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A different point of view on the course

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sports Worthington, 56187
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

EDINA -- Judy Eykyn and Laura Ailts were supposed to be checking credentials.

As volunteers stationed at the clubhouse during the third round of the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament at Interlachen Country Club in Edina, the Worthington residents became gatekeepers. It was their job to make sure only players were allowed access to the locker rooms.

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Some of the best golfers in the world were forced to flash Eykyn and Ailts the necessary credentials in order to be allowed inside.

Except for Annika Sorenstam.

"Oh, we knew who she was," Eykyn said, laughing. "She didn't have to show us anything. We just let her in."

The encounter with Sorenstam, a 10-time major champion, was one of many highlights for Eykyn and Ailts, who signed up in November to volunteer at the June event.

"She was so close that you could reach out and touch her," Ailts said, referring to Sorenstam. "When you think about what that woman has done for golf, it was pretty amazing."

It wasn't the first time Ailts had been so close to a golfing legend. In 1991, at the U.S. Men's Open at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, she was close enough to reach out and touch Jack Nicklaus.

Ailts has been hooked on volunteering at big golf tournaments ever since. She's worked at "five or six events," including the Solheim Cup, a biennial women's golf tournament that pits a team from the U.S. against a team from Europe, in 2002 at Interlachen. Eykyn also worked at the Solheim Cup - her first volunteering venture at a big tournament - and immediately contacted Ailts when she learned of the opportunity to work the U.S. Open.

"There was no convincing. Right away we just said, 'We're going,'" Eykyn said. "It cost $100, but you get two shirts and a visor, and you have to work your shifts, but you can go to the tournament for free any time."

Volunteers are required to work four four-hour shifts, but, on the second day of the tournament, some apparent confusion led to a 10-hour work day for the Worthington women, who were supposed to be checking credentials at a large, air-conditioned tent from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

"At 2:30 we were supposed to be relieved and stationed somewhere else, but, by 3:30, we figured nobody was coming," Ailts said. "We ended up being out there from 2:30 until 7 at night. They were very thankful that we didn't leave our post, because most people would have said, 'Well, we're out of here.'"

But, for Eykyn and Ailts, it didn't seem like work.

The only downside was not being able to talk to players or ask for autographs. Still, Eykyn and Ailts witnessed things that a viewer watching on television -- and even spectators in the crowd -- would be unable to see.

"There was a rain delay, so all the players had to come back (to the clubhouse). There were big-screen TVs, so some were watching tennis, some were eating, and some were playing cards. I couldn't believe it. I thought, 'Men would never do this.' They would never relax like that; they probably wouldn't talk to each other," Eykyn said, laughing.

Added Ailts: "They were very friendly to each other, and, at the end of a round, they all hugged each other. I think they're close; they see each other (at tournaments) every week."

Golf, however, can be a cruel and frustrating sport, and Eykyn and Ailts witnessed many of the emotions that come with playing the game.

"On the first day, I worked the afternoon shift at the practice green," Eykyn said. "After all of the players got done with their five-hour rounds - and it was hot - they came to do chipping and putting, and one of them was Michelle Wie. She did terrible that day - she got a 9 on a hole. So her coach comes out with her, and she practiced for another two hours in the hot sun.

"Other than seeing Annika, that was my star-struck moment. I knew she had a terrible round, then she comes out there, and you could tell she was really dejected. I was like, 'Don't say anything to her.' And she just pulls in there and throws her clubs down."

The next day, Eykyn and Ailts witnessed a different side of the 18-year-old phenom.

"She gave this little girl from Chaska her ball," Ailts said, referring to Wie. "They're humans, too. You think they're not out there just for fun - this is their job - and she gave this little girl her golf ball. I don't think the girl realized it, but her parents knew it was a keepsake."

For the players who competed at the 2008 Women's U.S. Open, golf is a job. And it sometimes was apparent at Interlachen.

"On Saturday, when we were in the locker room, a couple of players who didn't make the cut came in to clean out their lockers," Eykyn said. "And, trying to be upbeat, I said, 'Where are you going now?' And I think they were going to Arkansas. You could tell they were dejected, but they had to move on; they had to go to the next spot."

Eykyn and Ailts intend to do the same.

Eykyn and her husband are planning a vacation around the 2009 Men's U.S. Open at Hazeltine so they can volunteer and watch some of the best male golfers in the world. Ailts also will be there.

"I just love to watch these players hit that ball as consistent and as straight and as long - it's amazing," Ailts said. "It's just a fun time."

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