Inside the ropes at the U.S. Open

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By Elsa Bonstein, Golf Gab

Most of us watched the fabulous 2011 U.S. Open on our couches with our eyes glued to the television.
Three of our local people were right there in the middle of it: Ed and Suzanne Gurski of Shallotte and Mike Gildea of Ocean Ridge Plantation. All three were marshals at the Congressional Country Club two weeks ago.   
I met Ed and Mike at Cinghiale Creek (the home of The First Tee of Brunswick County, where they both coach) last week. We sat on the Learning Deck and I heard the inside scoop on marshaling at the biggest, most important event in golf.     
“Wow,” was Ed’s initial reaction about his weeklong experience. “There’s so much more that goes on behind the scenes in an event that big. The preparation began seven years ago when the site was selected. Modifications were made to the course, then there’s the television and other news media, the pros from all over the world, the sponsors, hospitality tents, volunteers. Most of the activity is not on the TV screen, it’s behind the scenes. My wife and I were on the first tee of the first hole at the 111 U.S. Open at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Wow.”
This was Ed’s first experience as a U.S. Open marshal, although he has volunteered at other professional tournaments in the past few years. Mike Gildea, on the other hand, has been volunteering at PGA tournaments for nearly 20 years. That list includes two U.S. Opens.    
“Marshaling has changed over the years,” he said  “Years ago, they gave us the outfits and extra free passes. Today, a lot of people want to marshal. For the Open this year, each volunteer had to pay $160 for their uniforms.”
“The numbers of marshals on each hole has also grown over the years,” Mike said.  “Years ago, there were a couple on the tee, some ball spotters in the fairways and a few more on the greens to hold up ‘Quiet’ signs. The U.S. Open is the only tournament run by the United States Golf Association (USGA), and they insist on a lot more marshals. For example, the regular tour has 25-35 marshals per hole; the Open has 70. There were over 5,300 volunteers at the Congressional.”   
To become a marshal at a U.S. Open requires submitting an application a year in advance. There is a training session and a booklet of information on just what to do and how to do it. Duties include ball spotting, crowd control, noise control, letting spectators in and out of the crosswalks, keeping the way clear for the pros to move from one hole to the next.
Mike told the story of one famous marshal:
“Ken Petrick was a fixture at PGA events in the Maryland, Washington and Virginia area. Everyone knew Ken and he was active behind the scenes until two weeks before the Open, when he died of prostate cancer. The news went around the volunteers and during the week of the tournament we all wore blue ribbons on our hats in honor of Ken and his fight against prostate cancer.”
The schedule for marshals is grueling. They’re up before 5 a.m. and must be on the course by 6:45 a.m. for the first shift during practice rounds and the first two rounds.  After the cut, the tee times are later. The pros double tee during practice rounds with 11 minute starting times. With two shifts of volunteers, each marshal works a straight five-hour shift each day.
“Most people assume that if you are a marshal at a major golf tournament, you have this wonderful view of the action from inside the ropes,” said Ed. “On the contrary, marshals usually have their back to the action and are facing the crowd around the green or the tee, keeping things quiet and making sure no one is shifting around while the pros are trying to hit their drives or to putt. We hear the ball being struck. We hear the putts dropping.  Crowd control is 90 percent of what we do.”
In addition to crowd control, certain marshals carry bright-colored paddles, which they use to signal the direction of the ball that was struck.
“I had to learn that most pros hit a draw, so I cannot start signaling to the far right with my paddle the instant the ball is struck,” Ed explained. “Most of the pros’ drives start to the right, then draw back to the left. Signaling with a paddle helps the ball spotters locate the ball down the fairway and helps to warn the crowds that a ball may be coming in their direction.”
There were some thrilling moments for Ed at the Open. Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy played in a foursome and the crowd around the first tee was huge.
“It was amazing to see how far those guys hit the ball,” Ed said. “Some of the pros will talk to the volunteers or the crowd when they’re waiting, but when they tee it up, it’s all business. They get very serious when it counts because a single miss-hit ball may cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in winnings. It is their job after all, and we need to remember that.”
Watching the practice rounds was interesting, according to Ed.
“They don’t just play the course, unless they have some bets going with their buddies in the group.  Sometimes you’ll see all the Swedes or all the Spaniards playing together and there is some bantering and betting among them. Then they putt for real, but as soon as the hole is done, they throw balls on the green and practice from other angles,” he said.
“The putts for each day of the tournament have been marked out in advance and colored dots on the greens indicate the pin placement for each day,” Mike explained. “Green might be Friday; yellow for Saturday, red for Sunday. That allows the players to practice in advance and make note of the speed and roll of each putt. Swing coaches and caddies follow the pros and make notes as they practice, giving advice on clubs and speed of putt, possible approaches and club selection. It’s very intense.”
The marshals are not allowed to take photographs while they are on the job, but sometimes a pro will ask them to take a picture and then reciprocate the favor. That’s how Mike and Suzanne got their picture taken on the 1st tee box.     
Volunteering at a professional golf event is a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. You get to see the pros up close and personal. Each day there are more and more spectators as the tension builds. Will a new course record be set? Will a new winner be crowned? Imagine the roar of the crowd as a crucial putt is sunk, or the groans when a leader hits the ball into a pond. Hear the banter between the pros, the conversations between the pro and the caddie and/or the rules official. It’s all part of marshaling at the Open or other PGA and LPGA events.
Try it sometime. You’ll have a ball.
Golf is a game where the slowest people in the world are in front of you and the fastest people in the world are behind you.
The fastest way to lower your score is with an eraser.
Golf is what men play when they’re too old for marbles.
The best tip a golfer can give is to the starter.