NORTON — In 2003, as the PGA Tour was preparing to arrive for the first time at TPC Boston, it had a special role in mind for local sports announcer David Cook. The only problem was that he was in the running for another job.
“Now batting for the Red Sox,’’ Cook says when asked about the other job he was in contention for.
“They said, ‘Well, if you don’t get that [Red Sox] job, we want you to be our starter.’ ’’
And 15 years later, Cook couldn’t be happier with how things turned out. Though he didn’t end up at Fenway Park, he’s been a fixture at the first hole of every round of every tournament held in Norton since 2003.
Cook’s job, a “starter’’ at the Dell Technologies Championship, is seemingly simple, yet — much like golf itself — requires a deft understanding of subtlety. Before a golfer tees off, the starter announces the player’s name and hometown to the crowd. On the surface, it sounds straightforward. But after talking to four of the starters at the Dell, it’s clear that it’s there’s a lot more to it.
Along with Cook, Lee Esckilsen, Tom Lebretore, and Jay Spinale have all come into the role of starter after occupying administrative positions in previous years. Lebretore, a charter member at TPC Boston, was the original chairman of volunteers. Esckilsen was the third chairman, and Spinale was the fourth. They’ve now all graduated to the role of starter.
“After we were chairman of volunteers, they asked us if we wanted to work with Dave as a starter,’’ says Esckilsen, “and so we were taken under Dave’s wing.’’
Like a conductor, timing is everything.
“If we go slow or fast, they know that,’’ Cook says. “It creates problems all along the course.’’
Events on surrounding holes also have to be taken into account.
“There are challenges to this course,’’ says Lebretore. “On the first tee, if someone hits it left off the second tee, you have to be cognizant of the fact that there may be somebody teeing off there, so you have to hold up, or if something’s going on and the guys are still on the fairway in front of you. Even though you have a gap, things may happen. So you have to be cognizant of all that’s going on around you as well.’’
Even the primary task of announcing players requires a level of unseen effort. Each player’s name is written on a notecard with their hometown. Below that, it’s written phonetically.
One of Cook’s strengths is his encyclopedic memory of players and their hometowns. It helps safeguard against errors.
“Every once in a while, somebody will make a mistake,’’ Esckilsen says. “And Dave will look at it and say, ‘That’s not his hometown.’ So we need to be very careful. We’re projecting to the audience, sometimes the TV.’’
“I had one golfer who was born in Worcester,’’ Cook recalls, “but he lives in Tennessee now. I asked which one he wants me to go with, he said, ‘Say Worcester.’ Appealing to the masses.’’
The starters develop a level of rapport with golfers over time, as happened in the case of Justin Rose.
“After introducing Justin Rose earlier in the day, I ran into him at Target that night,’’ Lebretore remembers. “He was buying Webkinz [stuffed animals] for his daughter. He said, ‘I live in the Bahamas, I can’t get them there.’ He was very personable, talked with us for four or five minutes. He recognized me on the tee the next morning and said hello.’’
Cook says he “pushed the envelope’’ after hearing about Lebretore’s encounter.
“When he was on the putting green, I just went, ‘Attention, Target shoppers,’ ’’ says Cook, “and he came over and said, ‘I know where that came from! Your man was stalking me last night.’ ’’
Still, a majority of the interactions are more reserved.
“One thing that we do is we never initiate conversation,’’ says Spinale. “As a starter, you sit back and understand that your role is to make sure they’re getting going at the time they’re supposed to.’’
As the event has evolved, so too has the life of a starter.
“Obviously we’ve always tried to be professional, thorough and accurate, but the big-time was the last hour or so on Sunday and Monday,’’ Cook says. “But now, with the increased coverage, you’ve got to have your A-game at 7:30 in the morning, because there’s probably going to be a microphone, and possibly a camera on your tee.’’
And as the tournament evolves again, becoming a biannual event after 2018, the starters of the Dell recognize the impact the tournament has had on their lives.
“We’ve made lifelong friends from participating in this and volunteering,’’ Spinale says. “We’ve been connected because of this.’’