Ryder Cup volunteers: A once-in-a-lifetime deal
Jerry Gordon was superintendent of Bloomingdale's elementary schools for more than a decade, overseeing a multimillion-dollar budget and charged with the well-being of hundreds of children.
In less than a week, he'll pay $235 to wear a special volunteers outfit and bag Ryder Cup mementos in the gift shop at Medinah Country Club -- all to get an up-close look at the international tournament.
He is among 4,000 people throughout the world, who were picked more than a year ago, to serve as volunteers for golf's premier event, Sept. 25-30. They had to call a hotline at 8 a.m. on a set date in March, and less than an hour later, the volunteer roster was set. Soon after, a waiting list of more than 300 people also was in place.
The way Gordon sees it, that $235 buys him some important souvenirs.
"It's clothes with the Ryder Cup logo that I probably would have bought anyway," he said.
The biannual tournament pits the best European players against the top U.S. golfers, and each tournament alternates between different cities in the U.S. and Europe. This is the first time it has come to Medinah and may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance for many local residents.
That's why the retired Gordon, who still lives in Bloomingdale, knows he is lucky to have made the cut.
"I don't watch a lot of tournaments, and I'm not a PGA nut who keeps track of all of the stats, but I've always been intrigued by the Ryder," he said. "I always said if there was an opportunity to see one in my lifetime without spending thousands of dollars, I would. This is a chance to do just that."
Seeing the tournament up-close is the motivation for many of the volunteers, who come from 45 states and 14 different countries, including Ireland, France, Sweden and Canada.
Gordon is an avid golfer who plays at Indian Lakes Resort in his hometown at least once per week, golfs at other courses throughout the suburbs on other weekdays, and spends winters in warm climates where he can continue to play.
Spectators are paying thousands of dollars to see the best players in the world compete on one course. But in exchange for 16 to 20 hours of their time over six days, volunteers like Gordon get to see the action for free. Volunteers also receive meal and water vouchers, off-site parking and shuttle service to Medinah and a copy of the official 39th Ryder Cup program.
Gordon began training for his temporary new career as a bagger in August, when Ryder Cup volunteers went through PGA-led classroom training. Those who live too far away will shadow fully trained volunteers when they arrive closer to the tournament.
Critical to success
The woman in charge of making sure Gordon's job -- along with roughly 4,000 others -- runs smoothly is Melissa Brady. She's the Ryder Cup manager of volunteer administration, and she has been coordinating volunteers at PGA tournaments across the country for the past five years.
Brady said it's a huge task, but volunteers are critical to the Ryder Cup.
"The success of the Ryder Cup is due in part to all the amazing volunteers," she said. "We are very lucky to have so many people who are willing to volunteer and travel. Even locally, nowadays, people have so many time constraints. And truthfully, we can't do it without them."
There's no such thing as the "coolest" volunteer job to have at the tournament, Brady said, because it's a matter of personal preference.
But she did say the most popular role is the marshal assignment. Marshals are assigned to holes and are responsible for the safety of spectators and the assurance of fair play for competitors; they must watch for errant shots, which means they may come face to face with some players who find themselves in adventurous spots on the course.
Marshals with special team assignments help Ryder Cup golfers move from the 18th green to the clubhouse or the locker room to the putting green.
Other roles include jobs like leader board operations, working in the merchandise tent like Gordon, working shuttle services and selling programs.
Giving back via golf
Not everyone volunteering is doing it strictly to watch the tournament, though.
John Florina, a member of the Itasca Lions Club, said his goal is to give back to his community.
Florina is one of roughly 2,750 additional volunteers recruited by Lake Park High School who will work in parking or concessions. The school is shutting down its East Campus that is just north of the Medinah Country Club on Medinah Road, and in exchange PGA of America provided District 108 with $160,000 to help offset costs to close the school.
The PGA is also donating up to $240,000 to help secure volunteers, and Lake Park received 20 tickets to the Ryder Cup, which the district will sell to generate more revenue. Proceeds will pay for about half the cost to install a turf field at West Campus in 2013-14.
That's what motivated Florina, along with several other Lions Club members, to donate his time.
"Being a service club, that's what we do," Florina said. "When the opportunity came up to help our local high school, it was a no-brainer for many of our members. We get nothing out of it from a club standpoint. And if you like golf, that's even better, but we're just putting in our time to help."
Like the PGA's volunteer roster, Lake Park's helpers come from several states and three different countries. School officials said the effort has attracted a mix of students, parents, community groups like the Lions, and golf enthusiasts.
"We've gotten great support," Lake Park Superintendent Lynne Panega said. "The community has really come together ... so we are trying to be flexible in meeting people's requests to volunteer during the same hours or on the same job, so it's a fun day for everybody."
And even though Florina's main motivation is service, he admits he is excited about the tournament as a golfer, and excited about the hoopla that will come to our suburbs.
"It's going to be a crazy couple of weeks," Florina said. "It's going to be an experience that I didn't want to miss just because of that. You don't capture it when you just read about it and see it on TV."
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