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
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 maitre 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."
June 9, 2002
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
"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."
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 1/2 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 1/2?'"
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 maitre 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
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
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...."
Scripted or unscripted, the starter's remarks often set the tone
for a golfer's round.
"At times we have to get tough," Rebhan says about golfers
who demand to play right away.