Volunteer builds bridge for young fan

I’ve heard a lot of people who earn their paycheck in golf say “the industry” does not do enough to advocate on the game’s behalf. Well, I’ve never met “the industry,” but a recent experience at a PGA Tour event makes me wonder whether we’re asking the wrong people to be ambassadors for the game.

Last week I convinced my wife, Susan, that taking our 8-year-old daughter, Lauren, out of school for half a day to attend the Arnold Palmer Invitational probably would not hinder her chances of getting into college or passing second grade for that matter. So on Friday, March 27, I picked up Lauren after lunch and recess – can’t miss that – from her school that literally is within walking distance of Palmer’s Bay Hill Club and Lodge and off we went for a day of welcome father-daughter bonding.

What took place throughout our experience caught me by surprise – enough that I felt the urge to share it. It wasn’t employees of some high-falutin’ club pretending to be nice because it was their job. Instead, it was a group of well-intentioned volunteers who recognized an opportunity to make a lasting impact – on the game’s behalf – on a child.

Before continuing I confess that I fall into that category of those who could do more to help promote the game. I play golf only a couple of times per year, and prefer to watch on TV those who are better than I, rather than drop a hundred bucks or so to toil on the golf course and expand my vocabulary of words not fit to print.

To date, the only interest Lauren has shown toward golf was for a set of junior-sized Barbie clubs only because they were pink, a toy golf car she uses to tool around our home in Orlando and to see Tiger Woods live and in person. The latter stems mostly because she recognizes him from TV and we drive past the plush Isleworth community he still calls home (at least until his oceanfront estate near Jupiter is completed) on our way to school each morning.

My wife and I had taken Lauren to some previous incarnation of the PGA Tour event at Walt Disney World in 2004, but at age 3 it wasn’t long before she was begging to trade her first golf experience for some quality time at a more appropriate location – Epcot. Although our daughter is older now, I expected nothing more from a day trip to Bay Hill than a feast of hotdogs and soda before she grew tired and begged to go home.

I was wrong.

For Lauren, seeing Tiger probably was Priority No. 1. And we scratched that off our to-do list before ever entering the gate. We pulled into the parking area located on Bay Hill’s Charger Course, and the parking lot volunteer greeted Lauren as if she was a celebrity. He immediately volunteered that if she wanted to see Tiger he was moments away from teeing off on No. 8. He then pointed to a sign – the tee marker for No. 8 – literally a flop shot away from the car. We stood along the fence only for 2-3 minutes before she was afforded her first glimpse of Tiger – thanks to a caring volunteer.

After following Tiger, Padraig Harrington and Mark Wilson on 8 and 9 (they began the day on No. 10) I half expected to hear “OK, we can go home now.”

Wrong again.

We walked some of the course, talked and sat in the bleachers at the practice range. I don’t recall who was on the range, and it didn’t matter. Lauren loved the intimacy of the practice range experience – while munching on popcorn.

After walking a bit more, we caught up with the threesome of Justin Rose, John Senden and Nick O’Hern on No. 18. We stuck with that group (which also began the day on No. 10) throughout the rest of their round, primarily because the gentleman carrying the scoring standard, a volunteer named Pete, took it upon himself to make an 8-year-old seated outside the ropes on the No. 2 green feel special. He talked with her throughout the front nine, bribing her with granola bars and Powerade. Perhaps he wanted to ensure she had the stamina to manage 3,500 yards. Or, maybe Pete, a grandfather of five girls – with grandson No. 1 due this summer – also recognized an opportunity to simultaneously do something good both for the game and a little girl.

Regardless, the special treatment was having an effect as Lauren walked Bay Hill’s front nine with her chest puffed out a little and a determination that said “I’m important.”

When I thanked Pete on No. 9 for helping make my daughter feel special, he responded with “It was my pleasure,” before handing over his camera and asking me to take their picture together. While I fiddled first with his camera and then my own, I overheard him tell her that golf was a game she could enjoy for a lifetime.

He’s right.

After the last group had left the course and it was time to leave, I could see the disappointment on my daughter’s face. Children have a way of surprising you. I had convinced myself that we would be inside the gates for such a short time that the hood of the car still would be warm to the touch from the engine running. Instead, she was hooked and did not want to leave.

Disappointment was fleeting, however. As we began to make our way past the luxury tents along the ninth hole toward the car, a volunteer called us over and flipped Lauren a discarded ball – a Callaway Tour i to be exact. With eyes gaping as if someone had just handed over $1 million, Lauren thanked the man and waved good bye; the volunteer responded with “You’re welcome” and returned the wave. The exclamation of “Look, dad, look what that man gave me!” was, to me, worth a million bucks.

Although Lauren was immediately more interested in how high she could toss the newfound golf ball and whether she could catch it, the moment wasn’t lost on her. She now begs to go to the practice range and we’ll see whether her interest in the game sticks. That’s up to her – and me. But what is most important is that a group of volunteers recognized their opportunity to make an impact and they seized it. Perhaps we’ve been asking the wrong people all along to do the game’s bidding.

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