Ojard learned he had won the Dream Tee at the reception after his marriage to Linsie, who gave him a reason to live.
I wanted a big reveal for the Dream Tee winner - You’re going to Pinehurst, with your buddies, on our dime! I snooped around and learned that Ojard and Linsie were getting married on New Year’s Eve. With Linsie’s blessing, I had the best excuse to crash a wedding. After the toasts I walked in from the lobby, grabbed the microphone and addressed a roomful of strangers.
“Great to be here tonight, thank you for having me. I don’t know anybody here-not even the bride and the groom! But, hey, it’s New Year’s Eve. What a night to crash a wedding.”
I let the moment get sufficiently awkward as Ojard’s expression went from polite to confused to Battle Nurse. Only when I said the words Sports and Illustrated did I see Ojard crack a grin. I explained the Dream Tee contest to the guests and told them that the winner was in the room.
The tears and the laughter that followed weren’t about winning the contest. They weren’t about being thanked for his service. Ojard is alive-he gives thanks to the guys who aren’t. They weren’t about a free golf trip or a big reveal. They were about the fact that a life had changed, a prospect once thought unimaginable. As Ojard held his new bride, there was hope all around.
Ojard can’t stay still. He is standing on the putting green at Pinehurst No. 2 on a Wednesday in mid-April, and he’s about to tee it up on the course that will host the 2014 U.S. Open. An unlit cigar dangles from his lips, and though it’s a breezy 50° day, he’s wearing shorts. He’s showing off the new golf bag that Tee It Up for the Troops shipped to Pinehurst for him - American flags emblazoned on the side and front, with land of the free and home of the brave stitched on the shoulder straps. Ojard is in the middle of a story when a voice calls from the edge of the green. “Aaron,” the stranger says. “Webb Simpson. Nice to meet you. Big day. How you feeling?”
Ojard freezes, then cracks a smile, and in a moment he’s small-talking with his new favorite pro. Simpson, the 2012 Open champ, poses for pictures and signs a hat for Ojard’s nine-year-old daughter, Riley, before going out ahead of us for a solo practice round.
Simpson, of course, is not a part of Ojard’s Dream Tee. Neither is the course. As much as I had tried to glam up the day with a Tour pro and an ultra-exclusive venue, the reason I wanted to do this becomes clear. It’s that golf is the best excuse in the world to get four people together who need one another.
James Danaher is the man who sent the shag balls to Afghanistan. The two met in 2007 when Ojard started at Bethesda Medical. Danaher was his instructor in the neonatal ICU, and the two became fast friends. He is Ojard’s confidant and his golf-addiction- enabler, the two of them sneaking away for a round whenever Ojard needs to talk. Danaher plays Pinehurst with the quiet focus of a golf lover consumed by the setting, grinding out a solid 93.
Jim Estes is a straight-up stick. Playing from the back tees, the onetime Tour pro fires a 73 with three birdies and a half-dozen more left on the lip. He’s gearing up for a run at the senior circuit, but his training isn’t -conventional-he spent a month swinging on his left leg so he could teach a right-leg amputee how to hit the ball. He has also learned how to swing with one arm, because most of his students come from Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda Medical. He is cofounder of Salute Military Golf, and Ojard tells me Estes has saved more lives than he will ever know.
As for Dauphin, the sense of humor that Ojard says buoyed Role 3 is on display on No. 2. His strategy for golfing his ball around Pinehurst is “forward good, backward bad.”
Dauphin and Ojard are a long way from their introductory meeting. On his first day in the trauma unit in Kandahar, Ojard walked through the doors, turned a corner and froze. A young soldier was hysterical. He was covered in blood, three limbs missing. Ojard couldn’t move. In marched Dauphin, ER doc and officer commanding of Role 3, who told Ojard in very clear terms - not barking orders and not –cheerleading - how to proceed. This is your job. You’re the ICU nurse. This is what you need to do to save a life. So Ojard did his job. And he helped save a life.
Dauphin knows better than anyone what his colleague has been through. He walked with Ojard through the most rewarding and damaging months of his life. He was Big Pop in Afghanistan, the straight shooter Ojard could talk to like a friend. He was part comedian, part boss, part therapist, now retired from the military and making art and writing novels in Quebec. But when the wounded came through the door, Dauphin was ice. He showed Ojard how to survive the daily routine of death and pain. Dauphin kept Ojard sane.
When he saw Dauphin for the first time since Afghan-istan in a hotel lobby in Pinehurst, Ojard embraced his friend and barked out, “Get over here, you crazy Canadian!” It had been five years, and Ojard seemed as excited to see Dauphin as he was to introduce him to Linsie, as if to tell her, This is him. This is the guy. From Kandahar to North Carolina, from the suck to the fairways of –Pinehurst - what a strange, wonderful life.
It’s only appropriate that Ojard marks the reunion by playing military golf-right, left, right-but for a round that means so much to him, the scores couldn’t mean less.
Linsie soaks in the round from a distance, snapping photographs and quietly pulling for Ojard. Riley walks with her father, holding her doll from the gift shop in one hand (she named it Carolina) and clutching her dad’s hand in the other.
In my many lifetimes’ worth of golf, I had never seen a player hold anyone’s hand on a course. It is an enduring image. Because what I am watching at Pinehurst is a guy who’s getting better. On this day, he is thriving. Battle Nurse has found the courage to stick out his hand and let somebody take it.
Aaron Ojard's Dream Tee entry:
Name: Aaron Ojard<> Playing Partners Marc Dauphin, James Danaher, Jim Estes
Why: Marc was in Afghanistan with me. He helped me leave that place alive. James is like an older brother to me. He helped me through a bad divorce and was there for me when I got back and needed an ear to bend. Jim took me under his wing (though he needed a step stool because of the height difference) and renewed my ability to enjoy the game, which keeps me motivated to help others get through the difficulty of being injured in war, mentally and physically. A happy reunion on the course would give me the opportunity to explain how they truly saved my sanity, renewed my view of morality and kept me from taking my life.
Tom Coyne is the author of the NYT bestseller A Course Called Ireland, and the upcoming A Course Called the Kingdom. He teaches at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.