LA QUINTA, Calif. — Tom Whitney, a 34-year-old PGA Tour rookie who is playing his first event of the year this week in The American Express, is speaking in a front of a rapt audience of reporters, earnestly explaining a former job from what must seem like another lifetime.
A transcript of the chat will later show that Whitney used more than 400 uninterrupted words as a preamble to one of the more extraordinary pieces of insight ever heard in a sports media center.
“Ultimately, our main training part of the mission is we are the ones that launch the missile if the President sends the order,” Whitney says. “And it goes from the President to the [U.S. Strategic Command] to us. So, there’s only one entity in between us and the President if we are launching a nuclear missile.”
Chills run down the spine. Goosebumps rise. The hair stands up on the back of your neck. This is a professional golfer speaking as if he has just stepped off the pages of a David Baldacci novel.
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There have been past modern servicemen to reach the PGA Tour—the Naval Academy’s Billy Hurley III in the 2010s and the Air Force Academy’s Kyle Westmoreland last season—but they didn’t almost literally have their finger hovering over the button for missiles that could affect the future of the world as we know it.
It changes a person’s outlook on life.
“Absolutely,” Whitney said on Tuesday at PGA West. “Golf is just what I am currently doing, and I’m completely blessed to do it. But I could still be in the Air Force, at a place I don’t want to be. I could be in harm’s way. I could be fighting enemies. I’ve lost friends and loved ones in the armed forces. I have friends that are deployed. And I’m here in Palm Springs with two miles per hour wind, 75 degrees, getting paid to play these fantastic golf courses.”
This week is a homecoming for Whitney, who lived much of his youth in the Coachella Valley and attended La Quinta High School, six miles from the PGA West complex. His older brother, Bob, headed off to play golf at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., after high school, and Tom followed. Tom Whitney won four college tournaments and set numerous AFA records in his time, and he dreamed of a pro career once he fulfilled his military commitment.
Tom Whitney celebrates being PGA Tour bound with three of his four children at the 2023 Korn Ferry Tour Championship.
That’s where the nuclear missiles come into play. Tom and his wife, Jessica, a fellow Air Force cadet, married just days after graduation, and both began their service duty. They are the parents of four kids 11 and young now, with Jessica continuing to be a reservist. But at the time, Tom was hoping for an assignment to someplace warm that would be conducive to practicing golf. Instead, he was tabbed as a missile operator in Cheyenne, Wyo. “There were a good amount of tears shed that night,” said Whitney, admitting he was “devastated” by the assignment.
The job looked like this: For shifts that lasted 24 hours, Whitney and a crew partner traveled over the space the size of Rhode Island to missile sites in Wyoming, Colorado and South Dakota. Once at a certain site, they went 100 feet underground to a personnel silo that housed all of the technology that controls the nuclear missiles. There were briefings and checklists to go over, and even weather forecasts to review in case the missiles needed to be fired.
“If maintenance is happening, a security response is happening, if a test, exercise, fire, underground shocks from an earthquake, whatever, we have to respond to,” Whitney said. “Basically, we’re the go-between, between security, maintenance and everything else.”
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There was also this rather sobering duty: “Sometimes you have retargeting measures that all the crews have to send out, where we change the targets of where the missiles are aimed, based on current intelligence.”
Whitney, who figures he worked 200 underground shifts, called the job “boring” at times and “not very sexy.” But it was incredibly valuable to the country, and in the meantime, it wasn’t bad for his golf game either. The grueling nature of the duty afforded Whitney more time off than most of his Air Force peers, and he used it to practice on the courses near their home in Fort Collins, Colo.
After fulfilling his Air Force commitment in 2014, Whitney set his sights on pro golf. “I can’t ‘not try’ and be able to live with myself if I didn’t do it,” he recalled thinking. And just days into being a civilian, he was buoyed by winning a mini-tour event in Palm Desert. Whitney bounced around the mini-tours for several years, winning 10 times, with his most significant victory coming on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica in 2019.
Over the last two years, Whitney has played a combined 47 times on the Korn Ferry Tour, finishing with eight top-10s, and a 21st-place showing in KFT points list for 2023, which earned him his first PGA Tour card.
Though he would probably take the better paychecks over all of these years, Whitney said he’s gained the kind of experience only a 34-year-old “rookie” can have. Think along the lines of Eric Cole, the mini-tour legend who became the 2023 PGA Tour rookie of the year.
“Probably lagging a little behind in the energy, but [I’m] miles ahead in just the life experiences,” Whitney said. “There’s so many things that you can’t learn out here without having experienced it. I’m looking back at a lot of pieces of advice I received from veterans, and they kind of went in one ear and out the other, and you don’t really internalize those until you live it and experience it yourself.”
There are difficult experiences far more meaningful than golf, too. Jan. 8 marked the four-year anniversary of Tom’s brother, Bob, dying from suicide at age 33. One might think a return to the place where they played so much golf together would be bittersweet. But Tom insisted he’s feeling nothing but gratitude for making his card-holding debut in the desert sunshine.
“I’m blessed to have so many good memories of him being one of my biggest fans and supporters,” he said. “I try not to focus on the fact that I miss him, but more grateful to have a brother who loved me as much as he did.”
This article was originally published on golfdigest.com