When retired 26-year Air Force veteran Tony Rabonza accepted a job at a base in Germany, it stood to reason his participation in the PlayGolfMyrtleBeach.com World Amateur Handicap Championship might be put on hold.
But after being hired as the fire chief of the Kaiserslautern military community, one of the first things he did was mark off the final week in August for one of his two annual vacations over three weeks.
So Rabonza is competing in his sixth World Am this week, and third since he moved to Germany.
“The first thing I did when I got there was put my leave on the books for coming back here to this, so my boss knew,” said Rabonza, who spends the other two weeks visiting his three children and eight grandchildren.
He is one of 45 players from Germany, though he does not know any of the others.
He returns to the World Am each year to reunite with several former Air Force brethren for their annual “Mancation.” The core group is Rabonza, Kevin Halstead, James Lee, Tom Eafrati and Andre Watson, though acquaintances of any may join the group in any particular year.
Rabonza, Halstead and Lee were all stationed and played golf together in Okinawa, Japan. Eafrati and Watson were stationed with Lee in Germany, and all five were stationed in Phoenix, where they played in the Arizona Sunset Golf Association, of which Rabonza was the vice president.
Eafrati was the first to play in the World Am eight years ago and enticed the others to join him.
“I make the trek back here to Myrtle Beach every year to meet up with my friends and play golf, and we end up laughing so much my stomach hurts by the time I go home,” Rabonza said.
“Every year I have come here I’ve enjoyed the people I’ve met, the golf courses, the Southern hospitality, the people are so friendly, and sweet tea. I love sweet tea and I can’t get it any place I travel except for here. Even in San Antonio I was down there and asked for sweet tea in a restaurant and they said, ‘Sorry we don’t have any.’ I said, ‘Well, I can’t wait to get to Myrtle Beach.’ ”
The group stays in the same condo in North Myrtle Beach and has developed some rituals, including a pre-tournament dinner at Bonefish Grill, and arriving at least a day early to play in an organized skins game.
Rabonza is a shopper, so he spends a lot of time checking out vendors during the 19th hole. Lee is an ice cream aficionado, so he generally goes twice per night to the Friendly’s ice cream station.
Rabonza is a 7 handicap who has never won anything in a flight. He’s in Flight 13 this year, having moved up to play in the same flight as Watson.
“The tournament itself is so well run it’s phenomenal,” Rabonza said. “For having over 3,000 players and to have it all organized, then the scoring done by the time you get to the 19th hole at the convention center, it’s just amazing how they get all that done in such a short period of time. It’s just all greased so well and it’s appreciated by everybody.”
Rabonza, 60, is a Los Angeles native who joined the Air Force out of high school. He was a firefighter in the service and retired 15 years ago as a chief master sergeant and the superintendent of the Department of Defense Fire Academy.
He has lived all over the world, primarily as a result of his Air Force career, including in Panama, England, Belgium, the Azores and Okinawa. In the U.S., he has lived in California, Florida, Illinois, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
He was at Luke Air Force Base outside Phoenix for 10 years before moving to the Ramstein Air Base in Germany and becoming the fire chief in Kaiserslautern as part of the Department of Defense civilian work force. He said the military community there includes 57,000 Americans and the largest fire department in the Air Force.
Rabonza visited his two sons and daughter – who are all in their 30s – several times on the Ramstein base before he moved there. His daughter, Kristin, married into the military and his sons, Nick and Brandon, followed him into becoming firefighters in the Air Force.
His position in Germany is done in January, and he plans to move back to either Las Vegas or Phoenix.
Rabonza has experienced only one travel complication while coming from Germany, as he has just one layover in Charlotte on his trip from Frankfurt to Myrtle Beach.
Last year, he had a heart stress test the day before his flights to the U.S., during which he was injected with radiation. It set off the TSA detectors in Charlotte and he was detained for questioning and testing, including with a Geiger counter. He was given explanatory paperwork by his doctor but forgot the papers at his home.
It nearly caused Rabonza to miss his connection to Myrtle Beach, but he was released in time to run to his gate in time to get on the plane.
“Coming to Myrtle Beach and seeing alligators, seeing [wild] turkeys one year, and seeing all the different flora and fauna and the trees, I’m a lover of nature and that’s one of the reasons I play golf,” Rabonza said. “It’s enjoyable to come to someplace like this to see something different, and to play the courses that are down here is phenomenal.”