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From Gulf to golf, bunker to bunker: PA Air National Guard combat veteran hits the links with Tiger Woods

  • Published
  • By Capt. Jay Ostrich
  • 193rd Special Operations Wing
The pressure of driving iron through sand, running from bunker to bunker or getting near troubled woods while desperately trying not to hit innocent civilians is nothing new for most combat veterans.

But for one day in late June, combat veteran Chief Master Sgt. George Vasiloff couldn't be happier to have done all of that. Especially being near troubled woods - Tiger Woods, that is.

That's because through what he describes as the "luck of the draw," and a little help from his Army brethren, Chief Vasiloff was asked to play a round of golf with the world's best, if not now most infamous golfer at the AT&T National Pro-AM at Aronomink Country Club, Newtown Square, Pa.

They didn't need to ask twice.

With a slight breeze and early morning dew glistening from the tee box of the majestic, 430-yard first hole, Chief Vasiloff, a 27-year veteran of the Air Force, was introduced to an enthusiastic crowd and his golf dream would begin.

Hauling off boldly with a driver, he hit a towering shot that faded into a thicket of lush, green rough. Sitting 85 yards ahead of him, squarely in the middle of the neatly manicured fairway, was the champion, Woods. One shot later, Woods was on the green putting for birdie. As for Vasiloff, he was back with a familiar friend - the sand.

All in perspective

Just a few short weeks ago, Vasiloff, chief of logistics with 201st RED HORSE Squadron of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, Fort Indiantown Gap was finishing up his third combat tour in an austere location devoid of green anything let alone the comfy confines of country clubs.

The unit's six-month mission was to build and repair military infrastructures that support missions as part of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the chief, driving his airmen and keeping them safe was the only thing he could think about. Doing that for a golf ball would have to wait.

But as he walked up through the par-4 second hole, where he would again find himself in a bunker, it all started to come into perspective for both the chief and his family.

"George thinks he died and went to heaven," said a beaming Ronda J. Vasiloff, his wife of 16 years. "Usually we would be worried about when he's in the sand. Not today though. Today there are no worries."

After slightly struggling to find his best game through three holes, his caddy, retired Army Col. Joe Laneski, former Pennsylvania National Guard chief of staff, took the bulky bag off his shoulders and presented Vasiloff with his trusted driver and some comic relief.

"The bag's getting heavy," said Laneski to his golf partner of 12 years. "You better start playing."

After all, it was Laneski who had submitted his name for the AT&T military caddy program, which turned into an invite to play in the Pro-Am when the sponsor of the Tiger Woods Foundation learned Vasiloff could score near par.

Like any good troop, Chief Vasiloff followed orders and sent a missile 330 yards on the 466-yard par 4, fourth, sailing it past three bunkers and softly landing it on the fairway about 15 yards ahead Woods, winner of more than 70 PGA events, including 14 major titles.

But if that wasn't enough, Vasiloff chipped onto the green eight feet below the hole and coolly drained a birdie putt, one ahead of the champ who hadn't yet broken par and wouldn't be able to muster it on the fourth.

When asked on the next fairway whether he felt pressure, the humble hero paused and put it all into perspective.

"After the first hole when I could finally breathe, I realized pressure is sending your guys out on a combat convoy," said Vasiloff. "This here? This is just fun."

The real hero

As Vasiloff settled in and hit his groove, sending bomb after accurate bomb down the hilly and treacherous course, Tiger's fans started to be abuzz about the man with the buzz cut.

"Who is that guy" asked a casually clad country club couple after watching Vasiloff outdrive the champ on another hole.

"He must be the president of the club or something," replied another.

"No, he is just a normal military guy," said Ronda, who followed him with a smile throughout the more than 7,000 yards of his journey.

This was just fine with his professional playing partner, who was happy to talk about his father, Earl Woods, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and two-tour Vietnam veteran who introduced Tiger to golf at a young age and remained a coach and mentor throughout his life.

Woods, the tournament host, wanted some way to honor the military through golf.

"I just think it was something that should be honored, and that's why we're doing it," said Woods. "It's just a way to say thank you."

With a special military pavilion and more than 30,000 complimentary tickets given to military members and their families, Woods hopes they were on target.

"Tiger knows where we are coming from," said Vasiloff. "This was just a great overall experience."

For Ronda, this was just another example of her husband being humble and thanking others before taking credit for himself.

"He is noble man," said Ronda, who tried to hold back tears of pride. "He is in a noble profession and he gives it his whole heart and soul."

His caddy and friend, who hours earlier had helped bring it all into perspective, couldn't have agreed more.

"He's dedicated to his family and to his service first," said Laneski. "The third love of his life is golf and somehow he's able to tie it all together and be excellent in everything."

Ultimately, the team finished a 7-under par 63, tied for seventh, far from the prestige both have felt as being the best in their business.

And as Tiger Woods shook hands with his partner and walked over an isolated bridge by himself, Chief Master Sgt. George Vasiloff humbly walked through the crowd and into the loving arms of his family, not just as an above-average amateur golfer, but a superior airman and a champion at life.

From the Gulf to golf and bunker to bunker, it was a perfect ending to a near perfect day.