Steve Underwood has a love affair that has lasted 45 years — and it is still going strong. He holds the record for having volunteered at the L.A. Open, the Nissan Open, the Northern Trust Open and the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club.
“What I like most about the Riviera is its history,” Underwood said. “Riviera is a great, difficult, historic course.
“I have encountered countless celebrities on and around the golf course — Kurt Russell, Dennis Franz, Clint Eastwood, Michael Douglas and Bill Murray, just to name a few — but that is not what stands out for me.
“For me, it’s awe inspiring to think that I am walking in the same footprints as golf legends like Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods,” said Underwood, who lives in Chino Hills. “I played Riviera two weeks ago and I must admit I was a bit overwhelmed to think I was standing in the same place where Arnie and Jack had once hit their shots. For a golf nut like me, there is no better feeling.”
Underwood started playing golf in his 30s when “I got too old for baseball.” He describes his first golf experience. “I just went with my buddies to see how far we could hit the golf ball and drink beer. We didn’t pay much attention to our score. It was great fun.”
Born in the Midwest, Underwood moved with his family to California in 1962. He grew up in El Monte, attended Arroyo High School, and received his AA degree in business from Citrus College.
He was drafted into the Army in 1966 and served in Vietnam from 1967-1968. “I was a combat medic and cross trained as a radio operator and rifleman,” Underwood said. “I served with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, 44th Medical Battalion, and 5th Special Forces. I participated in several major operations, including the Tet Offensive in 1968.”
Returning home, Underwood went to work for the U.S. Postal Service, and when he retired in 2001, he decided to work on his golf game.
After two years of retirement, he started working part-time at John Elway’s Crown Toyota. He worked in the service department but soon started playing golf representing Elway in local tournaments.
“It was the best job I ever had,” Underwood said, noting he worked there for 10 years, but the Veterans Administration made him quit because he was classified as 100% disabled from the Vietnam War.
His first volunteer job at the Riviera in 1978 was as a gallery marshal on the 16th hole. A gallery marshal is generally inside the ropes and alerts spectators to “Stand Please,” “Quiet, please.” These volunteers locate and protect “bad” shots that may go in the rough or even hit a spectator.
Over the years, Underwood has been a hole captain (the volunteer in charge of gallery marshals), a walking marshal (usually follows a marquee player because more crowd control is needed), a marshal vice-chairman/area supervisor (working over several holes) and he now is head of the volunteers at the Genesis Open as a committee chairman.
In the past he also worked with CBS Sports, assisting the cameramen. “I was also fortunate enough to make a TV commercial for Taylor-made Golf and Adidas,” he said.
Underwood isn’t giving “lip service” in his praise of the Riviera because he volunteers at all the major tournaments held in Southern California, including the LPGA and the Champions Tour. Last week, he was the marshal chairman at the Hoag Classic (Champions Tour) in Newport Beach.
Underwood was asked if his wife shares his love of golf. “She did try to play with our son and me, once. It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. She’s a good sport, she laughed as hard as we did,” Underwood said. “When I play some of the nicer courses, she likes to go with me and drive the golf cart. We’re going to Hawaii in May and I’m sure that if I get to play, my wife will be right there with me, chauffeuring me around the golf course.”
Underwood was asked if he had a favorite golfer. “My favorite golfers from my era were of course Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus,” he said. “I found them both to be quite personable, and both fan- and volunteer- friendly.”
On the current PGA Tour, he enjoys watching Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Justin Thomas. “My wife is Japanese, so she insisted that I include Colin Morikawa.”
Why does he put in the long hours required by volunteers, who have to be on the course before the pros tee off and stay long after play is completed?
“I volunteer mainly because of the charities that the golf tournaments support,” Underwood said. “I feel that by volunteering I am giving back in a small way and helping others.”