NORTON, Mass. – Hall of Fame Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice is notorious for his aversion to reporters, but there was no evidence of that when he was approached by a military journalist on Sept. 1, 2009 at the opening of the PGA Tour’s Deutsche Bank Championship in Norton, Mass.
“You protect us and provide us that important service, so we try to provide entertainment to you through sports,” said Rice, who played 16 seasons with the Boston Red Sox. “If we didn’t have a strong military working for us, we’d be at war all of the time and never have time to play baseball or golf.”
Rice joined 20 other legendary Boston-based athletes, 21 professional golfers, 63 talented amateur duffers and the Massachusetts Army National Guard at the Players Club of Boston for a charitable Pro-Am golf tournament preceding the official Deutsche Bank Championship.
The spotlight was certainly on the athletes, but the presence of the Massachusetts Army National Guard was apparent and appreciated. Three M-109 howitzers firing 12 rounds made sure of that – both announcing the presence of the Guard and serving an integral role in signaling the start of the shotgun style Pro-Am game.
“Having the military out here is really a big deal,” attested Matt Toenjes, tournament coordinator for the PGA, succinctly summarizing the sentiment of the PGA and the 1,700 volunteers supporting the Deutsche Bank Tournament, the vast majority of who were sporting yellow ribbons on their chests.
“All PGA tournaments have a military focus now,” said Toenjes.
He noted that most PGA tournaments have at least one day where members of the military are granted free admission. Some tournaments go even further, such as the AT&T National in Washington, D.C., where wounded veterans do some of the television commentary.
In eight years as the PGA’s tournament coordinator this was the first time Toenjes had seen howitzers participate in the festivities.
Sgt. 1st Class William Murphy was the gunnery sergeant for the detachment of the 1st Battalion, 101st Field Artillery Regiment that attended the Deutsche Bank Championship. Murphy has participated in about 300 ceremonial artillery events; 10 already this year. He concurred that this was the first time his unit had supported this particular event. "Every time you fire the guns it's training, even if they're blanks," said Murphy. "Plus it's fun."
The same Soldiers who fired blank rounds from M-109 howitzers at the golf tournament will likely be firing live rounds out of M-119 howitzers in Iraq soon, as they will be deploying to Iraq in 2010.
The extent of the military involvement at the PGA Tour event far exceeded the artillery salute. Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Sellars, commander of the Massachusetts Army National Guard gave the opening remarks and emphasized the professionalism of the PGA. “The mark of a truly professional organization is how they give back to the community in which they live.”
Two wounded Soldiers from the Massachusetts National Guard, Sgt. Gerald Tehan and Sgt. John O’Riordan and one wounded Soldier from the North Carolina Army National Guard, Staff. Sgt. Dale Beatty, were honored before the assembled participants of the Pro-Am.
Maureen O’Conner, course chairwoman for the tournament, said that free tickets will also be offered to Soldiers for the tournament along with access to the exclusive Master Card Club, where refreshments may be purchased.
Speculating on the origin of the tournament’s military focus, Dave Anderson, chairman of the championship support staff for the Deutsche Bank Championship said, “I think it was just proposed at a meeting and received overwhelming support.”
Beyond the flagrant gestures of recognition, the tournament’s participants proved their individual appreciation for military service by taking time to sign autographs, take photos, and converse with members of the Massachusetts Army National Guard.
Former Patriots linebacker, and recent Football Hall of Fame inductee, Andre Tippett stopped between the 11th and 12th hole to address a uniformed Soldier.
“Anytime we can reach out to the military service, through donations, charity events or professional sports, it’s a good thing,” said Tippett. “We appreciate their service and what they’re doing.”
Brad Owens, a professional caddy, hailed a National Guard Soldier from the sidelines and offered him the opportunity to caddy a hole for PGA Tour golfer Rick Price. “I like the military’s involvement with this event,” said Owens handing over the bag of golf clubs. “If you’re American, you better.”
Price was equally outgoing in his appreciation of members of the Massachusetts Army National Guard. “It’s awesome to have you guys out here,” said Price to his interim caddy. “I do not have any military background, but I certainly support the troops.”
Brad Faxon, a front runner on the PGA Tour, approached a uniformed Army officer just before teeing off on the 14th hole to greet him and make small talk.
“Ask any athlete what is the most important tournament to win and they’ll say the majors followed by the tournament closest to home,” said Faxon, who is from Rhode Island. “This is my Fenway Park. This is my Gillette Stadium.”
Faxon realized the preliminary part of his goal. His five-some, which included Rice, won the Pro-Am portion of the tournament. Ultimately, he did not win the Deutsche Bank Championship, but he, along with the Boston sport legends and the PGA certainly created a winning atmosphere for the members of the Massachusetts Army National Guard.