The morning chill had not yet subsided when the first pairing of men’s golfers stepped up to the 10th hole Wednesday, their second day on the Green Valley Ranch Golf Club on the outskirts of Denver. They had spent the previous day growing familiar with these rolling greens, and while their focus centered on the second day of Division II championship competition that lay before them, the college athletes couldn’t help but notice a new face in the crowd.
The face was captured in a photo – a headshot of a man with a closed-mouth smile, rosy cheeks and calm eyes. He posed in his military uniform, the white stars of the American flag visible behind him. A placard on the golf course displayed this photo along with the man’s name and a piece of his story: Gary Rovinski, the placard read, was a 44-year-old equipment operator in the Navy who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq.
This day, the student-athletes were not just playing for a championship. They were playing for Rovinski, too, and for all service men and women who have made sacrifices for their country.
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The military appreciation day at the men’s golf championship was born out of a partnership among Division II, the Golf Coaches Association of America and Folds of Honor, a nonprofit that provides scholarships to the families of soldiers killed or disabled in service. At each of the 18 holes at the Green Valley Ranch Golf Club on Wednesday, Folds of Honor provided a storyboard commemorating a different fallen or wounded veteran. Each golfer was also given the name of a fallen soldier for whom they played in honor. The Division II women’s golf championship contenders will have the opportunity to pay the same tribute.
“It hits home with a lot of the athletes,” said Katie Louis, the director of membership services and outreach for the Golf Coaches Association of America who helped organize the event. “They’re so used to being competitive, zoning in on their performance, and it’s all about success. Adding in this element throws a curveball, that there’s a bigger picture. I think it gives them a new perspective.”
Southeastern Oklahoma State men’s golf coach Don Hudson reminded his team about that bigger picture before they stepped onto the course Wednesday. Hudson served in Operation Desert Storm for “six months and three days,” and he continues to impart lessons from that experience onto his golfers. “I talk all the time with them about what a privilege they have to compete and play golf,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who put us in that place, as a country, to make that happen.”
Moments before teeing off, West Florida sophomore Henry Westmoreland IV spoke briefly to a rules official about his family’s military background. Along with a grandfather and two uncles who served, the golfer is the distant cousin of Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. The rules official, Tom McCutcheon, listened with great interest – he was a veteran himself, having served in the Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. “It’s an honor to be here,” McCutcheon said. “And it’s an honor to have served.”
The Folds of Honor tribute touched spectators, as well. Mary Kay Roggow stood before the placard at hole 10 and read about Rovinski as she waited for her son’s team, Tiffin, to tee off. “I didn’t know this was going to be a crying tournament,” Roggow said as she reached under her sunglasses to wipe away tears. Her husband, Mike, nodded. “You won’t be the last person today,” he said.