Rex Open volunteers enjoy an annual golf reunion

Rex Open golf volunteers Lucy and Curt and Barnhill.
Rex Open golf volunteers Lucy and Curt and Barnhill. Brian Strickland

Curt and Lucy Barnhill are like a lot of the 450 volunteers working the Rex Hospital Open this week.

They’re up at 5:30 a.m. and make the 20-minute drive to TPC Wakefield Plantation. “Dodging deer,” Curt Barnhill said, laughing.

They’ll be at the golf course until 6 or 7 p.m each day along with the other volunteers, who handle many of the tasks, the logistics, that keep a golf tournament running nicely. Then it’s home for a few hours sleep before doing it again.

The volunteers drive carts, shuttling players. They serve as standard-bearers and walking scorers. They carry water to coolers around the course, collect trash, help with concessions. They check credentials at the clubhouse, marshal tee boxes, hold up those ever-present “Quiet Please” signs around the greens.

The Rex Hospital Open, once a one-day affair with LPGA pros, is in its 30th year as a charity event and a Tour tournament. The Barnhills have been a part of the event for 22 years, first at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary, then Raleigh Country Club and now at Wakefield.

They also have worked the SAS Championship, the PGA Tour Champions tournament at Prestonwood, where Curt Barnhill said he once had to chase down Arnold Palmer to sign a release for his Cadillac courtesy car.

“Arnie said, ‘Cadillac has sponsored me since 1967, and I’ve never had to sign anything,’ ” Barnhill said. “But he came in and signed. And spent 20 minutes talking to the volunteers. Wonderful man.”

There is little name-dropping or brushes with celebrity golfers at the Rex Hospital Open. Many of the Tour pros competing this week are younger, trying to make their way to the PGA Tour, to make a name for themselves.

Rex Hospital Open volunteer Kurt Ruesch, in blue, shuttles players and caddies to the TPC Wakefield Plantation clubhouse on May 30, 2017. Chip Alexander

Barnhill recalled one year, when he was working the clubhouse, some of the players in the locker room were talking about a young, slender guy from Florida who was a bomber off the tee and a crafty, if somewhat unorthodox shotmaker. And a lefty, at that.

“They said you’ve got to watch Bubba Watson, he’s unreal,” Barnhill said.

And years later, now a two-time Masters champion.

For many of the volunteers, the Rex Hospital Open is a feel-good reunion of old friends each year. It’s not the same this year, not after the death of Bob Bidwell, the colorful first-tee starter in early May at age 89. But there will be some socializing amid all the work.

In 2012, Ron Hanson was handling the walking scorers – who digitally record the hole-by-hole scores and other statistics for each group on the course – and met a volunteer working in scoring central.

“Three years ago, Cindy and I were married, and on the week of the Rex Hospital Open,” said Hanson, a tournament volunteer since 1995.

The Hansons co-chair the walking scorers during the tournament, and Hanson reports, “Everything has gone smoothly.”

Tate Bombard, executive director of physician administration for UNC Rex Healthcare, is in his 10th year as a volunteer for the Rex tournament. He has handled a number of tasks during tournament week but has enjoyed being a standard bearer, toting the metal signs that have the players’ names and scores posted on small placards.

A standard bearer is with the group for the duration, in good weather or bad. They change the board hole to hole, depending on birdies or bogeys. They load up on sunscreen and hope for cool temperatures.

Many, like Bombard, follow the action with a keen interest.

“I’m a huge golfer, so it’s interesting to be inside the ropes, seeing how the pros think, how they conduct themselves,” Bombard said.

Bombard, who has a house on the Wakefield course, said he has been the standard bearer a few times for the final group on Sunday, walking with the tournament leaders in the last round.

“None of the guys have won,” Bombard said.

Told he might be a jinx, Bombard chuckled and said, “Maybe I’m a little snakebit.”

Maybe this year.

Why volunteer year after year? Barnhill, 79, conceded it is a little harder each year, physically, but the Barnhills are back again.

Many note the more than $9 million raised for patients, programs and service at UNC Rex Healthcare by the tournament, proceeds that helped build the new North Carolina Heart and Vascular Center on the main Rex Raleigh campus.

“I always tell people volunteering is great for you,” Curt Barnhill said. “It’s great to give something back. It’s good for the soul.”

Chip Alexander: 919-829-8945, @ice_chip