Each year at the Simpson Cup we're privileged to welcome a blend of familiar faces, along with debutants representing their country for the first time. Of the latter contingent, few stories are more inspiring than that of Long Island-born Alex Happer - a scratch golfer who served in the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment as a Rifleman and Grenadier for four years.
As you might imagine, his journey from the grim plains of Afghanistan's Maidan Wardak Province to the greens of The Maidstone Club has been an eventful one, but for the now North Carolina-based Happer, this year's Simpson Cup is a homecoming of the most profound magnitude.
"Playing in this year's Simpson Cup still hasn’t hit me yet," beams Happer, who grew up less than 50 miles from Maidstone. "Having the ability to be surrounded by such great people at an early age will surely pay dividends in my future. But for right now, I am beyond honored to represent the United States, and be a part of such an amazing event and organization. Ask me again when they call my name on the 1st tee at Maidstone how it feels!"
Happer took up the game aged four, and recalls hitting wiffle balls over a dogwood tree in his yard on Tupper Avenue. His father, a New York City Detective who was a first responder on 9/11, later retired and moved the family to Raleigh to take up a position at the local golf course. It was there that Happer honed his skills; often playing 36 holes a day, and hitting endless buckets of balls. As he describes it, "a young golfer's paradise; a mother's perfect daycare".
Having led his high-school team to the semi-finals of the State Championships, and winning the AAU North South Junior (the oldest junior tournament in the Carolinas), Happer had offers of golf college scholarships coming from all directions as graduation approached. However, at that time, he was in no doubt that a more significant raison d'etre awaited.
"Making the decision to turn down college golf in favor of joining the Army was an easy one," he recalled. "I enlisted into the Delayed Entry Program two weeks into my senior year at 17-years old. My father, being a 9/11 first responder, gave me an axe to grind at an early age."
He continued: "I served in many roles from a Rifleman and Grenadier, to a Fire Team Leader and Commanders RTO. But it was during my deployment to Afghanistan that I sustained a TBI from indirect fire attacks, spinal injuries, a bad back, along with hips and ankles. I also sustained a lifelong shoulder condition as a result of being a Gustav gunner.
"Unfortunately, the largest effect on me was the PTSD that came along with being the QRF to an adolescent boy, who was riding a donkey laden with a few hundred pounds of homemade explosives, and subsequently conducting a dismounted suicide bombing on our close friends in Bravo Co. 3-15. The attack instantly killed three of them, along with another who died of wounds two weeks later."
The horrors of battle manifest in different ways, and PTSD is a poorly-understood affliction which has destroyed the lives of countless men and women who leave the military. Initially, Happer's fate appeared to be no different, with little hope for the future - until golf returned to his life, and specifically through On Course Foundation.
"After getting out of the Army in 2016, I was experiencing massive regret," the 23-year old noted. "A couple of my buddies had just graduated college, one of the kids I used to compete against in high school got his first PGA Tour win, and there I was living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to complete basic college courses.
"However, re-introducing golf into my life gave me that sense of direction I critically needed, and I soon found myself at The Golf Academy of America at Myrtle Beach. This is where I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Shawn Whitmore, National Programs Coordinator for On Course Foundation.
"This guy was beyond professional, and was more resourceful than I thought any man could be. He essentially assumed the role as my personal career counselor - a service people would pay a good bit of money for. He constantly checked on me as I was seeking employment, guided me through the process, and proved to be a great friend."
With the help of Whitmore and the charity, the hunt for full-time employment reaped dividends for the affable Happer. Shortly after the Simpson Cup, he will begin work as Assistant Golf Professional at Trump National Doral in Miami.
"Obtaining the job at Trump National Doral is a dream come true that I almost solely attribute to On Course Foundation and Mr. Whitmore," Happer humbly acknowledges. "The process of getting the interview, negotiating, and ultimately accepting the verbal offer from Mr. Cory Head (Trump National Director of Golf) was an absolute joy.
"It wasn’t until after I accepted the offer that I realized this was actually my first-ever application, first-ever interview, and first-ever full-time job outside the Army. I think that is a true testament to the firepower that not only Mr. Whitmore, but the On Course Foundation as a whole brings to the table for disabled veterans."
Such success underpins what the organization is all about, and Happer richly deserves this chance that has come his way. However, despite his visible joy, there is one other dream job he hasn't yet given up on.
"My game is in a good place at the moment. It would be foolish not to commit fully to my duties at Trump National Doral, as it is an incredible opportunity. But it is also an opportunity that won't render my dreams of playing golf for a living impossible either. All I know is, I'm really excited for the future - and that hasn't always been the case."