By the time Jerry Rice reached the putting green and a volunteer named John Keema, the tournament was pretty much cleared out.
Evening was approaching and nearly all the celebrities and spectators had gone home. Keema was still there because he was a volunteer marshal and stationed at the putting green.
The better question is what was Rice still doing there?
“He said he hadn’t been playing at this level for long,” Keema said, “but his goal was to become truly competitive.”
Now, 18 years later, the memory is one of Keema’s favorites because Rice was true to his word. He has become a truly competitive golfer and Keema was there every year to watch that transformation from start to finish.
After nearly 20 years of volunteering at the American Century Championship, the 91-year-old has seen his fair share of player transformations and wild tournament moments. He’s been volunteering at the American Century Championship since 1994.
There is no earth-shattering reason why Keema volunteers. He just likes golf and appreciates watching competitive players.
But long before Keema ever found himself enjoying celebrity golf on the shores of Lake Tahoe, he was a member of the Army Air Corps during World War II.
When asked how long he served, Keema remembers to the day — March 16, 1943 until Oct. 31, 1963. He entered as a private, retired as a lieutenant colonel and flew B-17s, B-29s, RB45s and RB47s somewhere in between. He was stationed in England, Germany, Okinawa, Morocco, California, Louisiana, Ohio, Kansas and Arkansas.
During World War II, Keema was a bombardier in the 390th Bomb Group. He flew 25 combat missions over Germany and occupied Europe from July to December in 1943.
About one month in, on Aug. 24, 1943, he narrowly escaped death.
Keema and his crew were on their second bombing mission. The target, an airfield in France, but just before releasing the bombs they were hit by anti-aircraft fire. Two of their engines were instantly knocked out and the third engine was severely damaged.
“Our navigator was killed, and the pilot, co-pilot and myself wounded. As we lost altitude and airspeed, we headed, alone, for the English Channel,” Keema said.
As the wounded plane started diving for the coast, it was suddenly a target. A group of enemy ME109s flew in to finish the job. It would have been over right there, but miraculously a flight of Spitfires, flown by members of the 303 Polish Fighter Squadron, arrived on the scene. The Polish pilots intercepted the ME109s and dove them off, destroying two of the enemy planes.
The Spitfires stayed with Keema and the crew while they ditched in the Channel and were rescued by the British Air-Sea Rescue Service.
Keema never did get to a chance to meet the Polish pilots who saved his life. His crew was supposed to make a trip to the base, but had to cancel the flight because of fog.
He won’t ever get to thank them in person, but he has no doubt they saved his life.
“There were a number of other hairy missions, but none as bad as that one,” Keema said.
That was one mission No. 2 on his way to 20 years of service, but Keema never even considered packing it in.
“I liked the service. I’d wanted to be in the service since high school so of course when the war came along, I joined,” Keema said. “You just did it. It was what you were supposed to do.”
He lost some good friends along the way, but he doesn’t regret his time in the service for a second. He’s pretty happy with how it’s all turned out and enjoying every minute of celebrity golf this week.
“It was exciting, but this is a lot more fun,” Keema said of volunteering. “I like this much better.”
“There were a number of other hairy missions, but none as bad as that one.”
American Century Championship volunteer