With the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits for the third time in 2015, I lept at the opportunity this year to take part in it.
North Hills Country Club, where I have been a member for the past three years, teamed up this year with Tuckaway Country Club to marshal the fourteenth hole. I have never volunteered for a PGA event before, and saw it as an opportunity for a new golfing experience – one inside the ropes where I could get a good look at the swings of the world’s best professional golfers.
The event did not disappoint, as I worked all day Friday and all day Sunday.
Friday was admittedly a little rough. Waking up at 5:30 and driving to Sheboygan, then having to park at the north lot and finding my way to the main gate where I had to run down my credentials and then walk all the way to the fourteenth (the farthest outstretches of the northeast portion of the course) to get there a couple of minutes late was not awesome, but it was very cool having the chance to see a lot of my favorite players up close, and to be a part of some of the pivotal moments of the tournament.
Friday was hot – mid-90’s that felt like 100-plus degrees with almost no wind, even along Lake Michigan.
On the fourteenth hole, there were always twelve marshals working at a time. We were set up with two on the tee, one on each side of the near crosswalk, two others down the left side of the fairway and also on the right side of it. With the little wind there was coming in and toward the left-side sand trips, there was almost no action there. With the dunes on the right side blocking any wind at all, too, there were biting flies out in droves and nothing but harsh sun.
I forgot my sunglasses in my car in the morning, and unlike most volunteers failed to bring a folding chair. That area was brutal!
There were also numerous marshals around the green complex, mostly to hold our hands up when players were putting to make sure they kept quiet and [as much as possible] stayed still to keep from affecting the play.
Friday was rough in the moment, but there were so many great memories, including:
- While one stroke off the lead, Russell Henley’s drive hit the most awful bunker I have ever seen – a basketball hoop-sized hole at the end of the left-side fairway traps at the corner of the hole…
- Henley [to me]: “Any idea where it is?”
- Me [to Henley]: “Ahhh, yeah… Right there,” pointing my finger toward the ridiculous, foot and a half deep hole in the ground
- Henley: “Oh, that’s not good.”
- Henley [to his caddie]: “This is bad. There’s gotta be some kind of a rule that can help here. What about that hole at the end? See it?”
- [I waved over the rules official]
- Rules official: “What do we have here?”
- Henley: “See that hole in the back, is that maybe an animal’s home or something? Do we get any reprieve?”
- Rules official: “Actually, yes, under the ‘Burrowing animal’ rule.”Henley was allowed to drop within one club of his ball, no closer and still in the sand. He and his caddie found the spot they wanted to hit and have it carom to a more desirable location in a small tube of sand trap where the ball could actually be contacted with the club.He dropped the ball. It stuck right there, on the side.That ball was played about ten feet forward, but out of the hazard. His next shot was about ten feet from the pin, and he dropped that putt for par. Still one back.A drone was buzzing over our heads the entire time, and I was several feet away just taking in the conversation and situation. It was honestly fascinating.
- When Phil Mickelson, Jason Dufner and Padraig Harrington’s group came through, all three hit irons off of the tee. Dufner’s shot was the furthest away, and completely blind to the green. He walked up the hill and past me several times to get a good aiming point, went back to his ball and his approach rolled right past the hole to about a foot. When he walked by me walking up to the green, I smiled and he gave a shrug. I said, “Great shot, Duff,” to which he could only reply, “Thanks, never saw it.”All three players in that group birdied fourteen that round.
- After Mickelson’s shot, Bones started yelling to me: “Marshal!” … “Marshal!” … “Marshal!” I then realized he was yelling to me, and started jaunting over.
- Bones [to me]: “Will you toss me that rake?”
- Me: “Sure!” I then was going to toss it like I would to a friend, realized that I should probably take it a little easy and ended up throwing it up in the air and landing about three feet away from me.
- Me: “Sorry, that was seriously the worst throw of anything in my entire life.”
- Bones: [Shakes his head looking at me and rakes the trap]
In addition to a number of personal interactions with some of the stars (when they would engage me), it was also exciting to see several eagles and near hole-outs on our hole.
On Sunday, I spent the first couple of hours on the awful right side of the hole before hours on and around the tee box.
The only ball I saw go right all day was by Rickie Fowler. His tee shot was well right on the dunes, and his lie and stance were a little bit ackward. I helped him find his ball and kept by-standers back enough that he wasn’t crowded. His shot missed the green a little left, but I think he salvaged bogie. That was all of the action right of the fairway on Sunday.
The tee box was my favorite place to work, both in spotting when the fairway is open for players to tee off and for being “The flag guy.” I got to be the flag guy for most of the final pairings, which was a bit of a thrill.
These guys’ swings are truly impressive. I have never seen a swing as powerful, with a better turn and transition of power, for example, than Rory McIlroy’s. It was incredible.
When Phil Mickelson walked up to our tee, there was a family on a tripod stand on the other side of the fence watching the action from their private property. The dad yelled out, “We love you Phil!” Phil tipped his cap, turned around, then thought twice and grabbed a ball from his pocket, turned around and threw him a strike RIGHT-HANDED (did not see that one coming from “Lefty”). It bounced off his hands, but he grabbed it and gave it to his daughters. It was a gracious moment that really impressed me.
He then had to use the restroom adjacent to the tee box, came out and started up a little conversation: “Wow those mosquitoes in there are awful huh!?” “Sure are – nowhere near as bad as they were, though.” I think a few other words were uttered, but I was just really happy to see someone as high-profile as Phil be as engaging as he is.
Russell Henley gave our hole captain, Tom, a ball when he came through on Sunday, and other players engaged in small talk but nothing major.
Overall, Sunday was a much improved experience over Friday – maybe because I had sunglasses; maybe because the wind was blowing a little more and it was not as sweltering hot. I enjoyed it enough, though, that I completely forgot to eat lunch, and when the final pairing of Jason Day and Jordan Spieth came through stuck around for a little while to get a single picture after all the action was done, and then watched a couple more holes before beating the traffic on my way to Wisconsin Rapids to check out Sand Valley the following day.
Would I volunteer again? I am not sure. I honestly hope that I will be able to get media credentials by the time Erin Hills’ US Open comes to the area in 2017, and for sure when Whistling Straits gets the Ryder Cup in 2020.
While volunteering is not always extremely exciting at the time, the memories are truly amazing, and I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am glad I did it.