The Chattanooga Choo Choo Invitational is widely considered one of the most prestigious amateur golf tournaments in the country, always boasting a field of rising stars among the collegiate ranks.
This year’s list of invited participants hail from 21 different states representing 55 colleges and include players from South Africa, Dubai, India, Canada and England for the 54-hole tournament which is staged next Monday through Wednesday at Council Fire Golf Club.
While most of the field is comprised of youthful limber-backed competitors seeking to improve their rankings by playing in the Choo Choo, there is one entrant whose invitation carries special meaning for tournament director Chris Schmidt.
Jonathan Shuskey lives in Fort Mitchell, Alabama, a small community across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Georgia. He’ll be enrolling in Christian Brothers University in Memphis this fall as a freshman, and he’s hoping like many of his fellow competitors to someday make a living playing golf professionally.
He is also 39 years old.
For much of the past 20 years, finding time on a golf course represented a sanctuary of sorts for Shuskey. He didn’t hone his game among the country club crowd. Instead, golf was the one place he could retreat to clear his mind of the weighty responsibilities that come with five deployments as an Army infantryman coupled with raising a family of four.
In between his overseas assignments, Shuskey taught himself to play golf. He’s never had a formal lesson, but has learned to operate by feel and instinct and carries a plus-three handicap.
Last year when Shuskey began to ponder life beyond his scheduled 2021 retirement from the Army, he began to consider a path that included college golf. His ability alone would merit some interest from coaches, but he became even more attractive due to his eligibility to utilize the G.I. Bill to help fund most of the cost.
Golfweek ran a piece on Shuskey last August, which flooded his mailbox with inquiries from college golf coaches. It also earned him a memorable Twitter message from Schmidt.
“I already knew about the Choo Choo, because over the past 10 years I’ve considered it one of the premier amateur tournaments over the summer,” Shuskey said. “Chris told me he’s an old Army vet as well, that he respected what I was doing and thanked me for my service. He then said he was offering me a special exemption to play in the tournament, which I immediately without hesitation accepted.”
The invitation was more than a publicity stunt for Schmidt to fill one of the coveted 100 spots in the tournament. Shuskey had earned his berth as much with his personal sacrifice as he had through his golf.
“I’m a veteran myself, so it was important to me to give another veteran the opportunity to pursue their dream,” Schmidt said. “Dreams and aspirations are what makes life bearable, and Jonathan will get an opportunity to start his collegiate career at the CCCI.
“Jonathan has been active with the All-Army golf team. His 20 years of service, plus entering college as a freshman at 39 years old was attractive to our event. It was attractive to us because it shows that it’s a big world, and it doesn’t matter what age a player is. If a player can play, then he or she can play.”
While growing up in Thomasville, North Carolina, golf was simply a way for Shuskey to hang out with his childhood buddies. What started out at the age of 12 with a set of over-sized clubs purchased at a pawn shop has evolved into a passion he never expected.
“There was a group of guys who went to play Sundays after church who invited me to join them,” Shuskey said. “It just kind of started there with me hacking it around trying to figure it out. I probably could have played on the high school team but I didn’t believe I was good enough. I got to the point where I was consistently breaking 80 which I thought was pretty good for a home-grown swing and being self-taught.”
Uncertain about his future after completing high school, Shuskey decided to join the Army. He arrived for basic training at Fort Benning on September 4, 2001, never imagining how the tragic events in New York a week later would alter the course of his career.
“Obviously, 9/11 shuffled a lot of plans,” Shuskey said. “Deployments and training took priority, so there wasn’t a lot of time for golf. As a new private in the Army, there wasn’t a lot of money for golf either.”
He started playing again seven years later when living in Hawaii, which is also where he met his wife, Teresa, who was also stationed there. He shot 94 his first time out, and set a goal to reward himself with custom-fitted clubs once he consistently shot in the low 80s.
Shuskey moved to Fort Campbell, Kentucky in 2010 where his golf passion took on new life over the next few years while working around a couple of deployments to Afghanistan.
