From the window of his starter's hut Steve Rebhan can see all the way to Swilken Burn. "It's a ditch about as wide as this cart path, filled with water," he tells a foursome of Americans. "Widest fairway in golf. You can hit as much club as you want, as long as you keep it left." The golfers listen attentively to Rebhan, who is dazzling in his tan plus-fours, white shirt and green-and-white argyle socks. They aren't bothered by his Wisconsin accent or by the fact that the 1st and 18th holes are bordered by Texas scrub oak and prairie grass. "You guys have the tee," Rebhan tells the foursome. Turning immediately to a pair of golfers who have driven up in a cart, he asks, "Have you played here before?"
Rebhan, a retired software executive, works at The Tribute Golf Club, a daily-fee course in the northern suburbs of Dallas. The holes at The Tribute replicate famous ones in Scotland, and that gives Rebhan a license to educate and entertain. The starter's hut, he points out, is a perfect knockoff of the one that used to stand at St. Andrews. The muddy duck pond off to the right of the 1st tee represents the North Sea. Asked if mulligans are allowed, Rebhan chuckles and tells of the American who took a mulligan on the 1st tee at the Old Course and asked the starter what they called that in Scotland. The starter's response: "We call that hitting 3 off the tee."
It's hard to say whether Rebhan, with his welcoming smile and practiced patter, represents a trend in public golf. The starter's job has always been ill-defined. At busy urban courses the starter tends to be an officious gatekeeper, juggling tee times and lecturing potential miscreants on liquor regulations and pace of play. At resorts he is a suntanned ma�tre d', either fawning or dismissive, depending on your status. But just as often, the starter is simply a golf shop cashier or an assistant pro with a window looking out at the 1st tee.
Compensation varies for starters. Those who handle city money tend to be full-time municipal employees. Those who just stand on the 1st tee and check receipts are usually nonsalaried volunteers who perform the task in exchange for free golf. "It's a great job for retired guys," says Ralph Troutfetter, who worked in sales for a paper manufacturer before becoming a volunteer starter at the 27-hole Overland Park ( Kans.) Golf Club. Troutfetter gets one golf voucher per weekday shift and two for a weekend shift. "We go through the same system as everybody else to get a tee time," he says. "If we can't get a tee time, we don't play."
At Overland Park, which does 125,000 rounds a year despite frigid winters, the starter's position is shared by 56 volunteer marshals working in teams of up to eight. One distributes tee-time cards, another hangs the starter's booth, one serves as cashier, and three others act as tee managers, one at each of the nines. The other members of the team, called player assistants, ride around in carts and perform conventional ranger duties.
"What's the forecast?" a golfer asks, looking out the window at a midday drizzle.
"You've got a 50-50 chance it won't rain," Troutfetter says.
"What's that stuff coming down?"
"That's the other 50."
Starters tend to be anonymous, but some have more interesting tales to tell than others. Ralph Pedersen, a starter at Mystic Hills Golf Club in Culver, Ind., is a former Hoosier high school basketball star who coached at Tulane from 1964 to '71 and was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame last year. "I've been around golf for 60-some years," says Pedersen, who is 75 and counts caddying for Byron Nelson among the highlights of his life. "I love the game. In nine holes you can find out more about a person than you can in four hours across a desk."