Early Monday morning there were already people with the volunteer passes working the grounds as the Sanford International began what will be a week of golf at Minnehaha Country Club in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Dale Gilberts is in his second year as a volunteer for the Sanford International. He liked what he was doing so much a year ago that this year he recommended his grandson get in on being part of it.
“It’s just such a neat atmosphere to watch these guys play,” Gilberts said. “I like to play — and I love to watch these guys hit the ball. Just to see their demeanor and how they handle everything. It’s like they’re on auto-pilot. They roll with the weather. They roll with bad shots.”
Gilberts and his grandson Aiden Johnsen are not alone in wanting to be a part of the tournament. More than 800 volunteers from the area are involved in this PGA Tour Champions event in 2019. They will be working in ways that range from making sure caddies get lunch to shuttling professional golfers from the airport to their courtesy cars.
And these are not just volunteers, they’re coordinated volunteers. It’s a big difference, though it’s always going to come back to a willingness to get involved. It’s always going to start with the numbers.
“Most people don’t have any idea how many volunteers this tournament and other tournaments like it really rely on,” said McKenzie Swenson, Sanford International volunteer coordinator. “I’ll tell people what I do and they’ll say, ‘Well how many volunteers do you have?’ They think I’m going to say a hundred or so. But it’s just under a thousand. They’re so surprised. There is so much behind-the-scenes work that goes on.”
On Monday morning, Don Breit, who will be working at the practice range, was there when the first touring professional showed up on the tee. It was Bernhard Langer, two-time Masters winner, who is playing in his first Sanford International and has become an official ambassador for the tournament.
One might wonder why somebody who has won 114 professional tournaments would be the first one to be hitting practice shots for a competition that is not starting until Friday. On the other hand, maybe that’s why he’s still one of the best players on the PGA Tour Champions at age 62.
At any rate, Breit, himself a fine amateur player, was there to see it.
“He was just right over there hitting shots,” Breit said, pointing. “I can tell you he’s a very friendly guy.”
That is typical of Breit’s time as a volunteer.
“The caddies are very nice guys,” he said. “Last year they’d always be coming back looking for more golf balls to hit. You’d see them come back a couple times for another bag of golf balls and I’d joke and say, ‘Okay, that’s enough. You’re not getting any more.’ And the caddie would say, ‘We know this is enough but he wants another bag.’ The whole time it’s pretty light.”
Spreading the word
Steve Rice made the trip from Mitchell to volunteer last year and is making the same trip this year. He was a marshal on No. 12 in 2018 and this year he’s working at the practice area. That marshal job included marking John Daly’s drive one of the days.
“It was a thank you,” Rice said. “And off he went. Other than that, it was great, because it was a cliff hole, to listen to the pros strategize about where they wanted to try and hit it. And then on Saturday and Sunday, when the rubber was hitting the road so to speak, they were real serious. There was some serious concentration.”
The word got around that this can be a fun week if you have some time.
“A lot of my buddies were out here last year,” said Jim Wosje, whose wife and son are also part of the volunteer effort for the first time. “I heard what they had to say about it and I had to be here. I love Sioux Falls and doing anything I can do to help the city. And I love golf and seeing these ol’ boys hit the ball.”
Wosje will be involved in security. That is, making sure both golfers and spectators stay in their lanes. The scope of duties for the week overall is diverse, to say the least. Those volunteering had 23 different categories to choose from with another two for junior volunteers like Johnsen.
A lot of different volunteers
It is a year-round effort to fill all the openings from year to year. And obviously, giving the people who sign up a positive experience is both the right thing to do and in the best interests of the tournament.
“There are more than 250 new volunteers,” said Swenson, who set up a leadership group of more than 20 people. “That’s pretty impressive. It means everyone who had so much fun that they’re recruiting their friends to come back and do it with them. It’s really cool when they’re saying, ‘Come and volunteer. It’s a fantastic event.'”
Jane Martin is part of the volunteer effort for the first time. She is working with the media this week. Though she didn’t hear about it from a friend, it’s something she wanted to do.
“I’m going to be working with the media,” Martin said. “I’m not sure exactly what my duties are going to be but I’m looking forward to it. I wanted to go to the tournament last year but I could not. This seemed like a good way of coming in and enjoying it.”
Dave Beranek will be on the front end of the week from the players’ perspective, greeting them at the airport shortly after they get off the plane. As such he’ll be responsible for making a good first impression.
“We have 90 cars at the airport we took there from Sioux Falls Ford,” he said. “I was out here last year watching and it’s like, ‘You know, I’m retired. I should help.’ And then it was like, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ And I got on the website and transportation jumped out at me. I’m going to give it a try.”
Keep it quiet
Ellen Smook worked in the caddie headquarters a year ago. There were no discipline problems, she said, though she did refer to her working area as the “caddyshack.”
“There is food in the caddie tent at all times,” she said. “A lot of them are very friendly. They were impressed with Sioux Falls and how the tournament was run. That was a good feeling knowing they were from all these different places and they felt that we did a good job.”
This year Smook will be a marshal. One of the most important jobs for a marshal is holding up the “quiet” signs when golfers are getting ready to hit the ball.
But Johnsen, who plays golf himself, is well aware of the game’s culture of courtesy. He’ll be helping with one of the hand-held scoreboards that accompany every group.
“I’m going to be placed with a group of guys and I’m going to walk the whole course with them and keep their score,” Johnsen said. “Walking with the professionals should be fun.”
And did they give you some instructions on what you should be doing?
“Yes,” Johnsen said. “They said ‘Don’t talk. And respect the golfers.'”