Golf-marshalling is a way of life for many people. In fact, it can be such a cliquey little closed shop that you sometimes have to put your name on a waiting list to get in. Enthusiasts of the wonderful, exciting, infuriating and utterly addictive game plan their holidays around tournaments - some spend weeks and months travelling from one championship golf course to another to join the marshaling teams.
In their suitcases they carry several pairs of navy shorts, beige trousers for colder climes, golf shoes, umbrellas, plastic water bottles, backpacks filled with sun creams and little canvas chairs that fold away neatly. As marshals they are usually given shirts or aprons with the tournament logos, baseball caps and sometimes even gilets or rainproofs. Try volunteering for any of the tournaments on the Costa del Sol, however, and you might have to wait years to get a look in. The same people sign up year after year and you see them tottering off to their assigned positions well into their eighties.
It is much easier in the UAE, where new volunteer marshals are welcomed with open arms, especially now that there are so many big tournaments here. At the Emirates Golf Club, for example, they hold a special evening with a buffet supper to welcome would-be marshals. It's a great place to make new golfing friends and there is a buzz of excitement at the prospect of being part of an event and seeing your golfing heroes up close.
Two years ago I was on the team for the Dubai Ladies Masters and turned up slightly apprehensive about the potential gaffes one could make, such as not spotting the nerd with the camera in the crowd just as Annika Sorenstam was on her back swing. Actually, she was always so focused that little fazed her, but some of the lesser-known players I encountered were seriously ill-tempered. I was relieved to read a note in the booklet they give you, reminding people that marshals are volunteers and might be involved with only one or two tournaments a year.
"Mistakes will happen," says the booklet. Be careful where you stand - try to imagine yourself taking the shot yourself. Oh, and "Never use physical force when dealing with the crowd". Crikey, I thought, what have I let myself in for? We were given goody bags containing a beige cap, a CD explaining our duties and a Marshals' Handbook full of tips and notes about what to wear - navy shorts or trousers and a white shirt - we would be given our overalls and the "Quiet please" paddles on the day.
There were so many things to remember. Don't speak to the player unless spoken to was one piece of advice that went straight out of the window as one of the Irish players whom I knew enveloped me in a big bear hug. I was nervous all the same, but my debut as a marshal went without incident. On day two I was assigned to England's Fame More. There was only a handful of spectators including Fame's partner, a delightful fellow called Chris. So I marched over to him and told him I would be watching him so he had better behave himself and not give me any trouble, and he promised to be good.
My first big mistake came when one of the European players put her ball in the greenside bunker and I picked up the rake ready to jump in and rake her bunker. Wrong! She muttered something unpleasant in Spanish and if looks could kill I'd never have made it to the second tee. I was just trying to be helpful. A more experienced marshal explained that she doesn't even like her caddy to rake the bunker because if it's done wrong she gets fined. I understood immediately but couldn't help thinking she could have just told me that herself.
Back in the marshals' tea room, I discovered that I was not the only one to have suffered. Some very big names in the women's and men's tours elicit groans of despair from marshals assigned to their matches. Sorenstam, who retired last year to start a family, and Laura Davies were two of the most popular and always thanked the marshals warmly. In the men's game there is always much back-slapping, hand-shaking and polite thanks at the end of a round, although it's occasionally sensible to shrink into the background if someone has had a bad one. Colin Montgomerie has been notoriously ill-tempered over the years, especially at people clicking cameras at the wrong moment, so marshalling is not a job for the faint-hearted.
There's a definite hierarchy, with the long-term volunteers at the top of the pecking order and the beginners at the bottom. If you're good with numbers you might get to report the scores back to the referee's office, whizzing round the course in a buggy and using a walkie-talkie radio. More experienced marshals, usually club members, are assigned to the big matches. They know all the tricks, such as getting the stars to sign hats and shirts, which often go into their local golf club Christmas charity raffle, or getting their friends to take photographs with players, download and print them in the office and dash back to get them signed.
You soon begin to see the same faces around the fairways on both sides of the ropes. Ernie Els has a posse of fans who fly in every year to marshal for him in the Dubai Desert Classic, and now Rory McIlroy has a growing fan-club, sponsored as he is by Jumeirah Hotels, so I expect there'll be one or two Northern Irish accents saying "Quiet please". I may well volunteer again one day. It was fun. You really feel part of the whole tournament and get a group photograph with the winner, nice meals, an invitation to a marshals' golf day and once your match is finished you can watch as much golf as you like.
Next time, however, I shall keep well away from the bunker rakes.