In the PGA of America’s extensive work serving veterans and people with disabilities, few people have displayed more determination than Judy Alvarez.
Alvarez (above, second from right), who splits her time as the head professional at busy 27-hole Sunken Meadow Golf Course in Kings Park, New York, and as the director of instruction at Monarch Country Club in Stuart, Florida, has spent much of the past three decades building a legacy as a friend and instructor to wounded warriors.
The evidence of her tireless work is everywhere – Alvarez has established six PGA Hope programs in the South Florida section that have impacted more than 500 veterans; she leads a free weekly golf clinic for local military organizations; and since 2007 she has spearheaded the PGA’s efforts as a trainer of the country’s disabled golf facilities, writing curriculum to help other PGA professionals understand what it will take to modify their teaching.
She even spent 2½ years writing a book on her experience called Broken Tees and Mended Hearts: A Life’s Journey Serving Wounded Warriors and Injured Spirits, which serves in part as a guide for other PGA professionals who are interested in doing the type of work Alvarez has.
Humble and blunt, Alvarez doesn’t mince words when asked what this has all meant. When she earned the PGA’s Patriot Award this past year, the organization’s highest recognition when it comes to serving the military, it was one of the most meaningful moments of her life. It’s a life’s work in providing peace to people who, for a variety of reasons, may just be looking for one moment where they can forget about the burden of trauma.
“You could work with somebody in the military who is dealing with PTSD and they look at you and say, ‘Thank you for putting this clinic on because it’s one of the best days I’ve had in a long time,’ ” Alvarez said. “And that can change their life. All of a sudden they are not thinking about suicidal thoughts, they are just focused on being outside in nature and trying to get better at golf.
“And that to me is the most important thing.”
Alvarez’s circuitous and varied experience in the game, and in life, have made her an ideal person to be in that type of a position. She started as a teenager in the Long Island town of Glen Cove, New York, where she worked in the pro shop at the local municipal course and played in the local ladies league on the side. Alvarez knew she was good enough to play college golf, but opportunities were limited in the late 1970s. Rather than complain, she became the first woman to be on the all-male varsity golf team at Hofstra University.
For a while after college, Alvarez flew out West to play on the mini-tour that represented the beginnings of what we know as the Symetra Tour, a dream Eloise Trainor had for women to have a place to play and develop below the LPGA Tour level.
“(Trainor) is still a friend of mine and every time we see each other, we say, ‘Wow, remember when we were driving around the country and staying in housing?’ ” Alvarez said. “I was chasing the ball around the country for quite a few years and then I guess reality set in and I stopped doing it. I had talent but I never had that ‘it’ factor other people had. When I played with them, I knew they were another level ahead of me.”
When that foray into competitive golf ended, Alvarez quit entirely and sold her clubs. Any ambition of working in the industry was not on the table at that point.
“If I couldn’t play golf, then I didn’t want anything to do with it,” Alvarez said.
In a roundabout way, that decision may have been one of the best she made. Alvarez ended up going into the car business as a saleswoman, working grueling hours but making great money. While the difficult parts of the industry drove her back to pursue golf teaching, the other lessons of the car business stuck.
“To this day, everything I learned in the car business I still use today,” Alvarez said. “It taught me how to read people and who was the decision-maker and what buttons to push and how to overcome objections. On average there are seven ‘no’s’ before you get to a ‘yes,’ so how are you going to get to a yes at the contract table? If you can’t handle objections, you better learn them or you aren’t going to be able to make a living.”
“Golf is the same way in how you are getting someone ready for a lesson. You become a little FBI agent.”
In the early ’90s, Alvarez became a PGA professional and got her start as an assistant professional at Deer Creek Golf Club in Deerfield Beach, Florida, before becoming the head professional at Southwinds Golf Course in nearby Boca Raton.
"It took me years to become comfortable, but I woke up one day and realized you are really just trying to fix the flight of the ball and keep the customer happy."
Like many, if not all, golf teachers, it took time to understand how to teach.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Alvarez remembers. “If I read something in my PGA manual the night before, then that was what everyone was getting taught the next day. It took me years to become comfortable, but I woke up one day and realized you are really just trying to fix the flight of the ball and keep the customer happy. It’s a trial-and-error process.”
It was at Southwinds that Alvarez grew as a teacher while also becoming exposed to golfers with disabilities. She began her first clinics for people with disabilities, adapting her teaching to their situations while seeing them for being human beings who just want to learn.
“They are human beings like everyone else,” Alvarez said. “Mentally and emotionally they are still like everyone else. They want to have the same respect and dignity as everyone else. … When I work with someone who was paralyzed from the waist down, I know he is going to come in with the best attitude. He doesn’t care that he’s hitting the ball from a seated position with a flatter club, he’s going to have fun. As a teacher, I’m enjoying that experience just as much.
“Working with them, it’s influenced me in that I know anyone can do anything they want to, they just have to do it differently sometimes.”
Since the beginning programs at Southwinds, Alvarez has become a master professional with both the PGA and LPGA and has been nothing short of a force in her efforts to provide wounded warriors and people with disabilities every opportunity they want. That doesn’t include her help training PGA professionals so they can teach wounded warriors – she has traveled the country and led more than 60 training sessions in front of more than 2,000 PGA and LPGA professionals, creating a domino effect where the goodwill of PGA Hope is now spreading one swing at a time.
In the end, her legacy is not only teaching heroes who have overcome grave mental and physical challenges, but it’s teaching everyone else how to get the most out of their programs. That has made her a hero, too.
“All the people who I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with have sought me out to allow me to try to help them, they are my legacy,” she said. “They are a part of my DNA now.”