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LIer Poplarski becomes U.S. Open wellness leader

The differences between this year's and last year's U.S. Opens will be like night and day, and that is not just a figure of speech. The third round from Pebble Beach, Calif., is scheduled to last until 11 p.m. Eastern time. At 11 at night during the 2009 Open at Bethpage, the Black Course was covered in darkness and, of course, water from the relentless rain.

Other distinctions: While Pebble Beach technically is a public course, its "public" consists of people who pay $495 per round. And, like the Black, Pebble Beach regularly has golfers who have slept on the grounds the night before. Only Pebble's golfers don't sleep in their cars. They stay in resort rooms that start at $695 per night.

Also, Ben Roethlisberger won't be on hand for a crowd-pleasing jaunt inside the ropes, as he was last June, when he shot an eye-popping 81 on the Black in the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge.

So things can change an awful lot in a year. But there will be at least one element of the Open that will be exactly the same this time. Jeff Poplarski will be running the Wellness Center.

Poplarski, a chiropractor with a practice in Amityville, has recruited 95 volunteer acupuncturists, massage therapists and fellow chiropractors who will try to make the week as painless as possible for players, caddies and volunteers - just as he did at Bethpage last year.

"It's very fulfilling," Poplarski said, adding that he is bringing 14 New Yorkers. "People know us and we're getting recognition for our service. This is so needed, and it is unbelievable for us."

Kevin Kristof, coordinator of player and volunteer services for the United States Golf Association, said that Poplarski started as a volunteer for the 2002 Open at Bethpage and has kept getting invited back ever since. When he was asked how thousands of volunteers know that there is a service for them and where to find it, Kristof said, "Jeff reaches out to them."

Poplarski said that the USGA originally reached out to him before the first "People's Open" at the Black. They were looking for volunteer captains who had experience with big events, especially sporting events. He conducted First Swing clinics, sponsored by the Eastern Amputee Golf Association.

"It's a tool to use to get back in the real world," said Joe Babbino of Queens, a former New York Police Department auto mechanic who lost a leg in a motorcycle test-drive accident. "Jeff is very smart in what the body can and can't do. He wants to push you. He's a good friend of amputee golf."

In 2002, Poplarski signed up to head the caddie committee and immediately changed the protocol. He asked that the caddies receive the same treatment opportunities, parking privileges and food selection that the players did. USGA officials looked at him as if he were crazy, but he insisted, "You're calling this 'The People's Open . . . ' " Looking back on it, he says, "Caddies finally got the royal treatment."

After that, Poplarski not only was asked to duplicate his service at other Opens, he expanded it. The USGA now pays his way. By last year, for the second Bethpage Open, he had brought in a hyperbaric chamber and assembled 140 health care workers. "We worked on 2,000 volunteers, we treated 68 players and 110 caddies," he said.

Before the end of the year, he was doing research on his next team. He collected the names of 400 caregivers in the San Francisco area for the Pebble Beach Open ("The USGA's motto is to get local people involved," he said). He talked with people who had worked with the 49ers, San Jose Sharks, Stanford University and runners in the Big Sur Marathon. Last month, he sent his final list to law enforcement for background checks. He's looking forward to meeting them all when he goes west on June 10, a week before the first round.

The odd thing is, Poplarski isn't much of a golfer. "Do I know the mechanics of the swing and the muscles you have to use? I know that as well as anybody," he said. But he doesn't have the time and would rather be helping the players, and the helpers.

"When people see Jeff, they get that feeling for the value of helping out," said Babbino, who works in the cart department at Bethpage and volunteered to work with the caddies at the '09 Open. "You get that sense of accomplishment. You feel like it's your Open."

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