PINEHURST, N.C. — South Sound golf fans are posting scores, selling hats and distributing tickets at the U.S. Open as part of an army of volunteers.
They say they’re giving back to golf while being at the center of the action. And they’re preparing to do the same next June when the U.S. Open is at Chambers Bay Golf Course in University Place.
“It’s just the entire experience, being involved with such a huge production,” said Mary Jo Uhlman of Tacoma. “It’s like a little city.”
The volunteers, in their blue uniform shirts, provide a crucial and highly visible labor force at Pinehurst No. 2, just as they will next year at Chambers Bay.
The United States Golf Association was inundated with volunteer applications for Chambers Bay, the site of the first U.S. Open in the Northwest.
About 4,500 spots and a waiting list of 1,500 filled up in an unprecedented 36 hours in February. Another 2,000 came in before the application period was shut down in March, on-site championship director Danny Sink said.
“It’s sort of a huge first indicator for us,” said Sarah Hirshland, managing director of business affairs. “The responsiveness of the community was incredible.”
Seven South Sound residents are among 20 people from Washington volunteering at Pinehurst. All seven from South Sound — and seven others from elsewhere in Washington — also have signed up to volunteer at Chambers Bay.
Volunteers pay $165 for the privilege and its perks. They get two shirts, a hat, a windbreaker jacket, and a seven-day pass to the tournament.
About 6,200 volunteers are helping out at Pinehurst as the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open are held back-to-back at the same course for the first time. All 50 states and 12 other countries are represented.
About 4,650 people— including Harvey Hanson of Lacey — are volunteering for both championships.
Hanson is a first-time volunteer, assigned to post scores on the course from behind a manually operated leaderboard.
“It’s giving back to golf,” said Hanson, 67, who works back home as a controller for a Tumwater construction company. “They need volunteers for the tournament to happen.”
Hanson and his wife, Carol, are staying with their daughter in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
He was a bit nervous the day before starting his first shift Thursday at the U.S. Open, one of professional golf’s four major championships.
“I might put a number backward or upside down,” Hanson said. “You’ve got to be real careful.”
A crowd of 55,000 turned out Thursday on the first day of the four-day championship.
Nearly an hour into his first shift, Hanson said he was getting the hang of posting the numbers that show how much a golfer is over or under par. And he hadn’t placed any numbers incorrectly.
“I’m getting into it,” said Hanson, standing on an elevated platform in the shade near the 16th green. “It looks like it’s going to be a fun job.”
NO TIME TO SIGHTSEE
Uhlman and her husband, Chuck, are cashiers in the merchandise pavilion. She’s a semi-retired certified public accountant and he’s retired from the health care trade. Like Hanson, they have a daughter in North Carolina.
They’re volunteering at their third U.S. Open.
There’s not much time to spare for sightseeing or other tourism for the Uhlmans and other Tacoma-area volunteers, what with the hours they spend traveling to the course, getting through security, working and watching golf.
They’re logging shifts of at least five hours a day over several days.
“It goes so fast,” said Mary Jo Uhlman, 61. “You’re doing something all the time.”
They work as a team. She rings up the sales. He bags.
“It’s always enjoyable to see the best golfers in the world,” said Chuck Uhlman, 69. “And we’ve met a lot of very nice people.”
Mary Jo Uhlman said she’s motivated by her passion for golf.
“You can’t do any better than the U.S. Open in terms of being in the middle of it,” she said.
Terry Lee of Lakewood also is volunteering at her third U.S. Open.
As usual, she’s working at will call, where she deals with tickets left for others to pick up.
“You’re kind of the gatekeeper of the tickets,” said Lee, 69.
Problems arise, such as when people lose tickets or bring in ones for the wrong day. A USGA staff member who directs the three will-call locations steps in to handle those situations, Lee said.
“They will go above and beyond to accommodate someone to get them into the course,” Lee said.
Lee said she doesn’t volunteer to gain access to the tournament (though she does watch) or for the Ralph Lauren brand volunteer uniform.
She said she does it to support the USGA and give back to the community. She is a retired major from the Army’s Medical Service Corps and was assistant chief of respiratory therapy at Madigan Army Medical Center.
She now works part time as a golf shop assistant at Chambers Bay Golf Course.
And like the other volunteers interviewed for this story, she enjoys playing golf.
The volunteer program, Lee said, will help South Sound residents like her be a part of the U.S Open at Chambers Bay.
“It gives the local area a feeling of ownership that they’re involved in this project that is part of this community,” she said.
REASONS TO BE HOPEFUL
The flood of volunteer applications is one reason USGA officials are already optimistic about the public’s response to the U.S. Open coming to Chambers Bay.
Sink called the volunteer response “unprecedented” in his 15 years at U.S. Opens. Slots for volunteers usually take three to six months to fill, he said.
Ticket sales also have been strong, especially since they went on sale to the public Monday.
Sink said 35 percent of the tournament’s tickets were sold from Monday through Wednesday. Including pre-sales, 52 percent of the allotted tickets have been sold, he said.
He said the activity has been on par with sales for last year’s U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club near Philadelphia.
Sink said some tournament days at Chambers Bay will probably sell out this year. Individual ticket sales are being limited to 30,000 per day to avoid overcrowding the course.
Hirshland said the USGA is excited about having the U.S. Open in the Northwest for the first time.
She said Chambers Bay is an opportunity “to showcase a great, new venue and really to bring great attention to golf in a part of the country that doesn’t get as much of that as the rest of the country.”
“We’re enormously optimistic that it will be fantastic,” she said.
“It could be one of our best opens ever in terms of merchandise sales,” said Mary Lopuszynski, U.S. Open merchandising director. “People are really going to support it.”
The tournament’s arrival seemed like a distant dream when the USGA announced it in 2008.
The county-owned course will be at the center of the spotlight of golf as the countdown begins to the championship.
When the last putt drops this weekend at Pinehurst, Sink said, the focus will shift from North Carolina to “the eyes of the sporting world being on Chambers Bay.”
Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647