SERVING THE GAME
Grainger Award: Saf, Yamamoto Exemplify Selfless Volunteerism March 8, 2021 By Julie Williams

Longtime USGA volunteer Laura Saf, who died in 2020 from COVID-19, received her Ike Grainger Award posthumously. (Chris Keane/USGA)

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As a youngster, Guy Yamamoto pictured himself more a baseball guy than a golf guy – probably because no one in his family played much golf. Yamamoto was 13 when a family friend first put a club in his hand. That first day on the range ended with a junior golf tournament.

“Whoever played with me that first day, I’m really sorry because I didn’t know any rules,” he said with a laugh. “I was dribbling and slicing and topping.

“It must have been a fun day because I kept coming back.”

RELATED CONTENT: See List of Ike Grainger Award Recipients for 2021-22

From that rough start in his native Kauai grew a golf career that included the 1994 U.S. Amateur Public Links title and a spot in the following year’s Masters Tournament. Yamamoto, 59 and a lifelong amateur, has spent his life working in golf, most recently as the general manager of Royal Hawaiian Golf Club in Kailua, Hawaii.

A golf-heavy family tree is hardly required to have an impact on the game’s future, as Yamamoto’s 25 years on the USGA’s Sectional Affairs Committee prove. Yamamoto is among the USGA’s new class of 25 Ike Grainger Award recipients, all of whom bring very different backgrounds to their quarter-century of volunteerism.

Volunteer committee members make the USGA engine run, and today the USGA community encompasses roughly 900 of them (outnumbering staff by a roughly 3-to-1 ratio). The Grainger Awards were founded in 1994 and are named for a former USGA president and head of the association’s Rules Committee who worked with The R&A to help unify the Rules of Golf in 1951.

Volunteers’ legacies vary, but Yamamoto’s has been in junior golf. “So many great young players – they just need a point in the right direction or a tournament to play in, things like that,” Yamamoto said.

1994 APL champion Guy Yamamoto received the Ike Grainger Award in 2021 for 25 years of volunteer service to the USGA. (Robert Walker/USGA)

Yamamoto is active with the Oahu Junior Golf Association and also serves on the board of the David S. Ishii Foundation – founded by childhood friend Ishii, who won 14 times on the Japan PGA Tour – which underwrites the costs of the Hawaii state high school golf championships. Coincidentally, it was Ishii’s father, Chica, who introduced Yamamoto to golf.

Ishii attributed Yamamoto’s long story in golf to his determination. The same drive that made Yamamoto the unlikeliest of USGA champions – he defeated Matt Gogel, Notah Begay III, and Chris Riley, all of whom would go on to careers on the PGA Tour, in match play on the way to that 1994 APL title – keeps him active as a volunteer.

“Shows how much he puts into the golf,” Ishii said of Yamamoto’s award. “He just loves to be in golf, he loves the game, he loves the people.”

Paul Ogawa, executive director of the Hawaii Golf Association, relayed a long list of ways Yamamoto has contributed to golf in Hawaii, from tournament setup to captaining a team of amateurs at the Governor John A. Burns Challenge Cup. Ogawa recalled the big turnout when Yamamoto was inducted into the Hawaii Golf Hall of Fame in 2014.

“I attribute that to him, his reputation,” Ogawa said.

Many volunteers develop their passion for the game and giving back to it at a local or state level. Laura Saf’s legacy as a volunteer actually worked in the opposite direction. Her role as the host club general chairman for the 1996 U.S. Women’s Amateur at Firethorn Golf Club in her hometown of Lincoln, Neb., launched her into several committee roles at the USGA, including the Women’s Committee from 2001 to 2011. Saf was the first woman elected to the Nebraska Golf Association’s Board of Directors in 2002.

Saf passed away in late 2020 at the age of 66 due to complications from COVID-19 and was honored with the Grainger Award posthumously.

Craig Ames, executive director of the Nebraska Golf Association, remembered first crossing paths with Saf in Rules education, a common path for volunteers. Saf was known as a personable, professional and thorough official.

“I was very proud when she served with us to have her on our committee and at an event,” Ames said.

Amy Watters didn’t know much about golf when she took a job with the USGA as an administrative assistant for Rules and Competitions in 2006. She had never even driven a golf cart before the 2007 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur, where she first met Saf. A friendship was born when Saf took Watters on the golf course late one day and put her behind the wheel. Watters remembered helping Saf practice a speech for a committee dinner at the following year’s championship, the two “laughing more than you should be laughing at work.” Saf didn’t stay behind the podium but walked around the room and connected with every person there.

“Her heart was for people,” Watters said. “She just loved people and just truly wanted to help people.”

That translated directly into her work as a Rules official.

“The really great Rules officials have those people skills where they can come in and defuse the situation,” said Jeff Hall, the USGA’s managing director of Rules and Open Championships. “Laura’s people skills were just the best, an absolutely perfect complement to her technical Rules skills.”

Hall, championship director for the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur from 2006 to 2008, was grateful to have Saf focus so intently on the championship experience. It was a relief for him that she would undertake off-the-course duties and get the details just right. Such small-but-important championship duties often fall to volunteers. Roberta Bolduc, who overlapped with Saf on the USGA Women’s Committee, remembered Saf doing the Rules assignments for the U.S. Women’s Open and U.S. Women’s Amateur. It can be a thankless job.

“She knew the caliber of the official,” Bolduc said. “She put the right people in the right places.”

Saf would lock herself in a room and devote her full attention to the task. That was the thing about Saf: You always knew what you were getting.

“If you gave Laura Saf a job, you never wondered how it would be done,” Bolduc said. “It was done to perfection.”

Julie Williams covers college and amateur golf for Golfweek. She is based in Florida and you can follow her @Golfweek_Jules.