I don't know if it's always the darkest before the dawn, but I know this: if you are working in the pitch dark with only the faintest light shined on the dewy grass by the moon, keep working. Because your eyes will get used to the surroundings, and very soon your fingertips will be able to tell the collars from the greens, then when you lift your head up again to wipe away the sweat, all of a sudden, there will be light.
With almost zero knowledge in turf but great passion for golf and everything about it, I joined a crew of more than 80 volunteers from all over the world last week to prepare the Stadium Course of TPC Sawgrass for The Players Championship 2017.
I will do my best to describe one of the most memorable ten days in my life in this blog.
The First Dawn
The volunteers started rolling in the Thursday and Friday before the tournament week, we were all a bit timid, very excited, and completely ready. I was picked up at the airport, checked in, took a shower and climbed into bed, waiting for the 4:00 AM alarm to go off on Saturday. Before it did, I woke up three times, each time seeing the street lamp outside lighting up the parking lot, thinking there was already daylight, and scared myself half to death. I woke up at 3:00 AM and got dressed, put my makeup on (right, I would later learn this step was superfluous and these 10 minutes could have been more wisely spent on sleep), grabbed my tournament-issued backpack of 10,000 pockets, and headed out for the shuttle bus. I sat nervously on the bus, thinking I didn't know anyone, and wouldn't know anyone. I couldn't be more wrong.
Lucas Andrews, the superintendent of TPC Sawgrass Dye's Valley course, who orchestrated the whole volunteering program and was in charge of all the assignments greeted us with the most energetic voice and posture anyone could have at 4:30 in the morning. I was assigned to pick up the debris from the tree work left on the course the day before and I couldn't be happier, knowing that the chance of me screwing up this operation was minimum. I greeted my first sunrise at TPC Sawgrass with leaves and clouds and things flying in the 58-degree air. I heard every flap of the wings and note of a bird, hoped it would be an osprey.
"I'd love to see an osprey!" I said to my fellow crew members.
I zipped up my windbreaker outside my hoodie, had no idea where to find the Florida warmth that people were gushing about. (Don't worry, that realization would come a bit too soon as well.) It took us all day to pick up the debris, we worked with the TPC Sawgrass intern Ryan Burton, who was doing his 8th month internship from England, and knew the course like the back of his hand. My partner Seth Clark, from Tobacco Road Golf, North Carolina, couldn't have been nicer, at one point when I couldn't hear him over the mower, he apologized for his Southern accent (it wasn't that thick at all!) and said he would gladly repeat himself every time. When we climbed onto one of the TV towers he would always make sure the gate was held open for me on top of a very scary climb, and he would knock over some spiderwebs that were in our way. Thanks to him, I got to take these pictures on top of the TV towers without too much screaming.
See that last picture of our TV tower adventure shots? That's the 6th green. And those white things on the green were turning boards. Little did I know they would become my bread-and-butter in the next 8 days.
That has been my assignment for AM and PM shifts throughout the tournament.
What is a turning board? For those who had the same question as I did when I first saw my assignment but couldn't phone a friend to find out, worry not. Below you will find a gallery of pictures of turning boards (tournament-issued backpack of 10,000 pockets also made a cameo). Oh yeah. I was basically the pillar and concrete and foundation who held this tournament together.
Turning boards are used like this (this following part is for non-turf-beings only, skip it if you're moving turning boards when you were 16 years old): You and your partner will put two of them side by side at 4 ends of the greens, so your green mowers (Hello Ryan! Hello Pieter!) can turn around on them without hurting the collars of the greens, this means you have to move them swiftly to catch up to your green mowers in both directions. You put them on two hooks on one side of the gator (those are the tough-looking carts that you drive around the golf course looking cool), and if those stainless steel hooks break, you roll up your boards a bit and fit them on top of your gator.
Click here to see them in action, both the turning boards and the mowers!
And just like that, with AM shifts followed by PM shifts followed by AM shifts, I was almost ready for Thursday. First Round, here we go.
To Dare is to Do (is to Dare is to Do)
3:30 AM. Thursday. May 11th. 2017. First round of The PLAYERS Championship.
