PRINCESS ANNE, Md.--James Robinson, a 20-year U.S. Army veteran who was deployed to war-torn Iraq a decade ago, knows exactly what he wants to do with the next phase of his life.
The 41-year-old sophomore at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore is pursuing a college degree in PGA golf management.
“It’s the perfect fit for me,” Robinson said this week. “There’s a sense of freedom and flexibility in doing something I really enjoy doing.”
Robinson grew up in Hampton Roads, Va., where he was heavily involved in scouting and a member of the Junior Navy ROTC program in high school.
He liked playing basketball, but wasn’t much interested in sports requiring hand eye coordination such as baseball – or golf.
After high school, Robinson joined the Army, which trained him to be a medical laboratory technician. His support-role specialty saw him stationed in eight states and two overseas posts in addition to a harrowing year in Iraq.
“Our job was to transport blood products to the hospitals within all of Iraq,” he told the PGA.com website a year ago. “We were doing our thing all the time with them lobbing mortars and rockets at us.”
While stationed in Germany, he took up golf. His favorite way to relax was fishing, but in Germany the pastime is expensive; licenses, hiring a guide and paying for access to private property.
Many Army installations have golf courses, so Robinson’s mother bought him a set of clubs.
“I remember thinking, ‘How hard could it be to hit this ball?’,” he said. “It’s not moving.”
It was difficult, initially, but Robinson learned to relax, control his thoughts and focus on the fundamentals of swinging a club and striking the ball.
In 2007, as his interest in golf grew and skills improved, Robinson began experiencing pain in one of his knees. A 2010 scan of his back revealed the source of the problem – a damaged vertabra that was affecting a nerve and causing his knee pain.
Titanium screws were surgically implanted to stabilize his back. He worried his days golfing were over since chronic back pain is a common malady among golfers.
His doctors, though, assured him he could continue playing and while going through a post-surgery assessment at the Warrior Transition Unit in Fort Eustis, Va., he met PGA club professional Andy Weissinger.
The two struck a friendship and one day Weissinger mentioned that it is possible to earn a college degree in the golf management.
Robinson recognized it as a career path after his discharge in 2015. He picked UMES, one of 18 institutions currently offering the PGA-authorized program, because it afforded him an opportunity to be close to his parents who still reside in the Tidewater, Va. area.
“College for me now is a job,” he said. “I understand my limitations. It’s become part of my regimen. I’ve come to realize that sometimes even when I give my best effort, I don’t deserve an ‘A’.”
Nevertheless, he is a dean’s list student. “I owed it to my mom,” he said.
Nearly all of Robinson’s classmates are half his age. Aside from having to purchase an entire civilian’s wardrobe, he has found the transition easy.
“Near the end of my (Army) career, I was frequently working with young people, training them and so forth,” Robinson said. “So this (experience) hasn’t been a big deal.”
Classmate Langston Frazier said, “Mr. Robinson is very helpful off the course with it comes to hitting the books and in life in general. He provides an insight from his military background and life experiences that give younger students a chance see life and the golf world through a different pair of eyes.”
Josephina Oh, UMES’ 2015 Caves Valley Golf Club Foundation scholar, credits Robinson with helping her adjust to college life.
“Honestly, if it wasn't for James, I might not have been able to find my place in the program,” Oh said. “I was completely lost. James took time out of his day and graciously offered to drive to campus and take me and a few other students (without transportation) to the golf course. He is always generous with his resources and time.”
Robinson’s role as a non-traditional age undergraduate and his relationship with other students hasn’t been lost on Chris Prosser, one of the golf management program faculty members.
His maturity, Prosser said, has a calming, stabilizing effect on classmates.
“Mr. Robinson is a very thoughtful person,” Frazier added, “who always puts everyone first before himself. He's always so positive and great to be around... as he likes to say ‘He's living the dream.’”
On Veterans’ Day 2016, Robinson said he’ll pause and reflect on “recognizing my brothers and sisters in arms, no matter what the job is they do. It’s a time to remember the living” service members.