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VOL. 133 | NO. 114 | Thursday, June 7, 2018

Doing It All: FESJC volunteers leave no stone unturned

By Don Wade

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In 2009, Brian Gay won the FedEx St. Jude Classic. He got the big check, more ranking points and all the acclaim that goes with winning a PGA Tour event. And no doubt, any FESJC volunteer that crossed his path that year did right by him. Picked him up and got him to TPC Southwind on time, delivered cold water on the golf course and on and on.

But it was the next year that the best save came – not around a sand trap, but at Memphis International Airport. As the story goes, Gay’s wife Kimberly was riding a shuttle from the airport when daughter Makinley noticed a large stone was missing from the ring Brian had just given Kimberly as an anniversary present.

The FESJC volunteer network quickly went to work. Less than a half-hour later, a woman working as an FESJC volunteer at the airport called the shuttle driver to say she had found the missing diamond.

FedEx St. Jude Classic volunteers walk through the practice range at TPC Southwind. Volunteers at the tournament play a big role in making sure players and staff have everything they need throughout the week. One year, a volunteer helped a golfer’s wife find a lost diamond at the airport. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Larry Ratliff, 75, who is chairman of the tournament’s player transportation committee and has been an FESJC volunteer for 37 years – since the tournament was played at Colonial Country Club – enjoys telling that story still.

Tournament director Darrell Smith likes hearing that story.

“We always say in our tournament office it’s amazing the things our volunteers do that we have no clue about,” Smith said. “They really get Southern hospitality.”

Sometimes it is returned in kind.

“Most of the players are very appreciative of what we do for them,” Ratliff said. “And the nicer we can be to them, then they come back and then the people come and the paying customer is what gets the money for St. Jude.”

Ratliff has driven a lot of pros over the years. Most were polite. But none could match Fuzzy Zoeller for down-home, off-the-record fun.

“He’s old-school,” Ratliff said. “He’s got more stories than I can count and a lot of them I can’t even tell. Most of them were on the other players.”

This year’s tournament represents the end of an era, as next summer the FESJC will become the World Golf Championships - FedEx St. Jude Invitational. The dates will shift from June – the pros play from Thursday, June 7 through Sunday, June 10 this year – to August.

The more than 1,800 volunteers who staff the FESJC are welcome to apply to be volunteers at the new event, Smith says, adding that he believes it’s possible the number of volunteers needed for the WGC tournament could approach 2,200.

“I think everybody has their eyes on the future,” Smith said, “but we also want to put on the best show we possibly can for the last FedEx St. Jude Classic as we know it.”

There are more than 40 volunteer committees that cover everything from gallery marshals and player transportation to radio communication to ecology (a nice way of saying garbage collection and disposal).

The FESJC, in its 61st year, is also one of the few tournaments on the PGA Tour that offers a free volunteer experience.

Steve Stapleton, 69, has been volunteering at the FedEx St. Jude Classic since he retired from FedEx 3 years ago. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Steve Stapleton, 69, just retired from FedEx a few years ago, and is relatively new to the role of volunteer. He has been impressed.

“BlueCross BlueShield doesn’t spare a penny, does a wonderful job coordinating with the PGA and Southwind,” he said. “Well-run.”

Stapleton mans the practice range. He only took up golf about four years ago when he retired. Turns out, he was assigned the ideal venue for stealing a few golf tips while helping the greater St. Jude cause.

“I wouldn’t want to be at any other place,” he said. “I’ve learned how these pros warm up on the tee box. I’ve learned they start with their irons and work up through their woods. The better-known names have two or three people there helping them. Either filming them or running laser lines. It’s like a free lesson.”

Nigel Bowen, 65, is back at hole No. 13 this year as a marshal. Being a good marshal, he says, is about reading the moment and the players.

“Some players want to talk to the crowd and some want peace and quiet and please don’t bother me,” Bowen said. “You gotta realize there are both flavors. If they want to talk, don’t get in the way. Let ‘em talk.”

Bowen plans to keep volunteering next year and says he expects the coming of the WGC to be a good thing for the Memphis PGA Tour stop: “It might be rotten to say on some of the players, but overall you’re going to have a higher caliber of golf than you’re seeing today.”

Ratliff, too, plans to return for his 38th year of volunteering in 2019.

“We’re all family out here,” he said. “Once you start working the tournament, you don’t want to quit. I’ve been trying to quit for 10 years and I keep coming back and coming back.

“When you go down and visit the hospital … every hour I put in out here – and it’s about 150 hours in a week – if my time will help one child get well, my time’s worth it.”

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