My fifth day in Florida. At this point, I could already wake up without my alarm and go to sleep pretty much anywhere. I would walk into the morning briefing with hot coffee in one hand and my peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, folded in half, in the other. I would also know to hide it in my pocket (my first one was stolen by a starling on the 9th green) if I wanted to eat the whole thing. I have even learned how to stimp the greens from my best friend. I knew 80% of the volunteers by their names and their courses-I've made so many friends from so many parts of the country, of the world through our passion for golf, about tournaments, and perhaps most often, through discovery of wildlife that we see. Oh, that's right, I have also got to know three families of ospreys that call TPC Sawgrass home.
Today I sat down next to Jeff from The Country Club of Virginia, my second best friend (don't worry, he knows) during the briefing and I was explaining to him my new invention of adding a whole spoon-full of peanut butter in my coffee so I could have more energy to get me through morning assignment until breakfast. Just when I was about to dismiss his doubt, I heard Lucas say some words that made the whole room quiet down a bit and look at me.
"Delphine, you're on your own for turning boards today." he repeated again, to confirm my fear.
To dare is to do. To dare is to do.
And do it I did. With the help my two green mowers, I managed to move all 8 turning boards without too much a delay on the first two greens, and by the time we got to our third green, I was sweating and panting, my heart beat like someone who has just finished a 5K and I was desperate to catch a break. The green rollers crew has caught up with us and they waited by the green so they could roll it when we finished mowing. The rollers and turning boards movers jumped into action to help me without even asking a word. They remembered I was on my own moving turning boards today.
This picture tells the story of us. The 200 of us, as one team. With this dragon of turning boards, I didn't have to move anything for a good 10 minutes.
"Don't you have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to finish?" Brandon asked, "I got this."
I lifted up my head to wipe away the sweat, and all of a sudden, there was the light.
And that was exactly how I felt. Waking up at 3:30 AM every morning certainly was not easy, walking briskly on the greens to move the boards or running on the collars to get to the other side of the green was always a tough decision. Every day I felt like a walking liability, scaring myself every shift thinking I might screw up the whole tournament (I couldn't, I was not that able), trying to remember if the direction was 10-2 or 12-3, boards on the collars or on the greens.
"I don't even know why they would let me come here!" I asked Kyle, one of my good friends at the tournament whom I met from last year's Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston, where he was the assistant superintendent.
"Well," Kyle thought for half a second, "you're good for the morale."
I smiled all the time, I know this because people told me so. But what people did not understand was, this, to be able to work this hard and call this many people friends at a tournament such as this, was what made me smile. Wholeheartedly.
I remembered when Lucas announced the long drive champion for the first annual Dye Valley Shootout, a friendly competition between the volunteers, during dinner break. I jumped up and screamed "That's my best friend!" so loud that RJ almost didn't dare to go up to claim his prize.
I felt that way about all of us. I was behind them 100%, just like they were behind me 100%. We were a team.
We were good for my morale.
Because of what I do, people loved sharing their stories about animals on golf courses with me. The reason why mealtime was my favorite time was that not only we got to sit down and be fed, we got to know each other and talk. This was the time when my fellow volunteers would come to me and show me the pictures of wildlife whose images that they have captured during their shifts. Even those who told me there's not really that much of a wildlife or nature present on their courses, would usually come back to tell me that "You know what, now come to think of it, I did see..." What I have learned is this, sometimes we get jaded, we take what we see every day for granted and we forget those are the stories that are waiting to be told, until we find a pair of eager ears who cannot wait one more minute to hear them.
We have made a film to record these lovely encounters my fellow volunteers have had on their courses, to help people understand the sustainable side of golf, to help shine a different light on green-keeping, and perhaps almost equally important to me, to remember all the good people that have come together for this, that for those ten days in May, we were one. And shall always be from here on.
Click on the picture below to meet some of us and learn about the animals on our courses!
Thank you, TPC Sawgrass, for your warm hospitality and for trusting me with 8 turning boards and a gator every day. Thank you, PGA Tour agronomists for giving me an approving nod when I showed you how I moved my turning boards and wiped the bunker rakes. Thank you, sponsors, for the lovely, practical, and dare I say, fashionable uniforms and swags, and for the icy cold sports drinks every shift. Thank you, caterer, for having us hooked on some good Southern food (Grits! Grits! Grits!) and sweet tea! Thank you, Family Plotts, for making me feel at home when I missed my family.
And thank you to all my fellow volunteers. I have so much to say to you, but I know a thank you will sum it up. Oh, and a sorry, if you're Canadian. :)
Stay well and keep in touch. See you next year!