WTU golfer Whitmore comes full circle at Walt Disney World
October 31, 2011
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Despite being told twice by doctors that he would never play golf again, Sgt. Shawn Whitmore dazzled PGA Tour players at the 2011 Children's Miracle Network Classic.
Whitmore, a two-time survivor of bouts with mortar rockets and improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan, held his own with PGA Tour golfers on the Palm and Magnolia courses at Walt Disney World Resort on Oct. 20-21.
"With the golf and the people and my wife and kids here, this is probably one of the best days and best weeks of my life," Whitmore said after ending two rounds of pro-am play with a birdie putt. "And that's the least I can say about it. It's just the epitome."
Whitmore teamed with pro David Duval on Thursday for a round of 1-under-par 71 on the Magnolia course. With his handicap, Whitmore scored 2-under after finishing with a bogey on No. 18. Davis Love III was the other pro in the group.
Whitmore is "a really good player," Love said. "He made a lot of pars. He talked about his kids, his service, and everything he's done. He's an amazing guy, very humble, and it was great to be out with him.
"I told him I've visited Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] a couple times and how much we appreciate those guys' service. I told him: 'We're scared of 4-footers, and you guys want to go back and get blown up again.'
"It's always fun to meet a guy like that."
Whitmore, 37, was thrilled to come full circle and play alongside the pros.
"They actually told me that it was a joy to watch me play golf," said Whitmore, who played professionally before joining the Army at age 31 and deploying on the first of his three tours of Afghanistan. "And when they got to talking with me and found out that I had been injured, they just couldn't believe it. They were floored."
Whitmore served as a PGA instructor at Mount Vernon Country Club in Virginia and The Tournament Players Club at Avenel, Md., before joining the Army.
During his first deployment, Whitmore sustained injuries when a 107-millimeter rocket exploded nearby.
"Basically, I was standing there, and they were launching mortars in on us," he said. "And one of them exploded about 10 feet away. That was the near-hairy experience."
The blast knocked Whitmore airborne and unconscious when he hit the ground. His shoulders were knocked completely out of whack and he sustained a "mild" traumatic brain injury.
Twenty-one months later, during his third deployment, Whitmore encountered an improvised explosive device and had to be airlifted from Afghanistan for medical treatment.
"A rocket landed probably a foot away," he recalled. "I was on the other side of a Humvee. That was the one that got me in my hip and cracked all my teeth, and both my shoulders again: L3, L4 and L5 vertebrae. They want to fuse them, but …"
After each incident, physicians told Whitmore he would never golf again.
"The first time, I was more concerned about playing baseball with my kids," he said. "The second time, I pretty much knew I wasn't going to compete any more. I was just more worried about being able to hold the kids and the wife."
After surgery No. 16, a doctor told Whitmore he was going to work the battered Soldier back onto the golf course.
"As long as you can get me tossing the ball with the boys," Whitmore replied. "That's all that matters."
Whitmore then spent nine months in a Warrior Transition Unit working with a personal trainer for three hours daily.
"I went from not being able to pick up a pencil to being able to pick up two pounds, and then finally picking up 10 pounds," he recalled. "When you get hurt, they want to make sure you can be fit to stay in the Army. My goal was to return to duty. That was my first objective. They made it possible for me to do so.
"Golf was kind of secondary. But my doctor actually had me play golf for muscle strength, hand-eye coordination, patience, and just for some fun, because it's a grueling process."
A complete right knee replacement looms in Whitmore's future.
"Walking these fairways here, the last couple holes, all I've wanted to do is grab some Advil and some ice," he said at Disney. "The hot tub has been my friend. I got a couple massages before I left Camp Humphreys just to loosen up my shoulders. The shoulders start to ache. They fatigue easy. And the lower back -- whenever they mention they want to fuse some vertebrae, that's never ever a good thing."
Admittedly biased, Whitmore believes golf is great therapy for wounded warriors.
"That little white ball doesn't care what your injuries are, what you look like, what you don't have," he said. "So when you get out there, just to make contact, it's a good feeling of knowing that you've just done something that a lot of people who have no injuries can't do. So it builds confidence.
