Imagine, as a casual fan, if you could stand on the field with NFL players on a Sunday. Or rebound for LeBron James before Game 7 in the NBA playoffs. Yes, it’s a far-fetched dream for any fan of pro football or pro basketball to be that involved in the gameday action. But, when it comes to professional golf, fans are actually encouraged to go behind-the-scenes and inside the ropes. All they have to do is put on a volunteer cap and get a little dirt under the fingernails.
The PGA TOUR is anchored by its volunteers. More than 100,000 people each year donate their time to orchestrate and ensure the success of 120 tournaments. Because of their efforts, more than $2.65 billion has been raised to support thousands of local charities. You might say that it’s those who take the plunge without pay who are the real stars because they allow the PGA TOUR to donate 100 percent of its net proceeds to charity.
So, knowing that volunteerism is the backbone of pro golf, I decided to hide my media credential for the day and go undercover as a volunteer at the 2018 AT&T Byron Nelson in Dallas, Texas.
My goal? For one, learn what volunteer positions are up for grabs. And two, get to know the service-oriented people in blue pants who occupy those jobs.
After all, they’re the heartbeat of the very busy week for the Salesmanship Club of Dallas (the guys in the famous red pants), the organization that hosts the annual tournament and supports Momentous Institute, an educational haven for students and families to gain and rebuild social emotional health.
My in-the-know guide and golf cart “pilot” for the day was Ann Shaw, the chair of the Byron Nelson’s volunteer committee. She initially told all of the volunteers we encountered, “This is Kim. She’s a new volunteer and wants to learn about what this job entails. Put her to work” as we spent about an hour at each location. Then, nearing the end of my time at each station, I revealed my true identity in order to take pictures.
Without further ado, lets go behind the big red curtain and get to know a small sample of the tournament’s 1,100 volunteers, some of whom have 35 years of service under their belts.
Home, Home on the Range
My first stop was the driving range, where I shagged balls, polished them, separated the Titleist from the Callaways from the TaylorMades, and collected empty buckets from pros like Marc Leishman and Shawn Stefani.
It was a hub of energy and a great location to get a pulse on the day to come.
I met Andrew Colt Wesson, a six-year volunteer veteran of the range who arrived at 4:30 a.m. to prepare for the pros’ arrival.
“My dad, grandfather and uncle are all involved at Momentous, so this is kind of a family tradition,” Wesson said about volunteering. “I love getting up early because it’s a great way to be a part of something that means a lot to the city of Dallas, and you get to see some great golf. Here at the range, it’s fun to be up close to the players. You get to see what their relationship is like with their caddies and how they gear up for a day of competition.”
My big tip from one longtime range volunteer?
“Keep the area calm and stress-free. We let those guys get worked up,” he said while pointing to the media observing from behind the roped area.
My next stop was the 13th hole at Trinity Forest Golf Club to be a marshal along the east side of the fairway.
Other than answering questions from spectators about the venue and course layout, I didn’t see much action.
I was ready to halt surrounding crowds had a wayward tee shot come close to the rope. I was prepared to go knee-deep into a bush to look for an errant ball, hovering over it until the golfer arrived. I was formulating my best “quiet, please” in my mind.
Instead, with an extra wide fairway and golfers who were on point, I spent my time perfecting directions to the closest bathroom. And, as far as I could tell, spectators appreciated that as much as a good tee shot.
‘Did you see it land?’
After my marshaling duties were over, I ducked under the ropes and made my way to Jim Turnbull and Brad Watson, the friendly duo working the lasers on 13.
Their job? Use a rangefinder to track and mark the tee shots of each threesome that passes through in order to get accurate distances that can be displayed in real-time.
Turnbull, a 74-year-old Army veteran and retired commercial printing business owner, traveled from his home in North Carolina just to volunteer at the Byron Nelson. For the last eight years, he’s picked two or three tournaments a year to donate his time, and with a son living in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, that made the Byron Nelson an easy choice. choice for him.
“I like golf and I just like being outside and on the course,” he said. “Being inside the ropes and up close and personal, it’s fun.”
He has his share of stories, like the time his laser partner got hit in the back of the head by a Dustin Johnson tee shot.
“My partner was fine, but you realize all these world class golfers hit bad shots too, just like the rest of us,” Turbull said.
Meanwhile, Watson, who lives an hour north of the course, was making his maiden voyage on the PGA TOUR volunteer experience.
“I was watching the Players Championship last week and they kept talking about the volunteers and how many it took to help put on a tournament,” he said. “I thought, let’s give it a go, so I signed up last Wednesday and put myself in for talent pools, which allows them to place me wherever they need me. I showed up on Thursday and started working lasers. I had a perception that you had to be well-known or connected before you could get on. But there’s a great need. It’s worth a little bit of a sunburn if you know it’s going to a good cause.”