“I applied to the All-Army sports program in 2013 and went to the trials in Fort Jackson (South Carolina),” Shuskey said. “The top six golfers qualify for the Armed Forces Championships the next week, and I actually won. My dad was in Army in early ‘70s and that’s where he went to basic training, and he was able to see me win. It had been 41 years since he’d been there. He passed away not long after that, which made it even more special.”
Shuskey played in the All-Army competition three more times between subsequent deployments, but suffered a torn labrum during two of the events that put his golf future in jeopardy.
“After the last injury in 2016, I was thinking about not playing golf anymore,” Shuskey said. “But I got it fixed again and they detached my right bicep tendon to take some of the stress off the shoulder. It’s been good ever since.”
Shuskey was contacted by over 40 college coaches when his story was publicized last fall. But he quickly connected with Christian Brothers’ coach Michael Brice.
“Coach Brice is the reason I committed there,” Shuskey said. “He was always really genuine. None of our conversations were about how I could help the program. Instead, it was all about how he could make me better.
“He played at Auburn on the team with Jason Duffner, so he’s got the college experience and played professionally as well. I’ve never had any real instruction so it stood out to me that this guy knows how this works.”
When Shuskey struggled in some tournaments stacked with college players last fall, the phone calls and text messages from coaches slowed to a trickle. But Brice continued to pursue him and offered some comforting advice.
“He was honest with me and said, ‘Look, man, you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself.’ He saw through that and he told me he still had my back when things weren’t going well and he believed in me at a point when I wasn’t sure I even believed in myself. It really became an easy decision to commit to go play there,” Shuskey said.
When Shuskey’s retirement as a staff sergeant becomes official in September, he will find himself in a familiar setting despite being twice the age of most of his teammates. In fact, he and his oldest son, Austin, will be entering different colleges as incoming freshmen.
“I’m looking forward to the chance to mentor and be around that 18- to 20-year-old age group,” Shuskey said. “Those are the ages that I’ve spent the last 12 years of my career training, but I’m also looking to learn from those guys. They have come through the junior rankings they’re used to playing tournaments all the time. I think it’s going to be a cool dynamic for me to be able to give a little bit in some places, and to be able to take some of the experience these guys have and learn from them.”
Shuskey is thankful he will be allowed to reside in apartments on campus with the graduate students rather than doing dorm life with his teammates.
“I’m not going to lie to you – I’ve got an 18-year-old living under my roof and I wasn’t sure how that would work at college for me to room with another freshman,” Shuskey said. “Thankfully, the folks at CBU understand that I’m not a typical freshman.”
His life experiences have enabled Shuskey to gain a measure of perspective when embarking on this next chapter of his journey. During one of his deployments, his unit entered a building that was rigged with a pair of IED explosives that detonated. He walked away with only a concussion despite being thrown through the air.
“After you’ve been shot at a few times and blown up a couple of times, it’s hard to think of a golf shot as something scary,” Shuskey said. “But at the same time, I still get nervous on the golf course. It’s a completely different kind of nerves. When something matters to you – and this absolutely matters to me – it doesn’t make me immune to the jitters. But I do have life perspective to understand a five-foot putt is not life or death.”
As he prepares for next week’s Choo Choo event, Shuskey is eager to see how his game stacks up against some of the elite collegiate players on a challenging course.
“I show up at every tournament with the goal to win it,” Shuskey said. “Realistically I’d love to post even par or better for those three days because I know how tough that golf course is. Council Fire has got some teeth if the greens get really firm. One of the things that’s crossed my mind is to approach this tournament like the U.S. Open. You have to play this course understanding that par is never a bad score on any hole. This is one of the premier events in amateur golf.”
His ultimate goal is to be able to parlay these next four years into a career playing professionally. But if those dreams don’t materialize, Shuskey hopes to be able to find a place to coach college golf.
“There’s certain things about the military I’m not going to miss,” Shuskey said. “The thing I will miss most is being around the young guys to train and mentor them. I’d like to continue doing that once these next four years are over from the coaching side because I’ve got a lot to offer those younger guys.”
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Paul Payne can be contacted via email at email@example.com or via Twitter @Paul_A_Payne