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CLINE: Volunteers back in full force at Sugarloaf

Todd Cline

Todd Cline

DULUTH -- The tournament doesn't officially start until Friday, but the horde of volunteers needed to help with the return of pro golf to the TPC Sugarloaf has already arrived en masse.

Strolling the grounds at the Duluth club on Tuesday, blue-shirted volunteers were seen everywhere from the clubhouse to the parking lot, from the course to the hospitality tents. By the time the Champions Tour's Greater Gwinnett Championship concludes, a small army of volunteer workers will have done everything from serve as hole marshals to drive the players to and from the airport -- and everything in between.

And while some volunteers are returning to Sugarloaf Country Club after previously serving when the PGA tour stopped there, many more are helping for the first time or coming from other tournaments, like the TOUR Championship held each fall at East Lake Golf Club.

"A few (are returnees), but a lot of them are new volunteers," said Stan Hall, executive director of both the tournament and the Gwinnett Sports Commission. "By the time it's over we'll have had 800 volunteers (helping out). It's a crowd."

One thing volunteers do is help handle the crowds that will attend this weekend's tournament. But the blue shirts will show up everywhere in and around the course and clubhouse, performing tasks as disparate as signing players up for the tournament to handling garbage detail. The volunteer work helps the tournament be able to make charitable donations.

This year the beneficiaries include Gwinnett Children's Shelter, Gwinnett Technical College, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Georgia Gwinnett College and the Gwinnett County Public Schools Foundation.

Most volunteers are like Eric Greene of Decatur, who both loves the game and the chance to give back to the community through helping with a tournament.

He's worked for 12 years at the TOUR Championship, but this week finds himself back at Sugarloaf, helping get the golfers and the media registered. He enjoys what he does, and still gets excited by seeing the game's greats. On Tuesday, that meant helping make sure Tom Watson, winner of eight major titles, got checked in.

"That's a thrill when you see a Hall-of-Famer who has won all of those major titles," Greene said. "It's an opportunity to help out in the community. And from a personal standpoint, it's great to be around these clubs and these players."

Joseph Lestrange also gets to see players up close, but his job is very different from Greene's. The Sugar Hill resident is part of the transportation team, picking players up at the airport and driving them other places when needed. It's a volunteer position he enjoys so much that he performs it at a least one out-of-town tournament a year.

It all started in 2001 when the PGA Championship came to the Atlanta Athletic Club. He was intrigued by the position, but was unsure whether to apply because it included a $200 application fee.

"My wife told me I could spend a lot more money in a lot worse ways," Lestrange recalled with a laugh. That year, he drove Angel Cabrera -- a future Masters and U.S. Open champ -- and was hooked. He's been doing it every year since, including this week in his home county.

"I enjoy talking to them and socializing when they are in the mood," Lestrange said. "But I would never ask them for an autograph. They are here to entertain us with their golf."

Earl Brown is also on the transportation team. He said 15 years ago, he got a call asking him to help, and has been doing volunteer work ever since. He said he's driven too many players to list, but this year Brad Faxon has been one of his passengers. For Brown, the reason for volunteering is very simple.

"I do it because people benefit from this tournament," Brown said, noting the money that is raised for charities. "I just want to help kids, and I hope we are generating enough money to help folks."

Email Todd Cline at todd.cline@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Wednesdays.