Jim Jakubowski is one of my golf cronies. Several years ago, I cited him in a column for finding and playing in obscure senior golf tournaments all around the Midwest. I even boasted he won a tournament at Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. That was a lie; but if Isle Royale had a senior tourney, “JJ” would have entered.
Nowadays, Jakubowski is still logging miles behind the wheel of his Chevy Impala. Besides being a member at GVSU’s The Meadows GC in Allendale, he’s a regular player in more than a dozen tournaments annually run by the Veteran Golfers Association (VGA), the first golf organization dedicated to promoting the game to all veterans and their family members.
The VGA grew out of the idea from Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington D.C, where wounded veterans used to play golf at area courses to help with their recovery and to build fellowship. From that practice, the VGA was launched in 2014 to spread the adoption of golf among veterans across the country. Today, more than 19,000 veterans and family members belong to the non-profit organization and participate in more than 1400 tournaments.
Jakubowki’s initial VGA tournament was in 2021 when he was scouring the internet for senior golf tournaments and came upon the VGA.
“My first tournament was at Stoatin Brae in Augusta (MI) and I was immediately taken by it,” said Jakubowski, an Air Force veteran who served in Louisiana and Guam. “I liked how it was organized and the players were very friendly. But honestly, the competition wasn’t as important as the social aspect.”
He ended up playing 15 events in 2021. Ever since, JJ has felt “addicted to the VGA, playing and meeting more friends.” He and his Impala have traveled as far as Rhode Island and Charleston, SC to play in tournaments.
The VGA is open to active duty, retirees and honorably discharged members of the armed forces. In addition, any family members and close kin of veterans are eligible to join. The membership costs $76 for a year beginning on September 1 and ending on August 31. Members also pay $20 per tournament entered along with greens fees, many of which are discounted off the regular rates.
VGA members compete in one of five divisions – Veterans, Female Veterans, Combat Wounded (Purple Hearts Only), Family, and Senior. Each division is further broken down into flights, based on a player’s handicap index and skill level. There are statewide championships, regionals and national finals.
Heading up the 14-state Central Region is Robert Powell from San Antonio, TX. A 20-year veteran of the Air Force with two tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, Powell started playing golf in his 20s at the urging of one of his friends. He enlisted in the Air Force but maintained his interest in the game, even taking lessons from a pro when he was stationed in Turkey.
“I started scoring in the low and mid-80s and was hooked for life,” said Powell now working at USAA, the well-regarded insurance and financial company that was founded to serve military members in 1922.
At USAA, he got involved with its employee golf league eventually serving as president. “But I was still missing the camaraderie my military experience provided,” said Powell.
In 2017, he played in his first VGA tournament. “The week before I had played the same course in a Golf Channel tournament. No offense to the organizers of that event, but I got so much more out of the VGA.” Like Jakubowski, he had found a home among like-minded veterans. “I realized how much I missed my military brothers and sisters.
“I started volunteering for the VGA and a few years later, after serving in a variety of leadership positions, I was asked to be a regional director.” In 2023, Powell’s region conducted over 400 tournaments for thousands of veterans and family members.
But Powell said one of the assets of the VGA is how it can be a healing refuge for some of its members.
“There was a veteran in Texas who was in a dark place during the pandemic. He literally didn’t leave his house for over two years,” said Powell. “But a friend encouraged him to join the VGA and to slowly step out of his isolation. The social outlet provided by the tournaments proved invaluable in his recovery. I’ve heard such stories numerous times across the country.”
Michigan’s state VGA director is Ryan Lopez who served 10 years as a Army paratrooper before being medically retired due to injuries incurred from a bad jump (his chute failed to open soon enough) and later a car accident.
“When I retired in 2019, my doctor recommended golf to me so I took it up,” said Lopez, a four-letter athlete in high school who earned a D-I college sports scholarship.
Through watching YouTube instructional videos, playing with friends and finally taking lessons from a PGA pro at Carl’s Golfland, Lopez now boasts a 10.1 GHIN index, a testimony both to his devotion to the game and his innate athletic ability.
In 2020, he joined VGA and like Powell rose in leadership positions from an Assistant Director to his current title. “Our first year in Michigan we only had seven tournaments. But this year we had 40 and next year we have plans for 50 tournaments.” There are more than 300 VGA members in the state.
Echoing Powell, Lopez finds the appeal of the VGA is its membership camaraderie. “This is more than a sports league. It’s a family experience of sorts. In fact, when we meet a new member we always say, ‘Welcome to the family.’ ”
He’s also appreciative of courses that welcome the VGA and its members. “We conduct tournaments at Harbor Shores, Lost Dunes, The Meadows and Egypt Valley Country Club. Our state championship is held at American Dunes in Grand Haven, a venue that really resonates with our members.”
Unlike some other states, Lopez says Michigan usually limits its field to 40 to 48 players to help secure courses and not to make it too unwieldy for organizers and the host venue.
Going back to my conversation with Jakubowski, I asked him what he learned from his military experience in the ‘70s. “You grow up quickly because you’re on your own and you have to get along with different people. But somehow I managed and it was a pivotal life experience.”
The VGA is thriving because it reminds veterans and family members that although they still may be ‘on their own’ they’re not alone. On and off the course, they find friends while sharing stories and creating memories. Playing golf is pure gravy.
To learn more about the Veteran Golfers Association visit www.vgagolf.org