As for working the lasers as a rookie, that takes a little getting used to.
“You get an order of the golfers on the screen, but then you’ve got to see when they hit the ball and you have to watch out for a change in the order,” Watson explained. “Sometimes that happens and we don’t know about it. So, we just have to keep the details straight, including what color shirts and hats the guys are in. We’re not saving lives out here, but the information is very important because it gets used all over the place, and you don’t want to make a mistake.”
Clearly, the pressure inside the ropes doesn’t just fall on the golfers’ shoulders.
There’s Nothing Standard Here
After getting the laser tutorial, my next stop was right in the middle of the fairway to tag along with Mark Montgomery, the standard bearer assigned to the group featuring Charles Howell III, Jonathan Byrd and Dominic Bozzelli.
As the standard bearer, Montgomery was responsible for carrying the scoreboard that informs spectators of the pros’ scores.
The scoreboard isn’t a cumbersome apparatus, but factor in a 90-degree day, a steady wind and about six miles of walking over an 18-hole course, and it can become “heavy” quickly.
“You can’t be much closer to the action than this,” Montgomery whispered while trailing the group with a perpetual smile.
That, and usually autographed balls from players at the end of the round.
Eyes On Every Shot
Next up on the course was a very quick chat with Kathy Rose, a walking scorer with 33 years of experience at the Byron Nelson.
“It’s just a fun day where I don’t have to think about my other job, which I love, but I’m a pediatric hospice nurse,” she said. “This gives me a chance to not think about anything other than ‘shot hit,’ and that’s a nice feeling to have especially in my line of work.”
Years ago, Rose missed recording one of Lee Trevino’s putts, but a standby scorer caught her error. And that’s part of what she loves the most.
“It’s the friendships we make out here that matter,” she said. “These people have your back inside and outside the ropes.”
Withstanding the Snack Attack
A few hours on the course under the open sun left me parched so we headed to player hospitality at the 10th tee box next.
Volunteers had sliced oranges and strawberries and stored them in cups for pros, caddies, standard bearers and walking scorers to load up on. Snacks like beef jerky, trail mix, energy bars, and pretzels lined the table next to sunscreen, bug spray and Tylenol.
But, the hit mid-round fuel that had golfers drooling? None other than Peggy Nelson’s “cowboy cookies,” a recipe containing, oats, walnuts, chocolate chips and cinnamon among other ingredients.
“They’re actually quite healthy, and good for energy,” Nelson said. “And many players believe if they eat one, it will bring them good luck.”
Nelson stood by the table, personally thanking each hospitality volunteer that donated time to replenishing the needs of the groups coming through.
“It’s the volunteers who give this tournament life, and there’s no way we could do it without them,” she said. “It would be absolutely impossible.”
Where the Party’s At
My final stop of the day was the volunteer hub at the Trinity River Audubon Center, where everyone who donates their time and energy is taken care of.
Need breakfast in the morning before a shift? Bagels and juice will be out. Need to cool off and re-hydrate? Stop in to watch the on-course action on one of televisions. Want to enjoy an afternoon adult beverage after your shift is over? Grab a beer from the fridge.
Leading the charge in the volunteer’s mothership was Teresa De Los Santos, a school administrator who takes vacation days each year and travels from her home in San Antonio with her husband, John (a standard bearer), so they can get their “fix.”
“We make that investment because we believe in what they’re doing for Momentous Institute,” she said. “I see that it’s a wonderful thing.”
She’s volunteered at the Byron Nelson for 20 years now, with 19 of them coming in the volunteer hub.
“I kind of found myself a groove right here because I like to see all the volunteers come through,” she said. “This is where it happens; it’s the heartbeat of the tournament. As the volunteers come in and check-in, they get a cup of coffee and breakfast and enjoy the camaraderie with everyone. Then they go off on their day and we’re here to greet them when they get back.”
She was named Volunteer of the Year in 2009 because of her sunup to sundown work ethic, vivacious spirit and “I’ll do anything to support these wonderful volunteers” approach.
“Because we come from San Antonio, we usually like to work as much as we can because this is why we come. I’m not going to go back to the hotel and just sit there,” De Los Santos said. “Plus, when you’re here, you’re with ‘family.'”
And according to her, “no one is above the work here.”
Even Peggy Nelson will pack volunteer lunches on days her schedule allows.
“One day, Byron came in and Peggy introduced me to him saying, ‘This is Teresa. I work with her packing lunches and we work very well together.’ It was so welcoming, so you weren’t afraid to approach them. And they would always want to know how the tournament was going for volunteers. Care was, and is, at their core.”
So, after six hours, the conclusion that I carried back to the media center? Blue pants, red pants, or yardage book-carrying pants; it doesn’t really matter because the mission is the same: Orchestrate a great golf experience in order to help young eager minds tee up a future so bright, it would draw a roaring applause from any gallery.