Fairways, Freedom: Military Celebrated at Senior Open July 7, 2014 By Jonathan Wilhelm, USGA

After more than 26 years in the U.S. Air Force, Mark Gardiner is enjoying a completely different experience as a Senior Open rookie. (USGA/Fred Vuich)

EDMOND, Okla. – A half-step at a time, the Stars and Stripes were paraded toward the players and fans gathered at the first tee at Oak Tree National. The Governor’s Honor Guard from the Oklahoma City National Guard moved in unison to the rhythmic count guiding their progress. Facing east into the rising sun, the colors were presented and a beautiful rendition of the national anthem was performed by Ashten Vincent, the daughter of Lieutenant Colonel Barry Vincent.

These proceedings on Military Day, the second day of practice ahead of the 35th U.S. Senior Open, served to honor those heroes who defend our freedoms.

One of those heroes, Retired U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Mark Gardiner, also happens to be a qualifier in the 156-player Senior Open field. Gardiner, a 50-year-old amateur, carded a 70 in the St. Louis, Mo., sectional qualifier to earn a spot in the championship.

With 26½ years of active service under his belt, Gardiner continues a family military tradition. His father served, he met his wife Michelle while he served, and his oldest son, Jamie, is five years into what Mark foresees as a lifelong career in the armed forces.

My dad was in the service, my wife’s father was in the service, said Gardiner. My son is in the service. I’m red, white and blue. I’m all about the military. When I saw it was at Oak Tree and Tinker Air Force Base just down the road, I knew there would be some military folks here, which is nice. There's some comfort in that.

Gardiner was introduced to golf at the age of 19 when his mother took a job at Fort Lewis Golf Course in Washington state; the rest, Gardiner hopes, is history in the making.

I’m blown away. I’m honored to be here. This is beyond my wildest dreams, said Gardiner, who is no stranger to competitive success as an amateur golfer. Owning 22 tournament wins, many of which he has successfully defended in his home state of Illinois, Gardiner is familiar with the preparation and execution necessary for championship success. Most notable, though, may be his four Armed Forces Golf victories..

Through his military golf career, Gardiner has been able to play in more than a dozen countries, and he has an evening’s worth of stories about high-ranking officials and other prominent people he has met across the globe through the game. Golf has been good to Gardiner, who was in disbelief when he qualified for the U.S. Senior Open.

Gardiner is reveling in his U.S. Senior Open experience while giving the course and the competition the respect they’re due. I didn’t know it was one of the toughest courses in the United States when I signed up, but I didn’t care if it was a nine-hole country course at home – I’m in the U.S. Senior Open, said Gardiner with a smile. There’s nothing I’ve ever played that is like Oak Tree National. As long as I can keep a loose, fluid swing, I think I can do well.

Do I think I can hit it like these guys? Certainly. But so does every amateur, said Gardiner. But I’m a realist. What’s a good score? I don’t know. It may be 10 shots behind Colin Montgomerie. Keep it under 90 and I’ll be pretty happy. I’m going to grind it out and make the most of an opportunity.

And while golf is a collection of memories, his true passion is for the country that made all of those memories possible. I’m honored to be here and represent the armed forces and it’s great that the military is treated the way they are. Too much is never enough [recognition] for the men and women of our military. The USGA and the military are a great team.

During his practice round, Gardiner went out of his way to thank the service men and women who volunteered their time.

Afterward he said, For them to come out here maybe on a day off and spend four hours standing in the sun just removing a flagpole for a couple of golfers, it may not seem admirable, but it is to me."

Jonathan Wilhelm is the USGA's social media specialist. Email him at jwilhelm@usga.org.