Jonathan Shuskey grew up in Thomasville, North Carolina, where his family belonged to a small country church with about 60 members. On Sundays, a group of men from the Temple Heights Baptist Church would head over to nearby Blair Park Golf Course or Oak Hollow for an afternoon round. Shuskey asked his dad for a set of clubs so that he could tag along.
That first set, like so many first sets, was too big for the 12-year-old but he didn’t care. The curious boy never took a lesson, just tried to figure out the game the best he could.
Shuskey didn’t leave Thomasville until he joined the Army in 2001, one week before the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11 in New York.
“I would love to sit here and tell you I joined the Army out of some patriotic feeling,” said Shuskey. “I joined the Army simply because I wasn’t sure if I was ready to go to college.”
The United States wasn’t at war when Shuskey joined the Army. But he has since re-enlisted four times and completed five combat deployments. The patriotic feeling came and then never left.
“I’m an infantryman,” he said. “We’re the ground fighters.”
Shuskey in Afghanistan, 2018
Now a staff sergeant and father of four serving in Fort Benning, Georgia, Shuskey is set to retire from the military next fall. His next goal: play golf college.
Shuskey spent nine months in Afghanistan in 2018 and competed the following year on the All-Army golf team. Knowing that 2021 would be his final year in the service, Shuskey started thinking about what comes next. Because he can use his GI Bill to help pay for school, Shuskey figures his plus-3 handicap and unusual resume makes him a low-risk/high reward option for college programs.
“I may even be older than the head coach of the team in some situations,” he said, “but after 20 years in the military I’m pretty good at following orders. It doesn’t matter where they’re coming from. If that guy outranks you, you listen.”
Shuskey read about Tim Frisby, the 39-year-old father of six who played football for Lou Holtz at South Carolina after serving in the 82nd Airborne Division.
Puggy Blackmon, a longtime golf coach at South Carolina who has since retired, remembers the instant celebrity status that Frisby enjoyed on campus thanks to a crush of media interest.
“They called him ‘Pops,’ ” said Blackmon. Frisby also had a job at Home Depot while he went back to school.
While Blackmon wasn’t in the locker room with Frisby and Holtz, he understands firsthand the kind of impact an older player can have on a college team.
Blackmon came into his freshman year at Carson-Newman in the early 70’s needing a “strong kick in the pants.” It was there that he met Jerry Brittingham, a 30-year-old father of two who was not only Blackmon’s resident dorm manager but golf teammate, too. Brittingham was there to become a minister and the players called him “Big Daddy.”
“If I had to point to one person that I would have to thank every day for a lot of my success,” said Blackmon, “I have to look at him. He was that role model, mentor. When I got into a gray area, I just simply said, ‘What would Big Daddy do?’ ”
Garison Lyman picked up golf in the eighth grade and finished 10th in the state while playing for Escalante (Utah) High School. After graduation, he went into the work force for several years before joining the Army in 2011.
Garison Lyman, pictured far left. (Photo courstesy Lyman)
After four years of service, including one tour in Afghanistan, Lyman, by chance found himself playing a round of golf with the assistant coach at Bushnell University. It wasn’t long before a 29-year-old Lyman found himself lining up for team photos at the school.
“Alright coach,” the photographer said to Lyman, “you can do your picture now.”
The 6-foot-4 Lyman, who had a healthy beard at the time, broke the news that was actually a new player.
The COVID-19 pandemic ultimately cut Lyman’s final year at Bushnell short, and he now works in youth services at the Juvenile Detention Center of Lane County, Oregon.
“I think it’s just in my blood to serve and protect people,” said Lyman, “and help people grow.”
Brian Watts spent 20 years in the coaching industry, most recently as head coach at Army from 2010-2017, and now runs Coach Watts Consulting, a junior golf development and recruiting service. Lyman actually played for Watt’s brother, Larry, at Bushnell and based on resume alone, Brian would like to think that coaches would have great interest in a man like Shuskey.
“(Military veterans) just bring a sense of confidence that I don’t think you can gain any other way,” said Brian Watts. “It’s typically a quiet confidence, but they know time management and the respect that they have is incredible… the maturity, the work ethic, their attitude. I think they put things in perspective at such a higher level than an average civilian.”
Shuskey met his wife, Teresa, while stationed in Hawaii. Teresa retired from the military in 2013 and now works as a paralegal at Fort Benning. The joke in the family is that their eldest son, Bradley Austin, will be a freshman in college at the same time as dad.
Shuskey family clockwise: Bella, Aiden, Teresa, Jonathan, Bradley Austin, Addison
The Shuskey kids range in age from eight to 17. In an ideal world, Shuskey would walk on to a college team that had a nearby Army base so that Teresa’s job might carry over. When people ask Shuskey if he’d be willing to go away to college to fulfill this dream, he reminds them of what they’ve been doing the past 19 years.
“We understand how this separation thing works,” he said, “and we are good at it.”
As far as fitting in with guys half his age, Shuskey says he’s around college-aged men every day. They are who he’s expected to train and lead.
That being said, if freshmen are expected to carry the bags on a golf team, he’s up for that too.
“I was a new private once,” he said.
The pandemic canceled several qualifiers that Shuskey wanted to compete in this summer, though he did finish second to University of Alabama Birmingham’s John Racciatti in the amateur portion of the Capital City Golf Classic in Montgomery. Shuskey tied University of South Alabama’s Dawson Atkinson.
His fall plans include the Alabama Mid-Amateur as well as The Berkeley Cup in Duluth, Georgia.
Adam Cooper plays in a game on Saturdays with Shuskey at Bull Creek Golf Course in Columbus, Georgia. The former Columbus State player said that while the pandemic kept Shuskey’s summer schedule light, the time has allowed him to polish the rough edges of his aggressive game.
Cooper won the Georgia State Mid-Amateur a while back, beating famed Masters marker Jeff Knox. Shuskey has improved so much over the past year, Cooper said, that he often has a hard time beating him.
“He’s got it,” said Cooper, “and he doesn’t even know he’s got it.”
Cooper, who has helped Shuskey most when it comes to course management, said the pressure is real in those games at Bull Creek, though no golf shot has ever left his Army friend feeling intimidated.
“In the back of my mind, when you’re standing over a 5-foot putt that matters,” said Shuskey, “I’m thinking how hard can this be? There’s nobody shooting at you right now.”
A decade ago, Shuskey’s unit went to check out a compound area they’d been assured was empty. As he entered the front door of the building, two IEDs exploded simultaneously, a force that picked Shuskey off the ground and hurled him backwards.
Miraculously, he walked away from that incident with nothing more than a mild concussion. No broken bones. No shrapnel. They got on a helicopter and flew back to base.
Traveling in a team van, Shuskey noted, sure sounds nicer than the back of a Blackhawk.
“Let me get my foot in the door,” he said, “and if you do that, I’m going to do my best to kick the door wide open.”