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I won't likely forget my marshal time with the spirited volunteers at the John Deere Classic

The genius P.G. Wodehouse would have turned my John Deere Classic marshaling experience into a memorable yarn titled “The Brotherhood of the Traveling Shorts.” But my forte is fact not fiction so this tell-it-like-it-is true account is called “How Uncle Bob’s Shorts Got Me In with Steve, Zach and Wes at the John Deere.”

The Uncle Bob in question is Robert VanDeVoorde, 81, 17th-hole captain for the 20 years the John Deere Classic has been at TPC Deere Run. The pivotal 550-yard, par 5 is one that today’s tour bombers go after in two shots with gusto—providing they hit the fairway off the tee—and it regularly ranks as one of the easiest holes on the course with its numerous birdies and eagles. VanDeVoorde is Uncle Bob based on my marriage to his niece, Mary, in 1983. Last week was his 35th year as a marshal, and he figured it to be his last as hole captain, but not as a marshal if all goes well. He asked if I could be on his hole team this year and the invite was well timed: I was going to be in the Quad Cities during John Deere Week to do my husbandly duty and escort my wife to her 40th Moline High School reunion July 13-14. The deal was he was going to be hole captain for Rounds 1 and 2 for the morning and afternoon tee times, basically two 12-hour shifts.

The author, Robert VanDeVoorde and Matt DeBlaey work No. 17 on Friday. At this point, the traveling shorts were on the original owner.

The author, Robert VanDeVoorde and Matt DeBlaey work No. 17 on Friday. At this point, the traveling shorts were on the original owner.

I had always wanted to volunteer at a pro tournament. Last year I signed up for this past June’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, one of my favorite courses, asking to do something outdoors near the players. But I was assigned to bagging duties at the merchandise tent and declined.

It was on Friday, Round 2, of the JDC where Uncle Bob’s apparel became more intimate to me than I could ever imagine. On Thursday he’d had me fill in at the tee, green and landing area; the only place I missed was crosswalk. I was expecting a repeat on Day 2, but when I arrived at 7 a.m., accompanied by his grandson, Matt DeBlaey, who was also on the team and had been my driver, Bob waved me over. He asked if, after my morning shift and lunch, would I want to go out with the 1:10 group of Zach Johnson, Steve Stricker and Wes Bryan. A walking marshal was needed for this fan-favorite group. Past champions Johnson and Stricker are local favorites, and organizers like to make sure they don’t have issues going from green to tee and around the course. I weigh 190 pounds and don’t consider myself “muscle” but I can use a stern voice when needed, and as a runner I figured I could handle the heat and hills, so I thought the gig would give me a full marshal experience.

The Marshal Plan was in place: At 11:30, Bill Anderson, a leader of the volunteer contingent for 43 years, which set a record with 2,000 last week, would come by to pick me up, take me to volunteer hospitality, then around 12:45 take me to the first tee. Sure enough, Bill was ready in his cart after my replacement arrived, with Bob standing next to him, but Bill said, “We have a problem.” He pointed at my olive-colored, sun-protection pants and said, “You need to be in khaki shorts.” I had the correct hat and shirt, but not the full uniform. We exchanged looks all around and I asked if I should go in the Deere Run golf shop and buy a pair of shorts, but I don’t think they wanted me to go to the expense. More glances around. Bob said, “What size do you wear?” “36,” I said. “Same size as me,” he said. Now we’re looking at each other with more meaning and as I’m waiting for someone to speak what we’re all thinking, Bob says, “Why don’t you wear my shorts and I’ll wear your pants.” The words kind of hung there, as a lot went through my head, not the least of which was, “How the hell do I get out of this?” I’m thinking this gives the phrase “he’d give you the shirt off his back” a horribly bizarre new meaning. But when you’ve gone through a bone-marrow transplant as I have, wearing an uncle-in-law’s khaki shorts for five hours doesn’t seem too difficult. Realizing this is quite an honor, I felt the Bill Murray/Peter Venkman line from Ghostbusters—“I like this plan, I’m excited to be a part of it!”—flow through me, and off Bob and I went to the nearby air-conditioned restroom trailer to swap. In true Monty Python fashion, we entered the empty men’s side and all of a sudden it got filled up with several gents needing relief at the same time, all of them likely wondering why these two guys were stripping down to their skivvies. As the garment exchange took place, I said to everyone, “Don’t worry, we’re not doing anything illegal in here.”

Volunteer marshals gather for lunch in a large hospitality tent before or after a shift.

Volunteer marshals gather for lunch in a large hospitality tent before or after a shift.

Bob got the worst of the fashion fix but at least he got better sun protection on a miserably hot, humid day. Bill got me to lunch, and afterward I hung out with 12-year marshal coordinator Judy Hendren and her cohorts Dixie Anderson and Roger Wallace (the latter an exceptional man…he Backs the Pack!). Precision, community, team spirit, faith in one another…these guys develop that attitude with great precision. Bill got me to the first tee with plenty of time to spare, and there I was, properly decked out, just behind standard bearer Sarah and scorer Mike to the right rear of the tee, waiting for our players to arrive. Both Stricker and Johnson came over to us, the former first, saying, “Who is walking with us today?” Stricker shook hands with Sarah, then Mike and as I stuck my hand out he turned and walked away and I did one of those pretend groom-swipes of my head. I guess I blended into the background, as usual. I did better with Zach, making sure to step forward assertively, hand out, and say my name.

