If you have ever wondered what it’s like to have your finger on a nuclear missile button, Tom Whitney can tell you.
We’ll let him get to that in a moment, but first some background on why his story is worth telling.
It’s because Whitney is a 34-year-old PGA Tour rookie, and he’s making his first start as a tour member this week at the American Express in Palm Desert, California, not far from where he attended La Quinta High School, scuffling for tee times at the fancy clubs sprinkled through the Coachella Valley.
His golf story isn’t that different from others. He was a good player early, good enough to follow his brother Bob to the Air Force Academy where Tom won four individual titles and convinced himself that he had the talent to play on a bigger platform.
But Whitney felt the tug of “being part of something bigger than myself and a calling, if you will, of just being part of that greater mission.”
That meant delaying, not denying, his intention to chase a career in professional golf.
And that’s how Whitney found himself spending hours underground in missile silos dug near Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Whitney and a partner were in charge of 10 nuclear missiles, working 24-hour shifts at underground sites away from F.E. Warren Air Force Base where they lived. He did that more than 200 times. Here’s where it starts to sound like a Tom Clancy novel.
“Everything’s spread out among Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska. So, it’s a good-sized field, or we call it the missile field. It’s about, the entire complex is about the size of Rhode Island. If you think about it, there’s 150 missiles, 15 personnel sites, and the base, and everything is hard-wired underground,” Whitney said.
“You get out to the site, you go underground, and you transfer over with the previous crew, get briefed up on everything that happened. Then, once they’re gone, you have anywhere from an hour to three hours of just routine checklist items, going through all your daily test, inventorying everything.”
Routine maintenance was a big part of Whitney’s responsibilities, but there were other realities.
“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, basically, we’re the go-between, between security, maintenance, and everything else. Ultimately, our main training part of the mission is we are the ones that launch the missile if the president sends the order. And it goes from the president to the USSTRATCOM,” he said, using the military shorthand for the United States Strategic Command, “USSTRATCOM to us. So, there’s only one entity in between us and the president, if we are launching a nuclear missile.”
It never got to that point and, having honored his commitment and leaving the service as a first lieutenant, Whitney turned back to golf. The transition came with its own challenges. On his own, Whitney missed the structure of military life and the steady paycheck.
With the benefit of long stretches of down time as a missile operator, Whitney was able to keep his golf game sharp. Shortly after turning pro, he won a 2014 eGolf Tour event at Avondale Country Club, not far from where the American Express is being played. It validated his belief in himself.
Whitney played the 2018 American Express on a sponsor invitation, but now he’s back as a member of the PGA Tour, having earned his spot via the Korn Ferry Tour last year.
This is where his story sounds familiar.
“We’re all peers out here … we’re all going through highs and lows, and we’re going through it together. It’s, honestly, pretty similar to the stuff I learned at the academy.” – Tom Whitney
Whitney played mini-tours until they began to dry up. He eventually earned conditional status on the Korn Ferry Tour via the PGA Tour’s Latinoamérica circuit. He finished 21st on the KFT points list last year, earning his tour card.
It comes with opportunities but few promises. Whitney learned that when he flew to Hawaii last week, hoping to land an alternate spot in the first full-field event of the year. Whitney didn’t get in the Sony Open, but he’s playing in his hometown event this week.
As he does in other tournaments, Whitney will mark his ball with one of the dog tags worn by his late brother, who committed suicide at age 33 four years ago. It’s another part of the journey that has led Whitney this week back to where he started.
Had Whitney decided to stay in the military, he would be halfway toward his retirement, but the golf dream never left him. Now he’s living it.
“It feels like I belong out here, I’ve earned my way to hold this card. Monday morning, I’m in breakfast and (Justin Thomas is) eating with another guy, and I could sit by myself and be at a table alone, or I go join those guys. And I go join them and meet ’em,” Whitney said
“We’re all peers out here; we’re all trying to get to No. 1 spot; we’re all going through highs and lows, and we’re going through it together. It’s, honestly, pretty similar to the stuff I learned at the academy. Going through basic together, everyone has high, everyone has lows, everyone needs help from different people at different times. We’re trying to beat each other, but we’re also all trying to get better at the same time.”
“I’ve lost friends and loved ones in the Armed Forces. I have friends that are deployed. And I’m here in Palm Springs getting paid to play. … Absolutely, I have a different perspective.” – Tom Whitney
The distance between the Southern California desert and the missile silos in Wyoming can’t be measured in miles alone.
“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,” Whitney said.
“Absolutely, I have a different perspective, because I signed up to basically saying I’m willing to give my life for this country, and never came anywhere close to that point. That’s kind of what you’re agreeing to when you join the military.
“Just understanding that, like, man, there’s tough days out here, but in the grand scheme of things, I get to play golf for a living; I get to represent some awesome companies; I get to do what I love and pretty much have control over my schedule and what I do day-to-day. So, yeah, it’s definitely fixed my perspective on life.”
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