The Gift of Golf

It’s 6,389 miles from Gardiner, Maine, to Bagram, Afghanistan. When it’s the holidays, that distance seems even farther. But one Maine company found a way to bridge that gap–and golf was the catalyst.

The U.S. Army’s 133rd Engineer Battalion, “Task Force Black Bear” from Gardiner, includes 200 servicemen and women who are currently stationed in Bagram, winding down America’s participation in the war there as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Their work, as you can imagine, is difficult and dangerous. Nine years ago, the 133rd mourned two of its own when a suicide bomber disguised as an Iraqi soldier detonated a bomb inside the mess hall at Forward Operating Base Marewz in Mosul, Iraq, killing 20, including the two from the 133rd, and wounding 50 others, including 12 from the 133rd. It’s not surprising then that when these brave soldiers get some downtime, they look for activities that can help them relax and take their minds off their stressful jobs.

Like golf.

The stated mission of the 133rd, a unit that dates back to 1803, is “to increase the combat effectiveness of the support brigades or engineer brigades at corps level by accomplishing mobility, counter-mobility, survivability and general engineering tasks.” Your average nine-to-five job, this is not.

Being engineers, and having access to lots of equipment, the enterprising soldiers of the 133rd built a 9-hole course amidst the rock and sand of Bagram and enjoy hitting shots when they get a chance. But a lack of golf equipment had become a problem. They’d taken to using rocks when their supply of balls ran out.

So Staff Sergeant Justin Poirier sent an email to Maine-based Harris Golf, owner/operator of nine of the best courses in the state, asking for information about where they might find inexpensive clubs and balls–items hard to come by in Afghanistan.

“Out here in the hinterlands,” SSG Poirier wrote, “we have managed to create a makeshift golf course where we can play 9 holes… but the uneven and often hazardous terrain causes us to lose a lot of balls. Lately, to conserve balls, we have been using a 5-iron and hitting rocks… that club will not be making the trip home now!”

Harris responded with a great show of support for the troops.

“We saw the true spirit of the game being exhibited by some real American heroes,” said Jeff Harris, president of Harris Golf. “These men and women are far away from home and their families, missing out on the holidays in Maine because of the job they signed up to do on our behalf. Golf is helping them do that important work. And where the game would seem to be an impossibility, they’ve made it possible. We felt like we had to do more than simply sell them some golf balls.”

So Harris assembled a golf care package for the 133rd that included thousands of dollars worth of golf gear. In the shipment were: four full sets of clubs (three righty, one lefty), four stand bags, two full-size hitting mats with loads of tees and tee mounts, nine custom-manufactured flagsticks with flags, and 60 dozen balls. About the only thing Harris didn’t send was a PGA pro to provide lessons. The package arrived in Afghanistan on January 15th.

“We felt it was the least we could do for our fellow Mainers,” Harris Golf spokesman Matt Barnard said, “displaced and giving of themselves for the rest of us.”

The Harris family knows something about displacement and giving. Jeff Harris’s daughter, Ensign Abigail Harris, is serving on the USS Michael Murphy (DDG 112), a destroyer currently stationed in Pearl Harbor. Jeff’s oldest son, Jonathan “Jack” Harris, is graduating this spring from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at King’s Point, Long Island. And his youngest son, Joel Harris, is a freshman in the ROTC program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. Many other Harris Golf employees have strong family connections to the military, too–and one of the Harris Golf courses, Mere Creek, is situated on what used to be the Naval Air Station property in Brunswick, Maine. As a result,the Harris people still have close ties to many of that area’s U.S. Navy personnel who were, and in some cases still are, the club’s members, neighbors and friends.

“We are big supporters of the military,” Barnard said, “all branches, active and retired. We see the Navy’s ships get built here in Bath, we attend all of the christenings, we chase the vessels down-river along the Phippsburg peninsula when they head out to sea. We have a huge amount of respect for the people who voluntarily step up to serve our country, usually at the expense of a normal family life… sometimes at an even higher price. We regard them as real-life super-heroes.”

But Harris didn’t stop at just sending equipment to the men and women of the 133rd. They also created a special promotion that will allow members of the 133rd to play free golf at several of Harris’s Maine golf clubs when they return home this summer. Every time a golfer purchases a “Task Force Black Bear Pass” from Harris Golf, a second pass will be donated in that golfer’s name to a soldier from Task Force Black Bear, allowing a service member to play free at a Harris facility. For just $50, golfers get a choice of playing 18 holes (including cart) at Sunday River GC, Old March CC, Penobscot Valley CC, or the Bath Golf Club. Barnard reports that not only are golfers signing up for that deal–they’re also calling him to find out how they can donate additional passes for the soldiers of the 133rd.

In the end, the company’s generosity has become a win-win-win for everyone. The troops got their equipment–and some of them will play free golf when they get back home. Maine golfers get a great deal on a golf outing–and the opportunity to provide a free round of golf for a serviceman or woman. And Harris Golf, by virtue of answering the call, also stands to benefit. And deservedly so.

Asked if this was a case of a company doing the right thing and benefiting itself as a result, Barnard replied:“I love what we’re doing–and if we had never seen a TV camera or taken a single interview as a result of our donation, we’d still be very pleased to have been involved in this campaign. It feels great to know that we’re contributing in some small way to the efforts of our men and women in uniform.

“Certainly there’s a case to be made for how a positive emotional connection can cement brand loyalty–whether you’re talking about green fees, Preservation Pass sales or membership at a club. That’s not why we put the package together, but it’s gratifying.”

David DeSmith is a freelance golf writer who lives in New England.

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