Each player was introduced and teed off, both Stricker and Bryan finding sand and rough on the left and Johnson the fairway. Our contingent was off: three players, three caddies, security officer from the Rock Island County Sheriff's office (who bonded with TV rover Jerry Foltz over their identical names), two honorary observers and Sarah, Mike and myself. It was a successful round, with no crowd issues, but at 5:51, with our group on 17 green, the horn blew to suspend play with nearby lightning on the move. The weather system moved away, but I got to see the evacuation plan put into motion and it's impressive how the plans work beautifully. But by the time play resumed, at 6:40, I was not needed since the spectators had headed home. Thus, I didn’t get the end-of-round player handshakes and potential autographed item, maybe even a selfie with a player. Allow me at this point to switch to my impressions and observations about life as a marshal, not just walking but also as a hole marshal:

Close to the pros—Fans desire to be close to their golf idols, to speak with them and even touch them. Witness the increase in attempts by fans to fist bump and hand slap from behind the ropes. Being a marshal gets you that access, which is what Bob VanDeVoorde said is what he likes most about the position. But being that close doesn’t mean you can forget yourself. One of the marshal rules is: Do not initiate conversation, only respond when you are spoken to. Also important, of course, is making sure you don’t get in a player's line of sight. That is particularly troublesome on the tee, where a marshal holding an orange-colored paddle stands several feet to the rear of the player. The idea is that after the player hits, you move the paddle high in the air to signal which direction the ball is going so the spotters in the landing area have a clue about where the ball will land. I learned Thursday morning from Gary Stultz where to stand but he warned me that some pros will direct you where to place yourself. Some guys are so fast there is no way they see anyone. Australian Matt Jones, who was an engaging chap, was the fastest player I saw; he pegged the ball and slammed it.

Gary Stultz, of Cedar Rapids, trained me on the art of the paddle.

Gary Stultz, of Cedar Rapids, trained me on the art of the paddle.

Gary and I stood about 12 yards to the rear and left of the player, and through 17 threesomes never had one golfer move us. Friday morning was more harried. In the 14 threesomes Dave Yordy and I worked together, we were told to move five times. I predicted there would be more persnickety pros on Friday, cut day, because if a guy isn’t playing well he might find the smallest thing worth grumbling about. Scott Stallings’ caddie had me move to the right, which as I saw it put me right in his view but I moved anyway. In the next group Ben Crane told me to move in the rough grass, level with the left tee marker. One group later, the caddie for Mackenzie Hughes told me to go right again. When Dave took his turn, he was told to move twice in the same group. Stuart Appleby had him stand level with the tee markers as I’d done for Crane. But then John Huh was even more precise, moving Dave forward a little and over a little to the left. After the threesome exited the tee, I said to Dave how amazing it was that he was taking that much time to be specific about someone who was facing his back. I enjoyed being a ball director of all the duties on a hole. The proximity to the players was special. I got to see Francesco Molinari up close on Friday to see the game's hottest player, and on Thursday I saw phenom Joaquin Niemann tee off. But the caveat is that even though most pros seem to tune out the guy with the orange paddle, because of the potential for feeling a pro’s wrath and pressure of following his shot, there’s some tension in the duties. You’re trying to be invisible, but there aren’t any of Harry Potter’s invisibility cloaks around. Which leads me to wondering…

What do pros realize—As I spent two days trying not to do anything that would get me in trouble, I wondered what percent of the tour pros appreciate the volunteers and realize that they’re often accomplished people in their own right, topped by JDC Chairman Tony Carpita, Tournament Director Clair Peterson and Media Director Barry Cronin. Bob VanDeVoorde was an Eagles Food Store executive who took early retirement in 1992 but then worked as a controller for five years elsewhere before retiring in 1999. He started volunteering in 1982 when the JDC was the Miller High Life Quad Cities Open and only missed two years in that time. Bill Anderson was a leader with the county highway department and TSA among other assignments, and at age 66 says about the JDC volunteers, “This is my family and my family keeps growing every year.” Gary Stultz spent 34 years as an avionics engineer at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and was involved in the infancy of GPS. He had been at Johnson’s charity pro-am on July 9 in Cedar Rapids. Mike Elliott, assistant hole captain on 17 for 10 years, was an engineer at The Arsenal in Rock Island. Dave Yordy, Chuck Gibbs and Dean Lackey are high-ranking officers of the Rock Island Knights of Columbus Council (Dave is Grand Knight, Uncle Bob is treasurer).  These are the type of people working to ensure the pros’ happiness and they deserve respect too. Do the professionals know how marshals can feel they’re on tenterhooks that they’ll do something wrong? I’m guessing that yes, most do, you could see that in Johnson and Stricker, but the tour probably has to continually work with the players to show appreciation because sometimes their reaction says different. A couple times when I lifted a gallery rope to allow the player and caddie to go under I didn’t hear a “thanks.” Everything is done to make a tour pro comfortable; a side effect of that is spoiling the recipient. Players must work to not become ungrateful. I suppose it’s like a lot of workplaces: some people are nice, some are jerks, and some don’t know how good they have it, like a player I was told about who smashed a Trackman unit at the JDC one year and had to pay for it.

