The Waste Management Phoenix Open is an event that draws hundreds of thousands of people to the Valley each and every year. It may boast the largest attendance of any golf tournament worldwide and has an overall economic impact of more than $220 million, but the real conversation piece should be about the millions of dollars the tournament raises for Arizona charities — and the 55 men who make it happen.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Tom Altieri, this year’s 2013 tournament chairman and 8th year Thunderbird, who gave me the 411 on exactly why the Thunderbirds do what they do.
Where they came from and what they do: the charity of the Thunderbirds
The Thunderbirds began back in 1937, when they selected five committee members to fulfill the role of a special events committee to accommodate the expansion of the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce. The Phoenix Chamber of Commerce suggested that the committee become an “official” group and expand its membership. Each of the five then selected 10 additional members to make up a committee of 55. The Thunderbird name was chosen because the emblem of the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce was, and still is, a Thunderbird derived from American Indian symbols.
Since its creation, the Thunderbirds have raised more than $79 million for charity. Last year alone they raised an impressive $5.5 million, which was given to charities like The Boys and Girls Club, Valley of the Sun United Way and, most notably, the amazing athletes of the Special Olympics Arizona.
An official spokesperson for the Thunderbirds commented on their love for the Special Olympics, saying, “As the premier sponsor of the Special Olympics Summer Games, the Thunderbirds are providing an outlet of athletic expression for these challenged competitors. Nowhere will you witness the absolute joy and enthusiasm of a runner as he or she crosses the finish line — not in first place, but in the arms of his or her greeter. This unbridled passion for competition speaks volumes of the Thunderbirds’ commitment to these determined individuals.”
As if being the premiere sponsor for the Special Olympics isn’t fantastic to begin with, the Thunderbirds have a dedicated day to honor the Olympians at the Waste Management Phoenix Open itself. On Tuesday, January 29 at 11 a.m., they will host the CBS Outdoor Special Olympics Open. This is a chance for celebrities, sports stars and prominent business leaders to participate in a putting contest with children.
“The event offers a really unique and special opportunity for all involved,” says Altieri.
And for our military service members, a new element has been added this year. A free ticket and a private tent for military service members and a guest. The Patriots’ Outpost is located on the 18th fairway and offers anyone with a military ID the VIP treatment with food and beverage. Just walk up to the ticket booth, show your military ID, and you are in for free! This is just another way the Thunderbirds are giving back.
What it takes to be a Thunderbird
When I asked Tom why he wanted to be a Thunderbird, his response was, “To help promote the community grow and assist Arizona-based charities. We don’t get paid, we all volunteer. We are out here giving up our lives during tournament week and for most of the year. It’s time consuming, but a labor of love. And we all have the same goal and objective: helping those in need.”
Even though the position is strictly volunteering, you still must be chosen to be a Thunderbird. Those who are selected and asked to join have demonstrated a sincere interest in sports and a dedication to community affairs. All Thunderbird activities and events are the prime responsibility of these Active Thunderbirds and are under the watchful eye of the Big Chief and Thunderbird Council. When a Thunderbird reaches the age of 45, his status changes from Active to that of Life Member. Each year, they receive hundreds of requests from charities who can use assistance. Tom assured me each and every single request that comes through is looked at, evaluated and carefully considered to receive funds. And although the charity component is the main focus of these great community leaders, they have one big job we can’t forget about: running and organizing the details for the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
How you can help
“Although there are 55 Thunderbirds who run the Open, we can’t run it alone,” Altieri explains. “The entire success of the event is based upon volunteers. We have thousands of volunteers who come out, from all over the Valley from places like Tucson, Sun City and Flagstaff to contribute. Whether it’s working a concession tent or standing by a rope or working a tee at the tournament, or working the Birds Nest, each person counts and helps make this event the success it is.”
Altieri encourages anyone to get involved and to call the Waste Management Phoenix Open’s office.
“We will make sure to find a way for you to get involved,” he says.
If you are unable to volunteer, Altieri mentioned another way you can help contribute to the Valley’s local charities — and it’s pretty simple, and even fun.
“Just attend the Open,” Altieri says. “Our primary source of fundraising is derived from the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Everything from buying a general admission ticket to a Greenskeeper pass to the purchase of any food and beverage at the event helps Arizona-based charities.”
Be sure to grab your ticket and a friend and head out to this year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open, January 28 to February 3. You can purchase tickets online and stay up to date with event info and schedules by visiting wmphoenixopen.com.
And, if you see a gentleman walking around the Open wearing one of the iconic Thunderbird necklaces, take a second to say “thank you” for their hard work and dedication to our Arizona-based charities.