know how he could help.
"You have an MBA, you'll be able to figure it out. Just get on the internet," Estes told Winslow, as he recalls.
Then Estes told him that he'd already incorporated the name. It was too late to back out now.
Four months later, Winslow had earned SMGA's 501(c)3 letter from the IRS, giving them non-profit status. They started offering clinics at Olney Golf Park to veterans in April 2007, with 10 guys from Walter Reed showing up. Nearly a decade later, SMGA has evolved to have 10 chapters around the country and the network to deliver programming to post-9/11 veterans in 48 states -- and the small staff can name just about every soldier they've helped.
That 10-year journey wasn't without trouble.
Estes and Winslow had no initial business plan, so they hadn't defined programming and fundraising goals.
The physical therapists at Walter Reed were skeptical of Estes' goals to teach golf to wounded soldiers. They were concerned Estes could exacerbate their injuries, furthering rehab time when it was of the essence. However, Estes met extensively with the therapists to go over his teaching methods and demonstrate a knowledge of kinesiology that assuaged them he would do no harm.
SMGA didn't have office space until board members from nearby Argyle Country Club approached the facility manager about using some open space in the clubhouse basement. For the first handful of years, SMGA business was done at someone's house or at a Starbucks over coffee.
Fundraising was another issue altogether. Neither Estes or Winslow or the other board members had ever done this for a non-profit. The organization was founded at a time when Wounded Warrior Project and other larger veteran-focuses non-profits were gaining a fundraising foothold. Simultaneously, the American public's collective sentiment about our wars -- particulary the Iraq conflict -- was souring. Americans supported the deployed soldiers, but, by and large, were turning against the Iraqi mission. Less than 24 months later, the American economy went into the Great Recession.
"It was really not on people's radar," Winslow said.
"Unfortunately, fundraising is a really difficult thing for us and for a lot of small non-profits. Corporations want to align themselves with bigger non-profits, particularly helping veterans, in the chance of 'getting caught doing the right thing.'"
So, they did what anyone in their situation would do, dipping into their own pockets to pay for a lot of things. And, naturally, they held golf tournaments, first at Ft. Belvoir in Virginia, then at the Army-Navy Country Club. They were successful outings, but it was in these moments that it dawned on all of the early SMGA team members just how expensive golf is. A custom-fit set is not cheap.
Fortunately, Winslow and company have become more successful at raising money. As the Iraq war ends (and reignites against ISIS) and the Afghanistan occupation continues to draw down, it's easy to focus on other causes and forget what veterans are doing.
They've also teamed with TaylorMade Golf to get a good price on equipment for SMGA veterans, who get the equipment for free when they complete an eight-lesson series called the American Golfer Program. In places where they don't have chapters, SMGA uses a network of facilities and instructors who are willing to complete the program with a willing participant.
The SMGA now has also broadened its definition of who can benefit from their programs, including free tee times at Argyle Country Club and other clubs, as well some discounted green fees. Any soldier wounded or injured post-9/11 "while conducting a military operation" qualifies, creating a longer-lasting legacy for the organization as the world changes yet again.
Winslow said he doesn't know if SMGA has accomplished its goals for two reasons. One, he and Estes never laid out any when they started this 10 years ago. Two, to suggest everything has been accomplished is to say the work is done. It's not.
The dream moving forward would be for SMGA to have their own veteran-focused facility, complete with a driving range, a small two- or three-hole course and some office space.
Until then, SMGA will continue fulfilling its mission to serve veterans, one lessson, one set at a time. And Winslow wants people to see the work they're doing -- not to boast but to make an impression.
"If a potential donor sees our programs, I'm confident that I have not just a one-time donor but someone who will donate year after year," he said.
"This is about forming personal relationships with the people who have served our country."
In Part 2 of our three-part series, we detail the affect SMGA programs have on wounded veterans.