Eagle’s Turf

Eagle’s Turf provides veterans free golf lessons and so much more.
Sam Emerson has combined his love of golf and passion for giving back into an organization that helps veterans.

In 1946, golf pro Sam Emerson rebelled and defied his parent’s wishes. He caddied for the first time in his hometown, the one job they told him he couldn’t seek out. That first day he brought home $8.50—more than his mom made in two days’ work—and they allowed him to continue. After that, Emerson learned that the more advice he gave, the more money he made. “I figured out I could make money caddying, then I figured out I could make money teaching,” he says. This road to riches turned into an appreciation for the game. Emerson, a White Bear Lake resident, has been a golf pro for more than 50 years and was a head PGA pro in the 1960s.

In 2012, he decided to give back and founded Eagle’s Turf, a golf program for disabled veterans. Although not a veteran himself, Emerson saw firsthand the devastating effects that war can have not only on a veteran’s body, but also on their mind. His two sons, David and Jeff, were both in the U.S. Navy and Emerson found that their experiences followed them home. Many veterans often need help but are not receiving it. “As he always says, these are the invisible wounded,” Sam’s wife, Jo, says. “I told [David], something has to be done,” Emerson says.

So Emerson had the idea to combine the sport he loved with the life-changing family events. His love for the game wasn’t the only reason he chose golf. “Golf is not an easy game to play. To be able to accomplish it, to most people is a thrill. I think that’s why we used golf to start this program out,” he says.

Eagle’s Turf is an adaptive sports program and collaboration among several key organizations: the Veteran’s Administration (VA), the PGA and LPGA, and local service groups such as the VFW and the Rotary Club. It pairs golf pros with groups of around 10 veterans for 10 one-on-one lessons. Many of the veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), vision impairment or have lost limbs. Eagle’s Turf president Mike Delkoski says improving their golfing skills is not the program’s main objective; it is a tool. “When the program is over with, we are hoping that the 8 to 10 individuals who participate in the program have some sort of measured outcome with improving their emotional and physical well-being prior to the program,” he says.

Prior to launching Eagle’s Turf, Emerson reached out to Delkoski, a friend and retired 3M division vice president, for guidance in 2012. They decided to partner with VA hospitals and recreational therapists, and first talked with St. Cloud Hospital. St. Cloud Hospital recreation therapy supervisor Brett Jagodzinski and Emerson then created a program proposal. The organization’s first session was solely for women and helped improve participants’ confidence and develop friendships. The group still meets to go golfing. “For that women group of veterans, it really is incredible for them to have others to talk about their experiences with,” Jagodzinski says.

Since then, the St. Cloud program has expanded to four sessions, with six lessons each, for both men and women. Emerson also gained nonprofit status and began programs in Minneapolis, South Dakota, Kansas and Missouri in 2013 and 2014. He hopes to open 20 more locations in the next two years. His ultimate goal? To have a program in all 157 VA hospitals in the country. The VA and Eagle’s Turf are working together on a research project to measure the program’s effectiveness and how best to improve. “One of the key things that is relatively unique to our program is that we are building a process to actually measure the outcome,” Delkoski says.

Emerson and his team hope to continue to improve the lives of veterans through the game they love; it is the impact on the veterans that makes Emerson the most proud. “After the first lesson, you can see [their façade] crack a little bit,” he says. “By the third lesson, you can see them smiling.”

If it weren’t for his slightly rebellious nature as a teen, Emerson might have never launched the organization that has affected the lives of so many. “Sam is such a force of nature,” Jagodzinski says. “He has such a way of explaining things and really helping encourage people along the path.”


Eagle’s Turf is always looking for more volunteers to assist the golf pros with lessons. For more information on how to volunteer, sign up for lessons, make a donation or to read testimonials of veterans who have taken lessons, visit eaglesturf.org.