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‘Volunteer power’ key component in tourney's success

On the surface, the Viking Classic PGA event in Madison seems to be all about money. After all, it has an estimated economic impact of $15 million to $20 million. Professional players vie for thousands and thousands of dollars in winnings, made possible largely through corporate sponsorships and other support from business and industry. And scores of vendors line up each year to promote their products and services.

However, each year the PGA TOUR event depends on “freebies” in the form of an army of volunteers. Without them, putting on the tournament would not be possible. And it will be the same way this year when the Viking Classic is played at Annandale Golf Course in Madison September 24-30.

Local labor

Tournament coordinator Mary Katherine Neely is a busy person in the days leading up to and during the Viking Classic. But she is quick to note that she has plenty of backup, a local labor force that she says is second-to-none.

Neely says her legion of volunteers, all local residents, number more than 1,000 each year. “We could not make this event happen without the time, talent and efforts of all volunteers,” she adds.

Practically every aspect of putting on the tournament and ensuring it runs smoothly is in the hands of volunteers. While the PGA TOUR provides such personnel as rules officials, Viking Classic is responsible for everything else.

The volunteers can be found at the tournament’s two medical stations, where doctors and nurses donate their time and skills in the event spectators develop health problems. It is volunteer marshals who are charged with controlling the crowds that line the course.

Some of these volunteers are organized. For instance, the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau supplies personnel to assist in registration. Parking is a huge logistical challenge each year, and volunteers from the North Jackson Lions Club handle all of the parking in all lots. (Ridgeland-based Golf Cars of Mississippi will provide free shuttle service to all spectators.)

Pro bono labor is also crucial to the tournament’s play. Annandale superintendent Al Osteen brings in students from Mississippi State University to help during the tournament with the course.

That is not to say the tournament does not depend on professionals. While manned by volunteer doctors and nurses, the on-site medical services are overseen by Baptist Health Systems of jackson, and ambulances are on standby courtesy of AMR.

Security is another component that needs professional skill and experience. Not only must the spectators and their vehicles need protection, and all visitors must pass through metal detectors, the players also require security. Local law enforcement and three separate companies provide security.

Intern-turned-coordinator

Still, Neely stresses that the behind-the-scenes force of the Viking Classic is volunteers from the local community. And interestingly, Neely herself is a native of the area who was originally a volunteer and revels in remaining out of the limelight.

Neely is a local product — she grew up in Jackson. She went on to Mississippi State University where she earned a degree, not in golf course management, but in microbiology.

The Viking Classic was originally played in the summer, and in 1998 Neely came on as an intern. Her tasks were mundane — she answered the phone and was a runner. The following year, she served the same role, but in 2000, she was brought in as tournament coordinator, a position she has held ever since.
She says most of the year, her job is fairly normal. (Her staff consists of four full-time employees.) But as tournament time approaches, she works “insane hours” and is under a lot of stress. At press time, she was dealing with all of the challenges of “Advance Week,” and was spending long hours on the course overseeing tournament preparations. The only way to reach her is via cell phone, and quickly she rattles off all she has had to accomplish and chores still to do. Yet, she sounds surprisingly fresh and calm.

She says, “Right before and during the tournament is non-stop. For the past month, we have worked sun up to sun down getting ready. Calonnade, who builds this event on course, started back in August. So, leading up to the tournament, we are getting the tents built, putting up security fencing, spotting trailers — just in general getting the course ready for spectators.

“This week is called ‘Advance Week.’ This is the busiest week for us in terms of getting everything ready. We have all of our vendors come in this week and set everything up.”

So, what has kept her here, enduring the stressful “tournament time?”

“I love what I do,” she says. “I guess I get a lot of self-satisfaction from seeing it come together. I like seeing to the details and making sure it is all done right. It’s always something different. It’s stressful, but I love it.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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