Saturday, April 13, 2013

Haddox Helps Guard Rich Tradition

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Like millions of other fans of golf, Ruston’s Greg Haddox will watch the 2013 Masters today.

But like only about 300 others, he’ll do it as a gallery guard at Augusta National Golf Club.

This is the ninth straight year Haddox has taken a week off his own job to serve as a volunteer on the course during Masters Week. He’s always loved ball: he played basketball at Centenary College after graduating from Cedar Creek, then coached college hoops before going into private business. He’s an avid golfer, and the game is as glorified and honored at ultra-exclusive Augusta National as it is anywhere.

“We get to go back and play the course one day in May; that’s huge,” Haddox said of the benefits of being a gallery guard. “But I’d work the tournament even if we couldn’t play the course anymore. It’s the enjoyment of just being there in the moment. I’m a fan of good golf. I’ve always loved the majors, and this is the only one that’s on the same course every year. A lot of people that don’t necessarily enjoy golf enjoy The Masters. The mystique and tradition here is what I love about it.”

It’s a working vacation. Gallery guards man the practice range, practice green, crosswalks, tee boxes, fairways, rough and greens, all to control crowds of about 35,000 patrons a day during the official four-day early spring tournament and the Monday-Wednesday practice rounds.

In the summer of 2004, a friend of Haddox who’s related to the person in charge of recruiting volunteers told him where to send his contact information to in Georgia to get on the wait list. Haddox was accepted that very winter and, in April of 2005, was working “Tea Olive,” the 445-yard par 4 No. 1. It’s a fairly active piece of real estate: at least three-fourths of the patrons come through the opening gate and the entrance to the course along No. 1’s fairway.

“It’s a very visible and very busy spot,” said Haddox, which is why 32 guards are assigned to No. 1 alone. “But I think it’s the best hole out there for me. You’ve got to be on your toes all the time, but at 2:30 or so when the last group comes through, you’re off. You can go watch golf on the course or leave and watch the rest of the day on TV.”

Each year Haddox and others rent a local home for the week. Friendships develop, especially when you’ve been at it as long as Haddox. When he first started – Tiger Woods’ victory after the great chip on No. 16 when the Nike golf ball “posed” before dropping in 2005 was his first Masters – the guards wore matching shirts and yellow hard hats. Now the uniform is khaki pants, matching shirts and Masters caps. They keep moving along the traffic of people who hold, during the weekend, tickets among the most scarce and coveted in sports.

“Monday through Wednesday are completely different galleries than the ones on the weekend,” Haddox said. “Early in the week, the gallery is a little more hyper; for most of them, it’s their first time here. Come tournament days, you get a much more educated fan. They know where to go, how things work and what’s going on.

“About the only issues you have are reminding people not to run or where you can and can’t walk and when,” he said. “There aren’t any cell phones around, or there aren’t supposed to be. If you see one, you turn it in to one of the security guards. We’re inside the ropes with the players; we remind the fans when it’s time to keep quiet and still, help players if they need anything. A guy might ask us to get him from the practice green to the first tee, or a caddie might come over and see how much time they have until they tee off. We don’t initiate conversations with the players; during the actual tournament, those guys are totally locked in. They say very little.”

A big part of their job is answering questions and giving directions to patrons. Where’s a bathroom? Where’s something to drink? Where’s a certain player? Thursday an older couple at the entrance asked him the quickest and easiest way to Amen Corner, the most historic spot on the course and also the most far away from the clubhouse.

“You got a helicopter?” Haddox asked them. Then he pointed to a distant leaderboard, told them to head for that and take a left.

“It’s a good way back there,” he said, “but it’s worth it, I promise.”

“That’s one of the things I love about being out here more than anything else: just meeting people,” Haddox said. “All different kinds and from everywhere.”

Though they pay for their travel, lodging and meals, gallery guards are treated like members for the day in late May when they play the course. Since the course closes for the summer annually, guards are given carts and told to drive anywhere they please except on the greens.

“We go to the locker room, the clubhouse, anywhere,” Haddox said. “They’ll let you play the Par 3 as much as you want. Usually we try to play 9 or 18 on the Par 3 course, then play our 18 on Augusta National. I love to play 13; that’s probably my favorite to play. No. 10, that’s my other favorite. Seven is very intimidating, very narrow. But the whole experience is something else. The difficulty for us is that you’re so in awe of the course, you tend to look around and sightsee more than concentrate on your game. Driving the ball is about the same as anywhere; chipping and putting, that’s what’s hard for us to do at this place. It’s Augusta; it’s a different ballgame.”

His son, Mitchell, a senior at Ruston High, has already signed to play golf at Louisiana Tech, so Greg’s wife Debbie is well aware of how golf can affect a guy. It requires a lot of time to play well and, when it’s a springtime major tournament in north Georgia, a lot of time to watch and work well.

“I tell people not to ask him how his trip was unless they really have some time, because he’ll stand there and talk to them about Augusta as long as they’ll listen,” said Debbie. “I’m not joking. He just loves it. We’re happy for him that he gets this opportunity every year.”