"Usually, every golf course you play is a beautiful place to be anyway. You're not looking over your shoulder. You're not worried about who's going to run up behind you. It's just you and the ball and some good friends. It just relieves a lot of stress.
"Five hours of being left alone. Just you and the fairway and the golf ball -- it's a wonderful tool for our mental games. We can learn to adapt to our physical losses, but mentally, it's easy to give up. The mental definitely was the hardest to get back. The physical I knew would come with the right training and the right support."
Whitmore has relied on his wife, Tracey, and five children -- Johnathon (10), Austin (9), Hailey (6), Ian (5) and Alexis (5 months) -- to help him bounce back time and time again.
"But my wife went through more than I did," Whitmore said. "She was there every step of the way. She made sure that I didn't give up.
"You're a different person every time you go over and come back."
Whitmore believes he's a changed man -- on the job, on the range, on the golf course, even around the house.
"To get grounded, you have to try and stay grounded," he said. "Mentally, it's just every day -- you're always looking over your shoulders. You're always looking out. You go to a Wal-Mart and there are just too many people in a crowd. You're just used to always being at a heightened sense of awareness.
"I had a rough night the other night, but the kids wanted to see the fireworks. Fourth of July is probably my best holiday just because it represents our independence, but it's tough. I try to put on a happy face for the kids because they look at me and they know dad's different. My wife knows that her husband's different.
"Although some of my physical issues are not visible to the naked eye, she knows when she looks at me and I know when I look in the mirror, I'm not the same person I was when I joined the Army."
Whitmore was scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan -- where he jokes that he's building a summer home -- again in September with the 82nd Airborne Division, but he received orders to report instead to Camp Humphreys, South Korea.
"I was a little heartbroken because that unit was awesome," he said. "They told me 'You've done enough. Go take a break. It's only a year. And when you come back, we'll get you back in the fight.'"
Meanwhile, he's ecstatic to be back in the golf game.
"This is unbelievable to come full circle with this," Whitmore said. "It's awesome. Thanks to Mike McCoy, Army Golf, Army Sports and Shades of Green, my expectations were exceeded from the minute I got the phone call saying that I was going to be coming here."
"Everybody has been so wonderful, and they've been great to my family."
On Friday, Whitmore and pro Boo Weekly combined on a 4-under-par 68 on the Palm course. Blake Adams and actor John Schneider, who played Bo on "The Dukes of Hazard," completed the quartet.
"He's a good player," Weekly said of Whitmore. "I was pretty impressed with his game. He's got a lot of potential.
"Sure, we talked a little bit," Weekly continued. "He said he was over in Korea, and he said he did a thing for the wounded warriors, which is awesome. I'm a big part of that because I believe in giving back to them for what they've done for us."
Whitmore, however, never told Weekly that he, too, was a wounded warrior.
"No, he never told me that," Weekly said. "I would never have believed he was the same guy who had been told he would never golf again. Holy cow, that's unreal. Hmmm. That's awesome. They've put him together pretty good. Is he part robot or something? I'll have to check him over here in a minute and find out."
Whitmore was having too much fun playing with Boo and Bo to care.
"I had to show Boo the line for a birdie on eight, and he hit it right where he needed to," Whitmore said. "I made a few loose swings out there, but he just walked over and told me I was playing well.
"We talked about fishing, talked about hunting, talked about shooting guns. He's just an outstanding guy."
Schneider, who scrambled all over the course, helped keep the others loose.
"He wasn't hitting it as well as he wanted to, but he definitely kept us smiling," Whitmore said. "He wanted to keep it in the shade today, so I didn't see him a couple times on a couple holes."
Whitmore had the longest drive of the group on the final hole, which he went on to birdie for his highlight of the tourney.
"I went ahead and hit a hard pitching wedge in," he said. "The wind was helping from right to left and my ball flight is right to left, so 135 was a good number for me. So I hit it in there about 137 and backed it up."
Then he sank the 4-foot birdie putt.
"It was a great way to finish the tournament," Whitmore said less than 24 hours after declaring: "There are only a few days that rank any higher than this, and that's the day I got married, the days my children were born, then this one's right up there.
"This was my greatest day in golf, absolutely. Today, for some reason, everything was going right and these guys were just absolutely phenomenal."