Jason Starek knows firsthand how tough it is for military veterans to assimilate back into civilian life—whether they’re applying for jobs or simply trying to find a new purpose.
That’s why, as co-captain for the Palo Alto Baylands chapter of PGA HOPE—which stands for Helping Our Patriots Everywhere—the Mountain View resident finds joy in teaching and playing golf with fellow veterans.
“I think programs like this are really helpful for veterans and their re-entry and reintegration [into everyday life],” said Starek, who spent 10 years in the U.S. Army, rising up to staff sergeant before leaving the service. “There aren’t many programs like this, especially for people coming back from combat deployment.”
Although PGA HOPE is open to all veterans, it is particularly restorative for those with physical and cognitive challenges. Many ex-military members return from service with severe brain injuries, PTSD or amputation, among other challenges.
PGA HOPE uses golf as part of therapy and rehabilitation, in which social interaction plays a critical role for veterans. Participants in the program go through a eight-week course that consists of instructional golf clinics followed by a graduation and ensuing on-course competition such as Monday’s PGA HOPE Cup at the Olympic Club in S.F.
“The whole aspect of what the PGA is trying to do through the HOPE program is getting people to socialize,” Starek said. “I don’t have a problem socializing because I’m a marketing guy—I can do this all day. But other people coming back from traumatic injury, it can be very difficult getting out of the house. When I got back from my last deployment [in 2009], I didn’t want to come out of the house. I was safe in my living room and didn’t want to deal with all the interactions if I went out. PGA HOPE is a nice program to get people a little outside of their comfort zone and introduce them to some activities to help integrate them back into their communities.”
A senior manager of Demand Generation at software powerhouse Workday, Starek was fortunate to come back home in 2009 relatively unscathed.
The tech professional worked in field artillery driving tanks, but his unit never got deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq during his time in uniform.
“I volunteered twice [to go to Afghanistan or Iraq] and basically was told I wasn’t really needed,” he said. “I served with plenty of other people who did multiple rotations. It was the complete luck of the draw, so I was fortunate in that respect.”
A 12-handicap, Starek led his team to victory in the PGA HOPE Cup, a nine-hole competition featuring six teams each made up of one PGA pro and four veterans.
Just as important, Starek relished his time seeing friends and getting to know other veterans and being inspired by their stories. Carlos Franco, a 71-year-old Castroville resident who served four years in the Navy, also played in the HOPE Cup.
Legally blind, Franco plays the game with the help of a family member or friend who walks the course with him and aligns him up for each shot. It’s up to Franco to make contact, which isn’t easy considering he can’t even see the ball when he’s looking straight down at it. The PGA HOPE program has literally been a game-changer for Franco, who is active in several other sports and has found a community with fellow veterans.
Franco was effusive in his praise for PGA HOPE, having joined the program two-and-a-half years ago. Through the program, Franco said he as been able to find a circle of friends who have a common bond.
“We all get to know each other and become like family,” he said. “There are veterans who are amputees or paraplegic, but we’re all out there having a good time. Even if some of us can just hit the ball 50 yards or so, it’s a great accomplishment.”
Since many of the veterans in the program need to use adaptive equipment, the PGA pros who are teaching in the HOPE program are trained to ensure they’re comfortable using non-traditional clubs. The NorCal PGA Section is home to one of the most prolific HOPE programs nationwide, with nine locations positively impacting more than 600 veterans.
Franco has seen firsthand the impact PGA HOPE has had on some of his fellow veterans. “We have veterans who had never touched a golf club before entering HOPE,” he told San Jose Inside in a recent interview. “After going through [a particular] class, one veteran felt so good he cried when he graduated.”
Franco said he often works with PGA pros at his home course, Bayonet Black Horse Golf Course in Seaside. “The PGA HOPE professionals teach us, push us and continue to work with us,” he said. “I’ve got nothing but praise for all of them and the pros at Bayonet.”
Starek said he was blown away by Monday’s tournament, which he deemed a first-class event. From the personal touches to the preparation that was needed to put on something on short notice due to the coronavirus pandemic, the PGA HOPE Cup honored veterans in a tangible, meaningful way.
“The whole event was well orchestrated, and I know how difficult that can be to pull off coming from a marketing background,” Starek said. “Having personalized bag tags with our names engraved and not just in sticker form was a personal touch and something that took preparation. I appreciate all the little things they did, and it’s a testament to the PGA HOPE and Olympic Club staff that they pulled off such an incredible event.”
For Starek, playing Olympic Club was something out of a dream.
“It’s a super exclusive club that I’ve never had an opportunity to play because it’s a private club and I don’t know any members there,” he said. “It was an honor to get out there and play the course, which was spectacular.”
Starek is an avid golfer, having played at iconic courses such as Pebble Beach and Harding Park, just to name a few. As co-captain of the PGA HOPE Baylands branch, Starek organizes work shop-type golf clinics for veterans, communicates with other captains from the other Northern California PGA HOPE chapters and does outreach to gather as many veterans as possible together at the range or course.
Once or twice a month, Starek helps organize a golf scramble, which is a tournament featuring teams of two or more players. The general format calls for each player to hit a tee shot from each hole, and each team takes the next shot from the spot of the best shot. Advanced players like Starek are often paired with beginning-level golfers.
Scrambles work because they take the pressure off of players while emphasizing fun aspects of the game. For instance, novices could potentially take 10 or more shots to get the ball in the hole; however, because they are paired with an experienced player, they’ll most likely be hitting their second shot from the fairway. Starek has a love-hate relationship with golf, which is the ultimate mental sport.
“I hated myself the first 10 years playing the game,” he said. “You hit one good shot and love it, and then you spend the next 10 years hating yourself.”
PGA HOPE is fully funded by PGA REACH—the charitable foundation of the PGA of America—and is offered at no cost for veterans. When Franco started to lose his vision 16 years ago, he went through stages of denial and grief.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say, ‘Why me?,’” he said. “Then I realize things can be worse and I just have to keep moving.”
Through PGA HOPE and his other endeavors, Franco is doing just that.