Chad Pfeifer was moved.
Backdropped by his peers and clutching the Warrior Open trophy, the Iraq veteran paused for just a second during victory speech to gather himself.
He’d won tournaments before, including this one just last year. Pfeifer is “that guy”: the one who picks up a golf club one day and is regularly flirting with even par a few years later while others spend their lives trying to break 90.
But none of that mattered at this moment. There’s just something different about reaching the mountaintop in front of your peers.
Twenty-two veterans—all of whom suffered severe injuries fighting for their country and lived to tell about it—took the course for two days this week at The Bush Center Warrior Open at the Las Colinas Country Club outside Dallas. The USO played a big support role during the three-day event, hosting a military village and providing free meals for military families.
Pfeifer was indeed the star, taking home the trophy and even carding a hole-in-one in front of former President George W. Bush. But all 22 men left with new bonds that may never be broken.
“All the participants of this year’s tournament and last year’s … continue to be an inspiration for me,” Pfeifer said. “That’s what I take away from the tournament. Getting the win is amazing, but at the same time, seeing these guys do what they do, fighting through the pain and just being able to enjoy golf on this type of level, it’s really special.”
Pfeifer’s golf skills were brought to light by a horrifying turn of events. His vehicle rolled over a pressure-plate improvised explosive device while deployed to Iraq in 2007. His blast injures resulted in the amputation of his left leg above the knee.
The now-retired Army corporal hadn’t played the game seriously before his injury, but his natural hand-eye coordination from his days as a junior college baseball player proved to be a great fit for the golf course.
“[Golf] got me doing stuff outdoors and it provides a great tool for balance and being able to walk with a prosthetic,” he said.
Four-plus years of golf later, Pfeifer holds a job at the Golf Club of Estrella in Goodyear, Arizona, and has two Warrior Open trophies on his mantle.
But that’s only half the story.
The other half is epitomized by the man that put his arm around Pfeifer on the 18th green when the tournament was over, vowing to move to Arizona so he could play with Pfeifer every day.
Retired Army 1st Lieutenant Brian Donarski—known to everyone on the course as just “Ski”—may well have an indomitable spirit. A former Marine, Donarski was medically discharged from the Corps in 1998. He worked to rehabilitate himself and joined the Army in 2004, only to be hurt during Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he suffered a traumatic brain injury along with a host of other serious ailments after hitting an anti-tank mine. Despite his pain, Donarski was a beacon of positivity throughout the event, even in the end when he came up short of his goal of unseating the defending champ.
“Technically all of us probably shouldn’t be here right now,” said Donarski, who finished in second place, 15 strokes behind Pfeifer. “We’re all given a second chance, and we get to choose our own direction, and we’re choosing golf as our therapy to get better.”
The tournament’s host echoed the sentiment.
“If anybody feels self-pity, all they’ve got to do is look at these [men],” Bush said, flanked by all 22 competitors during the trophy presentation. “There’s no self-pity in this crowd.” - Eric Brandner, USO Director of Story Development