Those who serve stand tall at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Verde Beach, Florida. Photo: PGA TOUR

THE PLAYERS Championship. If you love golf, you know the tournament well. This early May event combines the best players in the world with the legendary Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Verde Beach, Florida. Although the competition is always spectacular, it’s what the PGA TOUR does here for U.S. military personnel and their families that really deserves the spotlight.

You see, this tournament is as much about “Thank you for your service,” as it is about “good ball”—with a full week of Military Appreciation programs that begin long before TOUR players take to the tee box.

According to the PGA TOUR’s Director of Charitable Outreach Cathie Hurlburt, the initiative began in 2009 when TOUR leaders wanted to do more to honor those who serve.

PGA TOUR pro Jerry Kelly applauds military men and women. Photo: PGA TOUR

“We started by offering complimentary admission for active reserve or retired military, with discounted admission for non-career military,” she said. “In 2016 alone, THE PLAYERS Championship issued 30,000 complimentary admissions, which is pretty amazing, considering we have a quarter of a million military personnel in the area. They love coming to the event, and we love having them.”

To make each of these military members feel like VIPs, tournament organizers decided to create a special, air-conditioned hospitality suite. The Patriots’ Outpost, which began as a 50’ x 50’ tent eight years ago, is now a whopping 12,000 square-foot mecca, hosting upwards of 19,000 military guests each year.

“It’s neat to walk in and see a table with young, active duty service members having lunch with Vietnam vets or even the occasional World War II vet, sharing experiences. There’s an immediate bond between soldiers who are currently serving and those who did in the past,” Hurlburt said. “We also have an incredible team of volunteers who make sure these heroes are well taken care of, and are thanked—not once, but multiple times—for their service.”

The impact of these seemingly simple gestures of gratitude is immense.

At the end of each tournament, Hurlburt receives hundreds of emails, thanking the PGA TOUR, the restaurants that donated food, the volunteers and the sponsors. The one she remembers most vividly came from a Vietnam vet, who, like so many others of that era, returned home to far less than a hero’s welcome.

“When you get an email that says, ‘I have never, in my military life, been treated as well or thanked for my service as much as I was at THE PLAYERS Championship,’ it breaks your heart,” Hurlburt said. “NOT appreciating these men and women—that’s just wrong. We can never repay their service—we can never say thank you enough or do enough for these heroes. What we do at THE PLAYERS, we do without a lot of fanfare, but we do it for all of the right reasons. I think that comes across. To me, these men and women deserve everything we have to give.”

The full week of military appreciation goes a long way. Photo: PGA TOUR

Rewarding a Job Well Done

There is the practical aspect to life after active duty. Namely, finding a fulfilling job that successfully transitions military personnel into the mainstream employment market. To that end, THE PLAYERS has partnered with the Jacksonville Military Veterans Coalition to put on a Military Job Fair for reserve, retired military, veterans and military spouses. The fair is free, held at the course, and takes place the Saturday prior to the tournament at the Birdies for the Brave® Patriot’s Outpost.

“We invite 40 to 50 companies to participate at no cost. The only criteria is that they have active job openings and are willing to commit the time to be there,” Hurlburt said. “We also offer a resource area staffed with experts who can help attendees with resumes and answer questions. ”

Typically, around 400 to 500 military veterans and spouses attend the event, which is now in its sixth year. Although Hurlburt can’t say exactly how many participants have been hired since the program began, she knows that there are success stories out there.

At the very least, there’s a little bit of help and hope for the future.

Taking Care of Military Moms to Be

A “Shower-in-a-Box” brings a smile to an expecting mom. Photo: PGA TOUR

THE PLAYERS even has something for military moms-to-be.

“I learned about a great organization called Operation Shower that puts on unit-wide baby showers for pregnant spouses whose husbands are deployed on activity duty, as well as women who serve in the military—and just loved what they were doing,” Hurlburt said. “We now partner with them to put on a baby shower the Sunday before the tournament starts.”

The event, which is hosted by Jim and Tabitha Furyk, gifts 40 expectant mothers with a “Shower-in-a-Box,” packed with essentials for mother and baby. There are also drawings for larger items, like cribs and spa days—many of which are donated by sponsors and area businesses.

“These women are serving our country every bit as much as their spouses,” Hurlburt said. “I can’t begin to imagine what it would feel like to go through pregnancy with your spouse half way around the world. We want to let them know that they’re not alone.”

Saluting Those Who Serve

The Tuesday before the actual tournament begins is designated Military Appreciation Day, a true celebration of military service, complete with color guards, fly overs and culminating with a free concert, this year by chart-topping country artist, Sam Hunt. Last year’s event attracted an audience of 20,000.

Toby Keith gathers with pilots to watch some golf. Photo: PGA TOUR

The event typically includes what Hurlburt calls an “Oprah moment,” which could mean giving away a house to a wounded warrior or flying a sailor back home to surprise his pregnant wife.

“All I can say is that it’s a blessing to be in a job like this,” Hurlburt said. “To have the opportunity to show some respect for the men and women who serve in the military and their families is so fulfilling. We can never repay them for all that they’ve done, but we can take the time to let them know how much we value them and how much we appreciate all that they’ve given up.”

Like I said, THE PLAYERS Championship is about so much more than just golf. It’s about gratitude. Which is all the reason to love this event even more.

THE PLAYERS Championship will be held at TPC Sawgrass, May 9-14. The job fair will be held Saturday, May 6, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Birdies for the Brave® Patriot’s Outpost. Military Appreciation Day Ceremonies begin at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, May 9th, with the Sam Hunt concert beginning at 6:30 p.m.