On Course Foundation: Working with veterans through golf

On Course LogoThis week we’ve spoken to Steve Holt, the managing director of the On Course Foundation. On Course was set up by John Simpson in 2009 and works with veterans of war, helping them recover through golf.

So tell us about On Course!

On Course Foundation is the only Service’s golf charity in the UK. We support the recovery of wounded, injured and sick service personnel and veterans through golf. This year has been a momentous one for us; reaching 500 members and celebrating our 5th anniversary; they’ve been huge milestones for our unique charity.

It is easy to undIMG_7649 - Copyerestimate the support golf can provide for injured service personnel. Many of our beneficiaries had never even picked up a golf club before coming to one of our introductory golf events. Even more had not considered golf as a way to aid their recovery. Yet, the sport itself offers a unique level playing field where players of all skills and backgrounds can compete healthily, improving not only their physical but mental strength too.

Our main aim is to help these inspiring individuals build confidence and self-belief. From there we can help those who seek it, gain employment within the golf industry. Many of our Members had only ever considered careers in the military, so medical discharge can come as a huge shock. We hope to bridge the gap between the military and civilian life by providing them with career talks, interview preparation and support throughout their job applications. We’ve managed to help members gain work experience or employment in various areas of the golf industry, from marshalling and green keeping to marketing and management.

I’ve often described On Course Foundation as one of the best kept secrets. While our patrons (including HRH the Duke of York and world-renowned golfer Arnold Palmer) continue to support us and help elevate our presence on the national stage, we are eager to grow awareness of our relatively young charity in order to help more deserving beneficiaries.

Where did the idea of recovery through golf come from?

On Course Foundation’s story began in the summer of 2009. Our founder, John Simpson, visited the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court. John only has one leg following childhood polio, so the individuals he met and the stories he heard had particular resonance with him. He both understood and empathised with their desire to regain a sense of camaraderie and play competitively in a welcoming, social environment, and heard many of their concerns about returning to civilian life.

Having had a prosperous career as manager of golfing legends such as Nick Faldo, John quickly realised that golf – both in the game itself, and in the industry – could provide for the wounded, injured and sick service personnel and veterans, that other sports could not offer. The handicap system offered them the opportunity to play on a level playing field, as well as a reason to socialise with other service personnel in similar positions to themselves.

The pilot scheme took place in September 2009 alongside the staff at Headley Court, and was a great success. This event spurred the genesis of On Course Foundation. John’s aim was to offer injured servicemen, women and veterans the opportunity to participate in golf on a level playing field with everyone else, either as a player or through employment in the golf industry. On Course Foundation was officially launched on 2 July 2010 at the Royal Household Golf Club at Windsor Castle.

Does On Course have any favourite Golf Courses? 

We’re lucky enough to be a nationwide charity, meaning some of our members have played at the best golf clubs up and down the country. This year alone we’ve had beneficiaries at Royal St Georges and Royal Wimbledon.

The support of golf clubs, such as The Oxfordshire and Kingsfield, has been tremendous and has allowed us to offer more introductory golf events and skills & employment events this year than ever before.

What are the challenges for a group such as On Course?

When our beneficiaries first come to one of our introductory golf events they come from all different backgrounds with a different array of wounds, injuries or illnesses; some taken in the line of duty, others not, but all causing them to revaluate their life in the services.IMG_6758 - Copy

Many of our members were medically discharged from the military and, for some, this led to a downward spiral. Depression, often on top of physical injuries, would overwhelm them causing them to feel “disengaged from life” and causing them to lose contact with family. Others suffered from PTSD and/or physical injuries varying from spinal damage to multi-limb amputations.

Aside from the tremendous psychological and physical changes they had to face, many had to begin to reintegrate into civilian life. This often meant finding a new place to work. As member Gregg Stevenson painfully recalls, “as a proud and devoted soldier, the British Army was my life. I was completely lost and devastated when I realised that my military career had come to an end.”

