Villagers know who’s on top at Bay Hill

Volunteer Hank Masti, of the Village of Collier, places a number in the leaderboard flanking the 11th and 15th tees during the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Masti said he had to learn to put the numbers in backward.

Not long after Jim and Maura Morgan moved to The Villages 13 years ago, they made acquaintance at Orange Blossom Hills Country Club with someone who suggested they sign up to volunteer at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. “I said I probably could open a bunch of beer cans at a concession stand,” Maura quipped. “He said, ‘No, you should be on the leaderboard.’ What’s a leaderboard? I had no clue.” This week, the Village of Tall Trees couple marks their 11th year working the manual scoreboard overlooking the eighth green at Bay Hill Club & Lodge. And there’s no place they’d rather be during the first week of March. “We’re not afraid to tell folks we’re the best board on the course,” Jim quipped. That might get some pushback from Steve and Sharon Bennett, of the Haciendas of Mission Hills, or Village of Collier resident Hank Masti. They operate the leaderboard that flanks the dual tees for Nos. 11 and 15.

“You get to see all the pros twice each day,” said Masti, a third-year scoreboard veteran. “It’s been really nice.”

They are among a strong Villages cadre of a volunteer force that approaches 1,400 for the Palmer Invitational. Though numbers fluctuate over the years, it’s generally accepted that at least one-fourth hail from Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.

“That doesn’t sound unreasonable,” said Christine Bishop, part of the tournament’s six-member Volunteer Leadership Council.

“They’re a hard-working group,” she continued. “They have the time and they want to give back. When you get a person who wants to give back, that’s really all you need. They’re going to jump in there and do whatever you ask them.”

The scoreboards are no exception. Recent years, in fact, have seen Villagers at all three boards at Bay Hill.

John and Jackie Murphy, of the Village of Bonnybrook, have logged 15 Invitationals working the “monster board” that overlooks the parallel 16th and 18th fairways, but are sidelined this year.

Though electronic scoreboards have become more prevalent at tour events, there’s still an old-school charm to the hand-operated boards. And there aren’t many places that hold tight to old school more than Bay Hill, where Palmer reminders are everywhere.

“Mr. Palmer enjoyed the old-style magnetic scoreboards,” said Jim Morgan. “You do it because he enjoyed it. And you get a little bit of a workout. There’s a little pressure — you can’t spell names wrong — but it’s just a lot of fun.”

The crews are in communication with a central scoring locale, which radios updates to all three boards at once. One volunteer keeps a running chart on paper, then directs the others what to post.

Once a golfer’s name is entered on the paper chart, the line he’s on becomes his identifier for the rest of the day. Updates come in sets of three numbers — for example, 7-15-4: Line 7, 15th hole, 4-under.

“The first thing we say is, ‘8 confirms,’” said Maura Morgan. “Then 11 has to confirm and 18 confirms. That guarantees everybody heard what they said.”

Then it’s time to grab some red numbers and climb the ladder.

“Things are a little clunky at the beginning (of Palmer week),” said Steve Bennett, “but by the end of the week we’re just rolling — boom, boom, boom, boom. We get the rhythm back.”

The boards at No. 8 and No. 11 operate in different manners — scores at No. 8 are updated from the front, while the Bennetts and Masti work theirs from behind. That board has dozens of little fold-down flaps where numbers are set, before putting the flap back in place.

“You’ve got to learn to put (the numbers) on backward,” said Masti.

Protocol at No. 8 requires scores not be updated when golfers are around the green, so as not to cause distraction. That can make for some anxious waits when scoring central has just given you an eight-player update.

“You’re standing there and want to get started doing all these updates,” said Jim Morgan, “and these guys are taking so long to putt. Arrrrgh, just putt the ball! And as soon as they start walking off, we start scrambling.”

The Morgans were attracted to joining the volunteer army because of the Invitational’s charitable efforts — the Arnold Palmer Medical Center Foundation. And that acquaintance at Orange Blossom Hills must have known something.

“Sure enough, they asked if we wanted to work the (No.) 8 leaderboard,” Maura recalled. “Sure, though we had no clue what it was. And for 11 years we’ve just enjoyed being here. It’s great fun to watch.”

The Bennetts initially worked security when they began volunteering, checking badges outside the player dining room. They also spent a brief time at the No. 18 scoreboard before being reassigned to No. 11.

“We like this one better,” said Sharon. “There’s fewer volunteers. I just don’t like volunteering when you sit around not doing much.”

Masti was invited to join the volunteer force by a couple of Villagers who work the Bay Hill driving range. He liked the idea, but not necessarily the locale.

“I didn’t want to do the driving range because they’ve got to get up too early. Let’s try the leaderboard,” he said. “It was really kind of dumb luck, but I really like this one.”

Oddly enough, Masti and the Bennetts rarely cross paths during the year’s other 51 weeks, even though they live perhaps eight miles from each other.

“That’s kind of a neat part about it,” Steve said. “We’ll see each other next year again. And then the next year.”

“Unless I see you at Brownwood or something,” Masti interjected.

Come the first week of March, though, it’s like a family reunion.

“I think most people here feel like a big family,” said Bishop. “Everybody comes back and sees their brothers and sisters. It’s pretty neat.”

Senior writer Jeff Shain can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5283, or jeff.shain@thevillagesmedia.com.