By Michael Curet, Special to PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- For each of the last four years at THE PLAYERS, longtime marshal-captain of the 17th hole Ron Smith brings in a couple of Wounded Warriors to add to his support team of volunteers. It's Smith's way of not only providing the soldiers an opportunity to experience and serve an important role at THE PLAYERS, but to reward them, at his expense, for their heroic efforts serving their country.
At the 17th hole in 2013, Wounded Warriors Nathan Lynn and Kevin Garland were not the only ones receiving a hero's welcome. On Sept. 8, 2012, Smith suffered life-threatening spinal cord injuries in a one-car crash that left him unable to walk and hospitalized for four months. This week, though he sits in a wheelchair more than he walks, he proudly walked to his post once again for the 15th straight year. Defying doctors with his recovery, Smith said being at THE PLAYERS was never in doubt.
"I was offered other jobs that are less strenuous, but I opted to stay at 17," said Smith, who manages a group of 75 volunteers -- a skill he mastered while working as a manager at Blue Cross Blue Shield for 38 years in Jacksonville before his retirement two years ago. "This hole is the epitome and pinnacle of the tournament. I never thought about it any other way. I knew I would be back."
Smith underscores his physical setbacks and say they "pale in comparison" to anything soldiers in the Wounded Warrior program have experienced.
"What the Wounded Warriors have gone through fighting a war and defending our country doesn't compare," Smith said. "I don't even mention my injuries in the same sentence with these guys because it doesn't give it justice knowing what they've gone through. A lot of them have suffered major injuries, loss of limbs, and mental trauma. I'm continuing my therapy and am thankful what I've been able to accomplish and for the friends that I have around me."
In the accident, Smith's vehicle rolled over and he sustained a broken neck, shoulder, three ribs and numerous vertebrae. Thankfully the spinal cord was bruised, not severed -- leaving him with limited movement on his right side but hope for further progress.
"Right now, my arm, hand and leg are affected," said Smith, "I was just laying there in a hospital not knowing what I'd ever be able to do. I couldn't even scratch my face. But I have gone from an electrical wheelchair since that time to a regular wheelchair, a cane and a walker to get around my house. The doctor told me that most people with my injuries are paraplegic or quadriplegic. The fact that I'm walking around is a miracle."
As he began to wind down his 12-hour shift late Friday afternoon, friends in the crowd occasionally came over to him with words of encouragement, and, despite it being a struggle, Smith usually walked over to greet them.
Only halfway home in this year's PLAYERS, but clearly "steps in the right direction", doing his job and doing it well ... again.