We often have been asked by friends who never have volunteered at a golf event: “What do you get for volunteering? Do you get to play the course? Free meals? Discounts? Free entry?”
To those who would not offer an hour of their time without some sort of compensation: You don’t volunteer for what you can get. You volunteer for what you can give.
Volunteering at golf tournaments can be costly. We will pay $85 each to volunteer at this year’s U.S. Women’s Open at the Country Club of Charleston in South Carolina. The USGA is charging $185 for the honor of volunteering at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Travel expenses are not included. We drive when it is feasible and fly when it is not. To save money, we usually stay in an Airbnb rental, where it is possible to do our own cooking. We are, after all, retirees on a fixed income. We must stick to a budget. What we do have to offer in abundance is our time.
Golf tournaments donate more money to charity than any other sports entity. Much of that money is available because the organizers do not have to pay for the many support services provided by the volunteers. Some of the jobs we perform: transporting players from airports to golf courses; working the cash register in the gift shop; scorekeeping; cleaning and separating balls for the practice area; operating the ShotLink equipment; marshaling and crowd control; scanning tickets; and many other duties that fans might take for granted at a golf tournament.
Over the years, we have worked at tournaments for the PGA Tour, LPGA, Web.com and Symetra tours, plus various amateur events. For the most part, these activities have been fun and rewarding. We count our time as a charitable contribution while being able to take part in fun events that mean so much to the communities that host them.
So just what do volunteers get? Some events actually will allow volunteers to play a round of golf on the tournament course. We worked at the U.S. Women’s Open at The Broadmoor in 2011. About a month after the event, we received an email inviting us to play the course for a very special rate. The problem: The Broadmoor is located in Colorado Springs, and we live in Florida.
There are some perks, however. Parking and lunch usually are part of the deal, as well as a hat and a shirt, and sometimes even a jacket. Volunteers also may enter the grounds to watch the golf whenever not on duty. We will confess, though, that it is hard to be motivated to trek around the course after working for six hours.
Some events are better than others for working volunteers. The 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club was fun and exciting. It also was so crowded that simply walking around the property proved to be difficult. Even with a limit on ticket sales, it was tough sledding for fans and volunteers.
Most LPGA events are truly a pleasure. The players are nice to a fault, gracious and grateful. Because they usually do not draw the same type of crowd as the men’s events, the logistics are much easier to manage.
USGA events, especially the Opens, generally are run well from our standpoint. They treat the volunteers well, providing a comfortable break area with TVs, air conditioning and cold drinks from dawn to dusk. Morning pastries and lunch also are provided. Though they charge a bit more (average for the U.S. Open is about $165), we usually receive a hat, two shirts, jacket, water bottle and a weekly pass to the tournament. Most importantly, they value the volunteers.
Our PGA Tour experience has been mostly with the Players Championship. We used to tell people at other events that the Players really knew how to put on an event, and they did it well. Some of that was the result of using the same venue and a full-time staff. In December and January, people like us flocked to volunteer.
A few years ago, something changed about the Players’ attitude toward the volunteer contingent. If we were the only ones to experience this, we would have just ignored it, but numerous friends and acquaintances have ceased signing up for the event.
When we began our volunteer journeys in 2010, the Players attracted about 2,500 volunteers. In recent years, that number has been in the neighborhood of 2,100. Some of that could be planned attrition, but there is clearly an air of dissatisfaction surrounding the experience. The volunteer is being treated as a rather expendable low-level employee. Some positions now require the volunteer to commit to a series of 12-hour shifts as opposed to the typical 4-6 hours. Others, working in the practice area, are forbidden to have water from the coolers on the range (players and caddies only). Volunteers are shuttled eight miles to the golf course, even though there is an adjacent lot that will hold many thousands of cars. Oh, and volunteers have to pay for lunch. Many of these volunteers regularly schedule vacation time from their real jobs to work at this tournament. They deserve better.
Without question, one of the best rewards for volunteering has been the opportunity to play the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course. Even that benefit has been tarnished as management now requires a commitment of 36 hours rather than 24 to qualify for the round of golf. As we said earlier, we are not looking for compensation, but this perk is limited to summer days, when the course undergoes aeration several times and conditions are far from ideal. Just sayin’.
Hey, no one is perfect, and every event is liable to suffer some unpleasant circumstance. If you love the game as much as we do, and you can make the time, volunteering at a golf tournament is an experience you will not forget. We see many of the same people at events around the country from year to year, making for great camaraderie and a chance to share the experience with kindred spirits.
(Jim and Ginny Kavanagh are retired and live in St. Augustine, Fla.)