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Opening Act
John Garrity
June 10, 2002
Although they never see the finish of what they've begun, starters play a key role in golf
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June 10, 2002

Opening Act

Although they never see the finish of what they've begun, starters play a key role in golf

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Then there's Mary Manso, a 79-year-old widow in upstate New York who worked for 23 years as a starter at the Saratoga Spa Golf Course and now clocks two afternoons a week at the Fairways of Half Moon Golf Course in Mechanicville. "There were times at Saratoga when I put out 370 players a day," Manso says. "I'd get there at six in the morning, and 30 to 50 people would be lined up. We had horse players, coaches from Syracuse and sometimes celebrities. Mickey Rooney, Gary Collins, Maury Povich...."

Ben Thompson, 56, a marshal and starter at the 36-hole Tenison Park Golf Course in Dallas, sold cars for more than a decade before hitting the road as a tour caddie, looping for Joe Durant, Skip Kendall and other PGA Tour players. "City courses are great places," he says. "When I caddied, I'd go to a muni on Monday or Tuesday to eat and hang out. It's the fastest way to learn about a city." Thompson's girlfriend, Rena De La Rosa, is also a starter at Tenison Park, and for her 50th birthday she wanted to actually play a round of golf. "She went out last Fourth of July weekend and shot 198 in 4� hours," Thompson says. "We use her as an example when we want to shame slow players. We say, 'Why is it taking you five hours to hit it half as many times as she did in 4�?' "

California seems to have more than its share of star-quality starters. The Ojai Valley Inn and Spa features Jim Catlett, who after 40 years at the resort can remember not only the names of repeat guests, but also how they like their coffee. "He reminds me of a ma�tre d' at a really good restaurant," says the resort's golf director, Mark Greenslitt. Similar praise is heard at San Diego's Rancho Bernardo Inn for longtime starter Deo Padgett Jr., who types up unsolicited biweekly reports for the property's owner. The reports, which are headlined memo-style (RE: THINGS THAT NEED ATTENTION REAL SOON), catalog any little problems Padgett sees out on the course, from a chuckhole that might sprain a guest's ankle to a high schooler's failure to observe golf etiquette. Then you have Dennis Higgins, who is a fountain of fun at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage. Higgins rigs up a dangling-spider device every Halloween; at the yank of a cord, a rubber tarantula drops in front of startled guests. "He's also notorious for his P.A. announcements during pro-ams at the Nabisco Championship," says a former Mission Hills staffer." ' Sylvester Stallone, please come to the shop.... Tom Cruise, please come to the shop....' Dennis likes to see how many fans will come running."

Scripted or unscripted, the starter's remarks set the tone for a golfer's round. At the Old Course in St. Andrews—the real one, in Scotland—the starter sends off pilgrim golfers with a brisk, "O.K., gents, the 11:30 game. Play away, please." Nancy Aaronson of La Quinta, Calif., has a recording of these Old Course tee calls, complete with wind noises and static from the tannoy, or loudspeaker. The tape concludes with an ominous. "And now for the final announcement from the Old Course starter's box...."

No, the Old Course hasn't shut down after six centuries of continuous play, but that particular starter's box no longer stands. It was auctioned off last year to make room for an expanded putting green and to raise funds for junior golf. The slate-roofed building, which dated to the 1920s, was taken apart, its pieces numbered and crated, and the boxes now sit on the floor of a warehouse at the Country Club of the Desert in La Quinta. "We didn't know if it would fall apart," says Aaronson, president of the development company that bid $86,000 for the shed. "Turns out it was built like a fortress. It was made to stand there forever."

By virtue of the purchase the club now possesses what may be the world's most extensive archive on the history of St. Andrews' starters—which fits comfortably into a small cardboard box. There's the audio tape, a sign (OLD COURSE STARTER), ballot sheets (for the tee-time lottery at the Old Course), letters from clubs around the world attesting to players' handicaps, and a sheaf of black-and-white photographs showing Old Tom Morris and other whiskered characters in the proximity of earlier starter's huts. "Here's one from 1891," says Aaronson, examining a photo of caddies with an old starter's box on wheels. "It looks like a changing room at the beach, don't you think?" By next January, if all goes well, the collection will reside either in the Country Club of the Desert's clubhouse or in the starter's box itself, which will be reassembled between the 1st and 10th tees of the club's Pete Dye course. At which point some golfer will probably walk up and say, "Hey, this looks like that starter's box in Dallas!"

Even after that memorial is complete, most starters will continue to be unappreciated, and at times even resented. "Sometimes we have to get a little tough," says The Tribute's Rebhan, citing golfers who miss their tee times but demand to play right away. "It's usually someone who's entertaining clients. They're trying to impress their guests as take-charge guys."

Two golfers, having watched Rebhan talk to the previous foursome, approach the starter's box. "What's the skinny on what you told those guys?" one asks. "Do we get the little hints and everything?"

Rebhan doesn't hesitate. "Have you played here before? No? Well, down there, past the black-and-white stakes, is the Swilken Burn, which is a ditch about as wide as this cart path...."

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