The golfing universe will converge on Scottsdale when the Waste Management Phoenix Open begins Thursday, bringing a host of celebrities and professional golfers to the city to participate in the PGA Tour’s most attended tournament.
In addition to hundreds of thousands of fans, Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, Arizona Cardinals Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson and NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith are among the celebrities expected to attend the Phoenix Open.
But while all eyes are on the big names, an army of thousands of volunteers will be hard at work behind the scenes and on the course.
Approximately 5,100 volunteers will work the event this year in security, concessions, transportation and as “hole marshals” – the on-course ambassadors who are in charge of crowd control.
“Simply put, our volunteers are what make this tournament work,” said Scottsdale native Ed Grant, a member of the Phoenix Thunderbirds organization that has helped run the tournament for eight decades.
The Thunderbirds work closely with the volunteers and one member of the organization is assigned to each group to expedite their duties and make sure operations run smoothly.
Last year, the Phoenix Thunderbirds also raised $12.2 million – bringing to more than $68 million the money they’ve generated for charity through the tournament since 2010.
Grant said the Thunderbird members, who are assigned to work with different groups every year, rely on the expertise of longtime volunteers – many of whom have worked the tournament for decades.
“It’s a great fraternity of people,” said Frank Kohler, who has volunteered at the Phoenix Open for 28 years. Kohler has served as the chairman of the Marshal Committee since 2000 and manages over 1,200 volunteers.
Kohler said that many volunteers come to town from the Midwest and even Canada to work the event.
Though Kohler said that the vast majority of volunteers have good intentions, he has come across a few over the years that have not been invited back – a rare occurrence as Kohler estimated about 90 percent of volunteers return year after year.
Some volunteers purchase the uniform just to gain entry to the event while others have been caught flirting with attendees, drinking on the job and laying down on tee boxes.
He said last year he caught several volunteers skipping out on their responsibilities early, changing out of their uniforms in the parking lot and then reentering the tournament with their volunteer badge.
“Now they’re watching golf for $40 for the entire week instead of $50 a day,” he said. “It makes my blood boil… I have fired volunteers, and I will continue to fire them, too.”
The presence of a few bad apples has not stopped the Open’s volunteers from putting on a successful event year in and year out.
“The general public has no idea what it takes to put this event on,” Kohler said of the tournament, which shattered its own attendance record in 2018, attracting 719,179 guests over the course of seven days.
“This becomes the third largest city in Arizona on Saturday,” Kohler said.
Though a slight exaggeration, Kohler’s estimation is not far off.
The Open’s Saturday attendance last year of 216,818 people – a single day record – would make it Arizona’s eighth largest city behind Gilbert’s population of 242,000 people.
Putting on an event for that many people requires a lot of coordinating behind the scenes.
Kohler, who said he begins planning for the next Phoenix Open in March every year, is responsible for scheduling and feeding the 1,200 volunteer marshals working under him and coordinating the logistics of getting many of them to the course for work.
He is also responsible for clothing volunteers, and his office – a trailer located in a staging area across the street from the course – is filled with boxes of official Waste Management Open shirts and jackets.
“There’s a million pieces; it’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle,” Kohler said.
For Scottsdale resident Nancy Bryan, a volunteer since 1999, the jigsaw puzzle has 150 pieces.
“I have to take responsibility for the 150 vehicles that are assigned to the players,” said Bryan, co-chair of Player Transportation.
Those vehicles, provided by sponsor Ford, are given to players to help them get around town while in Scottsdale for the tournament.
Bryan took over the post in 2000 and oversees a team of about 80 volunteers that is responsible for meeting the transportation needs of players, celebrities and media in town for the event.
She said those responsibilities run the gamut from picking players up at the airport to bringing players’ families to an urgent care because a child is sick.
“Sometimes it’s ‘my kids are dying for In-N-Out (Burger); they haven’t had it since last year,” Bryan said. “We get it all.”
She even had to rush Michael Phelps, actor Mark Wahlberg and golfers Ricky Fowler and Justin Thomas to a nearby burger joint for a low key lunch last year.
“They looked at me and said ‘Can you take us somewhere for lunch where no one will bother us?’” she said.
The job is not without its perks, and she said she cherishes the personal relationships she has developed during time working the tournament.
“The best part is I actually get to become friends and known these families,” she said.
Kohler, who got his start volunteering at an LPGA tournament in Sun City years ago before signing up with the Phoenix Open, has served as a hole marshal, hole captain and front nine supervisor before taking over his current position after training under the previous Chairman for eight years.
“I’d like to say if you mentioned the word marshal in this town, my name comes up,” Kohler said.
While the marshals are the most photographed volunteers at the tournament – they hold the infamous “quiet signs” that are dubiously effective at the Open’s raucous 16th hole – another group may get even more face time with attendees.
“Of the 5,100 volunteers, (over 1,200) are in concessions alone,” said Grant, the Phoenix Thunderbird, who was tasked with working with concessions volunteers this year.
Those volunteers work closely with the tournament’s vendors to keep attendees well-stocked with food and drink throughout the tournament.
Grant said the Thunderbirds have worked to improve the concession offerings this year by enlarging the craft beer garden and El Rancho Mexican food restaurant and installing LED menus.
“We actually start planning for next year during the current tournament, and we are always trying to make it better,” he said.
Grant said he spends 15 to 20 hours a week during January coordinating with vendors, conducting site visits and supporting volunteers.
“We are so grateful to our volunteers, so if there is anything we can do to help them, we try to make that happen,” he said.
Grant also credited the volunteers for their part in making the Thunderbirds considerable charitable donations from the Phoenix Open possible.
“Simply put, if we had to pay for (labor) that would cut into those charity donation dollars,” he said.
Grant said those donations go to a range of local organizations, including high school golf teams and the Special Olympics.
The funds are also used to support local youth golf in Arizona by offsetting entry fees, sponsoring tournaments and providing financial aid for players in need.
Organizations benefiting from the funds include Junior Golf Association of Arizona, American Junior Golf Association, The First Tee of Phoenix and ASU Golf.
“A lot of us have grown up in the valley,” Grant said. “Just seeing the Open grow throughout the years and being able to do so much for community is a personal endeavor and having that connection is special.”