A trio of Horry-Georgetown Technical College turfgrass management students learned the value of adapting and industry sacrifice through their TOUR Championship volunteer experience.
The most memorable stretch of their burgeoning turf careers started Sept. 10 when, while preparing for an entomology exam, they learned that South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster had ordered an evacuation of the Myrtle Beach area, which rested in the projected path of Hurricane Florence. With a program featuring 50 students from 18 states, expedited evacuations proved tricky.
“Never in my educational career had students interrupted me in middle of class, saying, ‘Professor Granger, we are leaving because our moms have been able to book as a plane ticket out of Charlotte,’” says Charles Granger, who along with Ashley Wilkinson leads the Horry-Georgetown program.
(Pictured: Donald Baggett, Mark Harrison, Charles Granger, Will Hord)
Instead of a Monday afternoon round of golf with friends, Will Hord scurried to his Fort Mill, S.C., home. Mark Harrison, a Chicago native, remained in Myrtle Beach through the night. “When they ordered a mandatory evacuation is was like, ‘What are we going to do? I don’t want to stay through a hurricane,’” Harrison says.
A day later, they both received a call that a career-shaping opportunity awaited. Granger had inquired with East Lake Golf Club director of agronomy Ralph Kepple, superintendent Charles Aubry and administrative assistant/volunteer coordinator Mandy Rowell about bringing student volunteers to Atlanta for TOUR Championship advance week. The East Lake team immediately concocted a plan to provide lodging for Hord, Harrison and Nate Hewitt.
The drive from Conway, S.C., to Atlanta is 350 miles. Because evacuees filled two- and four-lane roads leaving the Grand Strand, Harrison says the trek took eight hours.
Harrison arrived at East Lake about 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11. He met with Aubry and assistant superintendents Dustin Bucher and Davis Watts. Less than an hour after arriving in Atlanta, he was helping AIT Nick Martin polish bunkers. Harrison spent the night in East Lake’s AIT house before moving into the tournament week volunteer hotel, where the East Lake team secured advance week rooms for the students. Hord arrived the following day.
“I’m just really thankful for what they did,” Hord says. “It’s a very family-oriented atmosphere. They incorporated us into the crew. I gradually started forming friendships working with people on the crew. Being able to work with the guys and really get to know them is something you wouldn’t get just working the week of the tournament.”
Hord, who volunteered the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, had never observed advance week happenings. The frantic, detailed-oriented work dazzled him. “It’s a mad dash to get a course ready for the world’s best players,” he says.
Like many golf courses, East Lake has experienced labor challenges in 2018. Receiving unexpected help during one of its most important weeks provided a boost to the crew, which received further support from more than 70 tournament week volunteers.
“We had been low on staff all season and had trouble filling those spots,” Aubry says. “We were grinding hard and it was wearing on our guys. To have them here to help us get things done that absolutely needed to be done during advance week like depth checking bunkers, squeegeeing and packing bunker faces was a big, big help. They allowed us to complete the things that were necessary to complete to get the golf course in the condition it needed to be in.”
Demonstrating a truly hands-on teaching style, Granger worked alongside his students during tournament week. Donald Baggett, a first-year student who spent 12 years in the United States Army, remained in Myrtle Beach to help with pre- and post-storm tasks at 54-hole Myrtle Beach National Golf Club before joining Granger and his classmates at East Lake. Hord also works at Myrtle Beach National; Harrison works at Legends Golf Resort. The most powerful parts of Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina, but the storm produced heavy flooding in parts of South Carolina, including the Myrtle Beach area.
“It’s first semester, first year for us,” Baggett says. “Those of us who have lived in (areas such as Myrtle Beach) we have been through natural disasters, so this isn’t the first time we have seen something horrible come through. But for anybody else, this is a big deal. You’re watching cities basically get washed away. East Lake has done a phenomenal job of hosting us and everything we needed, they have provided for us.”
Tournament volunteering is a key part of the Horry-Georgetown turfgrass management experience, with Granger and Wilkinson bringing students to multiple televised events each year. Granger estimates he’s volunteered at around 100 tournaments. None will compare to the 2018 TOUR Championship.
“For me, this has been emotional,” he says. “The outpouring of the support of our industry for not just asking about our families, not just asking about Ashley and myself, but asking how the students are doing. And then for East Lake to do this … I’ll be honest. I don’t know what to say other than God bless, East Lake Golf Club, and Mandy, Charlie and Ralph for what they did. They didn’t have to do this.”
Guy Cipriano is GCI’s senior editor.