The brother of Meijer LPGA Classic volunteer Karen Neeb let the proverbial cat out of the bag when he texted a photo of his sister on TV during an LPGA telecast to congratulate her.
Neeb, who was busy driving LPGA player Lexi Thompson in a golf cart at the Michigan tournament, texted her brother back in Nebraska and asked what he was talking about?
As it turns out, he had seen a TV spot during the telecast lauding his sister as the tournament’s top volunteer and nominee for the 2019 AXA LPGA Volunteer Service Award, which recognizes an exemplary volunteer at each LPGA tournament.
That was a surprise to Neeb and it started the beginning of the tears long before the tournament was able to raise a toast to salute the busy worker. It also came at the end of a tournament week hampered by storm delays.
But when the last raindrop had fallen and the final putt had been made, Neeb was able to enjoy her honor. She was also able to reflect on the last six years she has spent helping make her hometown tournament a viable fundraiser for a local charity in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“It’s quite overwhelming and I’m glad I had a little bit of warning before I was told by the people who nominated me,” said Neeb, who works as a marshal chair at her event. “I cried and some of my marshals – big burly guys – were also tearing up with me. It was so sweet.”
Neeb got her start with the Meijer event working on the busy par-5 eighth hole at Blythefield Country Club, where LPGA drives are measured for distance statistics and large galleries often clamor to watch the big hits. She signed up as a marshal and was designated as a hole captain because of her people skills and organizational ability.
She was later moved to the 15th hole, and for the last three years, Neeb has served as marshal chair, which means she’s in a golf cart with a radio, moving around the course and assisting with crowd control.
“I watch the crowds and I try to keep the players safe, but I also hand out pairing sheets, sunscreen, provide directions to fans, radio for more toilet paper in the portable toilets and encourage our other volunteers,” Neeb added. “I do what needs to be done.”
That kind of ownership of the event during tournament week is what has made her stand out and earned her this year’s top-volunteer nomination, said Meijer LPGA Classic event and volunteer coordinator, Emma Calverley.
“Each year the marshal volunteers she works with return to be part of her marshal team,” said Calverley. “Karen is a self-starter, makes quick decisions and is friendly to everyone she meets.”
Neeb already had volunteer experience when she signed up to help with the Michigan LPGA tournament. She had volunteered with the American Red Cross during hurricane relief efforts in Florida and is a frequent volunteer at her church.
She had also volunteered at two U.S. Open Championships and had worked at an NCAA Golf Championship. When she got a chance to volunteer at the new LPGA tournament starting in her hometown six years ago, Neeb was ready.
“What drew me to helping with this event was how much money they donate to charity and the fact that our charity – Simply Give – is here in town,” she explained. “We raised $1.1 million this year for Simply Give, which supports local food pantries and we have raised almost $6 million in six years.”
While Neeb spends each tournament answering radio calls from volunteer hole captains, moving volunteers from hole to hole, managing daily hole assignments and being present to support the tournament’s nearly 1,000 volunteers, she also took on another role three years ago with college interns from Meijer.
The interns would come to the tournament on Thursday and Friday and were assigned to work in the corporate hospitality suite, but there wasn’t a lot of activity there until the weekend. Neeb recognized both their lack of hands-on experience and the fact that she could use them on the course with her other volunteers. She got them move involved.
“They just didn’t have a lot to do, so I asked if we could use the interns to help as marshals,” she said. “We were always short and could use their help.”
Even if the students didn’t know anything about golf, Neeb taught them what they needed to know to perform as on-course volunteers.
“I gave them a brief overview about what marshals do, told them a little bit about golf and provided background on why the tournament is so important to our community,” she said. “Then I sent them out to work with our other volunteers who were so helpful to these kids.”
Ever since Neeb stepped up to get the college interns more involved, they have been more active in their roles and have left their internships with greater experience and a better understanding of volunteerism.
“Karen has done a fantastic job over the past few years working with the Meijer Intern Volunteers assigned to the marshals committee -- even taking a few under her wing for a full day, moving from hole to hole, teaching them the importance of a marshal’s role and being friendly to all they encounter while having fun at the same time,” Calverley added. “One of our goals this year was to be the friendliest tournament on any tour and Karen is a perfect example of that.”
When asked what the highlight has been during her tournament volunteer experience, Neeb says it’s when players, caddies, media and fans “smile and say thank you.”
When asked if she has any favorite players or friendships on the tour, Neeb cites LPGA staff members, rules officials, security staff and “the behind-the-scenes people” who make the tournament run successfully.
“People think I see a lot of golf, but I tell them I see very little golf and if I see a good shot, I usually don’t even know who hit it because I’m moving around so much,” she said. “I see bits and pieces of golf.”
But while Neeb plays and enjoys golf, she tries to let her volunteers oversee the tee boxes and greens during tournament week. She will take the busy pedestrian crosswalks to free up her marshals and give them a chance to see some of the competition.
“I’m not there to watch golf or to sit on the greens or to have the best views of the tournament,” she said. “I’m there to make sure my volunteers have a good experience and to come back next year.”
When asked what she tries to bring to her event each year, Neeb is quick to respond “west Michigan hospitality.” She compares her tournament to a “class reunion” with an opportunity to reunite each year with the volunteers she has met and now considers as friends.
She admires their commitment to the tournament, even during this year’s challenging weather conditions. Some of the volunteers reported for duty at mid-day and stayed until after 10 p.m., “in the cold and rain,” Neeb noted. Some were back the next morning at 6 a.m. Some even worked double shifts.
“I couldn’t do anything without the other volunteers around me,” she said. “They are so much fun to work with and they keep returning.”
Neeb loves the idea that her name will join those of other top volunteers nominated at the LPGA’s tournaments. One name is randomly selected and the charity of that tournament volunteer will be awarded $10,000 at the end of the season.
“It just gives me goose bumps,” she said. “This is an amazing place to live and we take care of our own people. To know that another $10,000 could go into the food pantry is just amazing.”
The AXA LPGA Volunteer Award program will designate a top volunteer nominee at each of the LPGA’s tournaments. At the conclusion of the 2019 season, the name of one volunteer will be drawn in a random selection. That winning volunteer’s tournament charity will be awarded $10,000 on behalf of AXA.
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