Full swing

Hundreds of volunteers take time off work or travel from overseas to help the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship run smoothly.

Next time you are at a major international sporting event, take a minute to spot the little people. By that I mean the ones who are scurrying around controlling the crowds, doing the scoring or driving around the players and their wives. You might be tempted to think it is their profession to facilitate, fix and keep things running smoothly. Or you may not think of them at all, eclipsed as they are by the players and their entourages. But when the event is over, these people will return to their real jobs - as university lecturers, accountants, systems analysts, bankers and teachers. And they will have volunteered days of their time to be part of the action.

It is unpaid work. And many have had to take holiday in order to do it. As the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship draws to a close today, it represents the culmination of four arduous days' work for about 500 volunteers. And for one day, I was one of them. "Remember," says the chief marshal Jean Iggo to the assembled crowd of about 100 who turned up last week to collect their kit (white branded T-shirt and cap), "the crowd are here to watch the golf and not to cause problems."

We are gathered on the terrace of the Abu Dhabi Golf Club at sunset for a team talk. Most of the men are wearing suits. The women chat like old friends. "We see each other here every year," says Susan Falconer, who has volunteered at the championship for the last three years. Her remit will be the score board on the 18th hole, the biggest on the course, where all the golfers' scores are aggregated. "It's not a walk in the park," she says.

With her is Glenis Stevenson, a teacher at Emirates National School who has volunteered since the tournament started five years ago. "I'm a sports addict," says Stevenson, who doesn't play golf. "I love being outside for four days in beautiful surroundings, seeing my favourite golfers up close." As it is the start of the golfers' season, she says, they're particularly relaxed and friendly. When I turn up at 9am on Thursday, the opening day of the Championship, things in the volunteer tent are buzzing. Jean is bellowing the odd name into the sea of people, who are tucking into coffee and croissants (free food and drink is laid on all day at volunteer HQ). Most people have already been assigned jobs. I wait to hear what I will be doing.

Suddenly my name is called. There is a problem on the 17th hole, says Michelle, the assistant chief marshal. People in the pavilion are making too much noise, and spectators are passing too close to where the players are teeing off. I grab a map and a paddle that says "Quiet please" on one side, and "No mobiles" on the other. This is a crucial spot on the course, I learn from a man passing in a golf buggy. It's where several holes meet, so it's important to keep order. I feel slightly nervous, what with only a paddle to help me keep control, but I have Jean's words ringing in my ears. Golf spectators aren't exactly known for their troublesomeness, I think. In fact, when I arrive, peace has returned and there is no sign of ill-timed fairway traffic.

I decide to hang around in case the perpetrators come back. On the 17th green, a group of teenage girls from Raha International School are attempting to put scores up on the board - so that the players can see who's leading, they tell me. They are volunteering as part of their community service project. Would they have volunteered anyway, even if it weren't required? "Probably not," says Natalie Johnston, 14. "Although I'm glad I've done it. It's good fun and I like having a walkie talkie."

"I don't really understand golf," says Stephanie Kinnear, 15. "The numbering is quite complicated." Unfortunately for these volunteers, their hand-held computer, which is feeding the scores through to them, isn't working, so they are relying solely on the radio. "Too many people are talking at once," says Johnston, who is struggling to process the information. I'm pretty sure Stephen Dodd isn't 13 under par, but I don't want to interfere.

Over by the 11th tee, Mark Austin, the director of athletics at Raha International School, is keeping an eye on some teenage boys who are assembling their scoreboard. "It is a big responsibility," he says, "since it's going to be broadcast on television. But our school promotes responsibility, respect and being organised, and they don't get many opportunities in the classroom to see that link with the real world. This reinforces that."

It's time to head back to volunteer HQ for my next assignment. I am told that at 12.25 I will be walking with match 26: Simon Dyson from the UK, Edoardo Molinari from Italy and Richie Ramsay from Scotland. The job of a walking marshal is to make sure the spectators behave appropriately (ie quietly). I pick up my paddle and head to the first tee. There I meet my team, which is made up of Deborah Castle, who will be scoring, my fellow marshals Rubin and Candace Dressler, from Canada, and Joe Conchie, a 15-year-old student at the British School al Kubhairat, who will be carrying the score board.

The Dresslers, an accountant and a systems analyst from Ottawa, are on holiday, visiting friends and thought they would sign up. They are, it seems, compulsive volunteers, participating in everything from sports events to helping at a tulip festival and a dinosaur exhibition. "We like meeting people and getting involved," says Rubin. We set off from the first tee, striding up the side of the fairway behind the golfers. It is the hottest time of the day and we have to move fast to keep up. This is, Deborah tells me, the first time she has volunteered at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, although she has volunteered for 11 years at the Desert Classic in Dubai. "When I arrived in the UAE 12 years ago, I didn't know a soul," she says. "I arrived to help out at the Desert Classic, got out of the car and started chatting to the woman parked next to me. She's now my best friend."

We make steady but slow progress around the course. Luckily the fast-paced yomping is interspersed with periods of calm when we arrive at the place where the ball has landed. The players do a few practice swings, and when they get ready to make their shot, we raise our "Quiet please" paddles. In fact, since it is a working day, the crowds are sparse. Occasionally, spectators try to pass the group while they are trying to play, but this is met with a brisk hand signal from Deborah (spectators must stand still when the players are making their shot). Otherwise, there is nothing in the way of trouble.

"You should see the crowds around Tiger Woods at the Desert Classic," Deborah says. "It's like a circus." At around hole 12, after 2½hours of walking and paddle-raising, my feet are beginning to hurt. Deborah mentions a Mars Bar, and suddenly I can't think about anything else. It is, though, a lovely walk. Herons and bee-eaters are flitting about. And a family of ducks, complete with six ducklings, nonchalantly strolls across the fairway.

Despite the discomfort, I am thoroughly enjoying being able to go for a proper walk - on grass - something I had not been able to do since leaving England. And we are so close to the golfers that we can actually hear their conversations. There is a relaxed camaraderie between them and the caddies. We, though, have been instructed not to speak to them unless we are spoken to. After 4½ hours, we are nearing the 18th green. Roars of applause can be heard as Ian Poulter, playing in the group ahead of us, snags a 70-foot putt. As I think about what a relief it will be to get off my feet, I realise that Joe hasn't complained once about carrying the heavy score board. And Candace and Rubin will do this for two more days.

I limp back to volunteer HQ, where I wolf down some pizza and a hot dog. Next to me is Jennifer Sanderson, who has travelled from England to volunteer for all four days. At about twice my age, she looks unfazed by the marathon we have just completed. "I was here at 6am," she says. "I enjoy seeing how golf should be done. And the atmosphere is wonderful. The players and caddies are so friendly. They realise you're giving up your time to give them a better game."

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