Billy Dettlaff has been retired since 2009 after a 22-year career with the PGA Tour’s TPC Network as a general manager, director of golf, regional director of operations and national director of golf, based out of TPC Sawgrass. In 1988, he attained the PGA’s highest classification of PGA Master Professional #57, which is held by about 300 people who are recognized for making a significant effort to improve the industry of golf professionals. His father was a professional player and his family has been involved with the sport for over 110 years. He wrote a critically-acclaimed book called the “Doctors of the Game: A History of the Golf Profession,” which is over 600 pages and traces the history of the golf profession through the masters of the sport.
It’s safe to say that Dettlaff loves golf. He just can’t get the game out of his head. Although these days, he is working on making that the case for everyone, especially those suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Dettlaff is launching the American Golf Memories Project, the first chapter in the U.S. here in Ponte Vedra. The project is based on its sister program, Carnoustie Golf Memories, in Scotland, which is a leader in reminiscence therapy. This treatment is a tool that improves psychological health and well-being for those living with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Dettlaff’s program works to specifically target memories of the sport of golf. The smell of the green, moments in tournament history, the feel of the club are all associations that can be tapped into with the help of the Memories Project.
But why golf?
The Golf Memories Project puts like-minded individuals (which it calls “members”) together to talk about and share stories of their mutual interest. Because of the stigma of dementia and Alzheimer’s, focusing on the group as being a “club,” rather than therapy, helps people feel comfortable participating. Sports reminiscence therapy falls under the umbrella of what is called a “socialization program,” in which people with dementia gather in a group to participate in activities to improve memory with their peers. According to AARP.org, social interaction is key to warding off cognitive decline and can even improve the condition.
For many people, the impact of sports on their lives has been a significant one. Golf, especially, has appealed to many fans throughout the course of their lives — playing a major part in adolescence all the way through retirement.There are, simply, a lot of memories to access. With that being said, there are other sports reminiscence therapy programs, including soccer, cricket, curling and rugby. More than anything, secularizing the sport fosters community within the group.
Barbara Levine was encouraged to bring her mother, Betty Fairchild, to the first American Golf Memories Project meeting. Fairchild, who is experiencing memory loss, had always been an avid golfer and at 96, she had many memories to share.
“It was a way to draw her out of her shell,” Levine said. “She doesn’t have a lot of other friends around to talk about those things. I was very happy to see her, you know, she has that spark of recognition every now and then but to see it in her eyes, it was pretty neat.”
Fairchild participated in different activities at the meeting aimed at helping her recall the sport and any memories associated with it. She was shown cards with images of famous players through history and asked if she remembered their names. Other activities included going through the alphabet and naming something golf-related with each letter.
Dettlaff undertook the idea for the program after he saw a feature story about the Carnoustie Program on the Golf Channel. He was so inspired by it that he flew there to discuss the potential with Lorraine Young, a former social worker who spearheaded the project, and the recently deceased Dr. Michael Ego, who was managing research on sports reminiscence therapy for implementation in the states.
With the support of TPC Sawgrass, Dettlaff is now hosting meetings for American Golf Memories Project at the TPC Clubhouse every fourth Monday of the month. Dettlaff wants to make clear, however, that there is no cost to participate in The Golf Memories Project. The program is entirely self-funded by him as his way of “giving back to the game.”
In addition, Dettlaff has named the first inaugural chapter of The Golf Memories Project in honor of his friend and renowned golf course designer, Pete Dye, who designed the "world's most terrifying tee shot," the par-3 17th hole of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. Dye was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2008 and has been stricken with Alzheimer’s since 2015.
Dettlaff wrote to Pete’s wife, Alice Dye, a prolific golf player and architect who helped Pete with the design of the Island Green, to ask her if he could name the chapter after him.
“I got a little short answer after only 45 minutes,” Dettlaff said. “She said, ‘It would be an honor for Pete.’”
On Feb. 1, shortly after this interaction, Alice Dye died at the age of 91, after a long and illustrious career. Today, the official name of the program is The American Golf Memories Project, The Pete Dye Chapter at TPC Sawgrass.
Dettlaff continues his work to honor both the sport and the Dyes with the program.
“After Betty got back on the bus with Barbara, I had the greatest sense of accomplishment,” Dettlaff said after his first session with Fairchild. “What a sweet human being. The fact that an hour and half of time brought back memories of a game that we both love, it’s a hard feeling to explain, but it felt important.”
Above everything, Dettlaff said he just wants to see the sport bring joy to people again.
“When I asked her what her favorite club was, (she answered) without hesitation,” Detlaff said. “She said proudly, ‘It's my seven iron.’ On her face, when she remembered, it was just a gentle smile.”
The American Golf Memories Project will be hosted every forth Monday of the Month at TPC Sawgrass. The cost is free to attend. RSVP to Dettlaff at email@example.com. Spouses and caregivers of members are welcome to attend.