So, bringing together these men and women who are all at various stages of their recovery process, has shown them that they are not alone. Our charity is honestly like a family; we get to know the ladies and gents very well and we make sure we maintain contact throughout the year. Our new Ambassador Scheme, launched in January this year, also allows particularly dedicated members to share their inspiring stories with potential beneficiaries and supporters. The support of our members and Ambassadors has been phenomenal and our success this year is, without a doubt, a result of their hard work.

What have people’s experiences of On Course been like?

Honestly it’s varied; coming in to the charity from different backgrounds, injuries or illnesses, means a lot of our members look to take away something different from their time with the charity.

Welshman Stewart Harris, now one of our proud Ambassadors, was injured when an explosive device went off underneath his vehicle in Afghanistan. As a result he damaged the frontal, temporal and optical lobe in his brain. Devastatingly, that left him blind the right eye and quite heavily deaf. Yet he is incredibly optimistic when describing his time with On Course:

“Nine holes with three other guys in the same situation and have been through the same things is better than any therapy session I’ve ever had. Also, when I can’t see my ball there’s other lads to help me find it!”

There’s truly no one better to explain the work the charity does than its beneficiaries. Harris has gone on to have even more success within the golf industry:

“…at first, when they [On Course Foundation] told me, I didn’t really fancy – green keeping, in a local course for me in Norfolk because I’m from North Wales. I went there and I absolutely loved it! Get out there, cut the grass, on this little tractor thing, cut the hole and then play it. That’s quite satisfying; playing in a golf course that you’ve just cut.”

Stu is just but one example of the experiences our members have. Many comment on how they regain the camaraderie and competitiveness they feared they would lose when leaving the military.

If we can help them even in the slightest, whether it be physically, mentally, socially or in finding a new job, we are immensely proud. The strides our members take throughout their time with us in inspiring and humbling.

What are your big events throughout the year?

Possibly the highlight of our calendar every year is the Simpson Cup. The annual tournament is between 13 injured servicemen and veterans from our British members, and 13 from our USA counterparts.

It’s styled as a Ryder Cup style tournament, and is named after its founder, John Simpson. Each year the venue alternates between a venue in the States and one in the UK. This year it took place at Royal St Georges. While the US managed to be victorious on their home soil in 2014, our British team played a very tough game and were able to bring the trophy back home.

For many of our members, this is the goal to which they aim for themselves. Kate Surman, for example, who suffered from a very rare cancer in her jaw, has set herself the goal of making the 2018 British Simpson Cup team. Despite only having joined us in 2014, Kate has already cut her handicap to 31 but has a long way to go reach the qualifying handicap of 18. And we can’t wait to help her achieve this!

How can people get involved if they want to help, donate, or volunteer with On Course?

There are loads of ways to get involved with On Course Foundation! One off donations are always welcome. Alternatively, our new Champion The Cause Scheme is a great way for us to raise vital funds; for only £2 a month, £20 a year, a Champion will be able to help us support our deserving beneficiaries. In return, you will receive our biannual e-magazine, and also receive selected offers including competitions to win tickets to The Open Championship 2016.IMG_7377 - Copy

Alternatively, if you want to get more hands on, almost any form of fundraising could work! Running, hiking, bake sales, dinners or other events are all great ideas to raise money for the charity. If you want to gain more understanding of the charity and meet some of our beneficiaries, they we may also have opportunities for you to volunteer at some of our events throughout the year.

Information on all of these activities can be found on our website www.oncoursefoundation.com but we are more than happy for you to contact us to gain any more information on how we can help you fundraise.

Where do you see On Course going from here?

We have reached many milestones this year but there is always more work to do. From the conflicts in Afghanistan alone, there are thousands of potential beneficiaries suffering from physical injuries and mental illnesses. We want to reach them, and more service personnel and veterans, and offer them the opportunity to either rekindle their love of golf or give the game a go.

We’re also eager to spread awareness of the charity across the country; with partnerships such as those with England Golf, American Golf and a presence at the London Golf Trade Show, we are well on the way to achieving this.

All photo credit to the On Course Foundation.