Getting corporate box guests to quiet down for players on 17 green is a near impossibility.

Getting corporate box guests to quiet down for players on 17 green is a near impossibility.

The pros’ chit-chat—I was particularly curious how much chatter I’d be able to pick up on as a marshal. The fact is, not much, for to do so would require standing closer than you’re allowed. The fact is, the vast majority of the players were mum and focused on the job at hand, on the tees and greens for sure. Johnson was one of the relaxed ones. When he and Stricker came on the 17th tee on Thursday, they were talking football and I heard Stricker, a Wisconsinite, admit to being a Bears fan. On Friday, after our group had teed off on 17, I lingered to get a bottle of water out of the cooler and Johnson, who was at the front of the tee, said, “I’m going to be lazy and ask you to toss me a bottle of water.” As I did so—thank goodness I threw it well and he caught it—I said, “Lazy and Zach Johnson don’t go together.” That was about the most creative I got with a pro in two days. Even when I was being moved around as the directional marshal, I didn’t respond back, I just did what I was told. The only other comment said to me was on Friday from Stricker, whose upper arms were a burnt reddish orange color on the back. As we went from 9 green to 10 tee we were astride each other and he said, “That was a hot spot down there.” I said something profound like, “Sure was,” and let him walk ahead. The fact was, the entire course was a hot spot and golfers were looking for shade wherever they could find it. It’s incredible we don’t hear more skin cancer stories on tour. After the Johnson group played 11 on Friday, they saw the par-3 12th had a delay, so Zach and Wes Bryan sat on a golf cart in the shadow of the 11th-green TV tower. The cameraman saw the pair and called down, joking, “You want a key?” Johnson kidded, “Did you say, ‘want a keg?’ ” But my favorite eavesdrop was between Johnson and caddie Damon Green after Zach bogeyed 10 to fall to even par and the cutline was three under par. Heading to 11 tee Green said, “Four, five under from here.” Johnson nodded and shot three under from there to make the cut, finishing on Sunday at 14 under.  

Rules speed—I never knew how fast rules officials get to a player but when Bryan needed help on No. 6, an official came in a cart within a couple minutes. But the lengthy discussion that followed was probably the reason the group was warned about its position on No. 9, which was not a welcomed warning. It didn’t seem necessary for sure after their group had to wait on 10 fairway and 12 tee to play.

Cart traffic—During my time, more of a nuisance to the marshals than the gallery and the boisterous corporate box behind 17 green (they were just too damned loud) was the constant flow of golf carts. We enjoyed seeing the good-will carts, which were driven by JDC board members bringing water, snacks and lunch. The problem carts were those driven by the electronic media. A driver of a CBS cart was so infuriated over having to be stopped (he once nearly ran down a golfer when he ignored the marshal) that he threatened a marshal with, “You keep that up and you’ll be parking cars.” I heard that he got reprimanded for that bit of cheek. On Friday afternoon, as I was helping a hole marshal hold the rope that made a path for the players to go from 15 green to 16 tee, the driver of a PGA Tour Radio cart lifted the rope even higher to pass under and zoomed ahead, choosing to ignore the requests to let the players pass by. As a golf writer, but an impartial one, I believe the writing brethren know better how to get around a golf course. It’s been a part of our DNA for decades. In my mind, the ignoring of marshal rules by cart drivers is like the guy speeding in traffic: does it really save you that much time?

Taking relief—Last and certainly least, I saw firsthand the answer that has perplexed golf fans for years: Yes, pros do take relief in the woods when it’s convenient and secretive enough, even though there are air-conditioned restrooms around. But some pros aren’t discreet enough. One of the marshals manning the crosswalk near 17 tee told me he was on duty when a woman spectator said to him, “Is that guy peeing in the woods?!” Yes, he was, and like Forrest Gump, he just had to go.

Whatever you might have thought negatively about marshals at a tour event while spectating—that they’re annoying view blockers, tour player suck-ups, clothing-cloned clowns—forget it all. The only thing marshals are guilty of is the universal desire to see the pros up close. Otherwise, their sole focus is ensuring tour pros smooth travel around the course, unimpeded by the gallery. That lets the players have the best opportunity to do their awe-inspiring feats in a spectator atmosphere that keeps idiot fans at bay. Now, if only marshals could control a fan’s brain and tongue to stop them from shouting, “You the man!” and other idiotic sayings.

As a native and impartial Illinoisan, I can testify to the validity of Midwestern kindness, teamwork and hard work. When those elements are part of a PGA Tour volunteer group, it’s an invigorating army to join in with, and it doesn’t seem possible volunteerism can be any stronger or heartier than at the John Deere Classic.

Cliff Schrock