My week at SentryWorld
BY MIKE WARREN
STEVENS POINT – What a week.
When I signed up nearly a year ago to volunteer as a marshal at the 43rd U.S. Senior Open Championship at SentryWorld in Stevens Point, little did I know I’d be pulling double duty.
I had just signed on with Multi Media Channels newspapers in Marshfield and Wisconsin Rapids, as editor. In late April of this year, I was moved over to this publication, while dropping my duties in Rapids. It didn’t occur to me until several weeks later I’d suddenly be working the week-long tournament as both a volunteer and a reporter.
In hindsight, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I suddenly had access to, well, in a word, everywhere.
Let me back up. My initial experience with SentryWorld was on July 14, 2022, when MMC Senior Editor Kris Leonhardt and I joined other area media representatives for a news conference with Sentry and USGA officials, followed by nine holes of golf with other reporters and USGA personnel. They were using the event to build the hype for the pending tournament. Their strategy worked. Kris and I both signed up as volunteers later that same day.
Fast forward to June 27, 2023 at 6 a.m., as Kris and I reported for our first shift as marshals on the par-4 1st hole, during the first day of practice rounds which were open to the public. We were greeted by haze and smoke from the Canadian wildfires which had found its way into the area. As golfers started filtering onto the course from the practice green, the reality of the week suddenly hit me – especially when “The Big Easy” Ernie Els – all six-feet, three-inches of him – strode past me on the tee box. Things quickly got real for Els, who sent his tee shot down to Kris along the right side of the fairway, and into what Els called the thickest he had ever seen – anywhere. He tied for 12th place with Joe Durant at plus-three for the tournament.
After our shift had ended, we walked a few parts of the course and got some photos and interviews with fans looking for early access to some of their favorite golfers. We even had a nice chat with Kenny Perry and his wife Sandy.
I was back at the course the following day for a mid-day shift as a fairway marshal for a much smaller group of golfers, and much smaller crowds. That allowed me some time to take some photographs of some of the golfers, a few of the holes and a handful of fans. I caught up with a group of friends from Kohler and Oostburg who were having a blast getting their flags signed by many of the golfers who were there that day.
On Thursday, everyone had their game faces on, as the tournament began. Kris and I found ourselves back at the 1st tee, ready to report for an afternoon shift marshaling the green. As we arrived, so did Steve Stricker, who suddenly had the biggest gallery anyone had seen all week to that point. On a hot day in central Wisconsin, Stricker was hot and cold. After two birdies on the front nine, he recorded two double bogies on the back nine. The crowds thinned as Stricker made the turn, but big groups were still visible from our vantage point on the 1st green, and from the 18th grandstand as Stricker finished his round, ending a day which saw temperatures climb into the upper 80s.
I was back for a second-round shift as a fairway marshal, which provided chance encounters with two greats in their respective sports.
Stricker had already become the face of the tournament, and was drawing a crowd wherever he went. I ran into him as he was coming off the course after another disappointing round on the back nine, where he lost two strokes. He was still in a good enough mood to sign some autographs after signing his scorecard, and before heading to a Golf Channel interview.
The other chance encounter occurred as I got to the 1st tee box to report for my shift as a fairway marshal for the late afternoon groups. Any fan of the NBA in the 90s would’ve recognized Terry Porter in an instant, as I did when he approached the tee box to say “hi” to an old friend. We reminisced about his time in Stevens Point, including his time spent as a SentryWorld groundskeeper while in college.
“We had a bunch of guys who played ball together, and once we all got established in our careers, we would come out here every three or four years, and then we stopped doing it,” Porter told me. “I haven’t been back here in years. But I didn’t play golf when I worked on this golf course. I didn’t like golf then,” Porter admitted. “I had to wake up at 4 a.m. to mow the tee boxes and everything. My Friday and Saturday nights were not good nights for me, having to wake up early the next day to get out here.”
After taking Saturday “off” to get some real work done while watching television coverage of the Open, I was back on the links on Championship Sunday to cover as much of the activity and excitement outside the ropes as I could, talking with fans, volunteers and even SentryWorld General Manager Mike James, as we met up just off the 13th fairway on the back nine. I later found a spot near the rope on the 18th green, to take in the tournament’s finish, as Bernhard Langer recorded his third consecutive bogey to beat Stricker by two strokes, and Jerry Kelly by three.
Stricker’s late charge that day wasn’t enough. Still, after a long day, and a long week, he took a moment to answer a few of my questions as our paths crossed on my way out of SentryWorld. He didn’t have to do that, but he did, and we talked briefly about what this course in this place has done for the sport. The one-on-one encounter with the star of the week was certainly the highlight of the tournament for me.