Officiating History: ‘This is two heavyweight champions just swapping body blows’
Larry Startzel was there. For nearly four decades he’s been there, as a witness to unforgettable moments in golf.
Startzel, 79, will celebrate his 50th year as a member of the PGA of America in 2021. He’s refereed the last 38 PGA Championships and officiated 11 Ryder Cups. Startzel was the chief referee at the ‘War on the Shore’ and the one you’ll see in old highlight films mediating the dispute between Paul Azinger and Seve Ballesteros. It was Startzel, who walked 21-holes with Woods and May at Valhalla Golf Club. And, he was the one who used dental floss to measure who was away on the 18th green during the epic match between Rory McIlory and Patrick Reed during the Sunday singles at the 2016 Ryder Cup.
Startzel has enjoyed a front row seat to golf history for almost 40 years, but it was that match between McIlroy and Reed that is No. 1 on his list. The final day of the 2016 Ryder Cup re-airs Tuesday, April 14 on Golf Channel beginning at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time.
“It was unbelievable,” Startzel said via phone from his home in Florida. “Looking back, that was one of the finest things I’ve ever been a part of.”
That measurement to determine who was away on the 18th green at Hazeltine National Golf Club was the culmination of one of the most exciting matches in Ryder Cup history. And Startzel was nervous. He had successfully ushered the thrilling match, without a hiccup, to the final hole of the day. And while you might not recognize his name, if you’ve watched any golf over the last three decades, you’ve certainly seen him. Much to his chagrin. While his job puts him in the middle of the action, he does everything he can to avoid being caught on-camera. If you see him, it’s likely because there’s an issue that needs to be addressed.
In this case, it was too close to call who would be first to putt at the 18th green with both McIlroy and Reed nestled about 10 feet from the hole. The referee informed the pair that in his mind, Reed was away, but the American wanted to make it official.
“Rory said, ‘I don’t care,’ but Reed said, ‘I want a measurement,’” Startzel recalled.
Like Captains who send out their best players in the lead and anchor matches, the PGA of America tries to send out their best referees with these groups, too. Startzel is one of the best and of course was prepared for this situation. He carries dental floss should an occasion, just like this, happen to arise.
“Of course, I’m nervous. I know I’m on TV and I hate that. That’s not why you’re there,” Startzel said. “I had, coming down to this, the greatest match ever played. And [now], this guy is pulling something out of his pocket. I’m doing my job, but I also know that nobody is missing what is going on here.”
Startzel is accustomed to having a caddie help out with any measurements, but instead Reed jumped in to help. The two didn’t speak as Startzel went about his business.
“He was absolutely perfect,” Startzel said in describing Reed, who he refereed for the first time that week. “He was interested, but he is pretty intense.”
The difference was half an inch. Reed was away and drained the putt to defeat McIlroy, 1-up.
Throughout the entire match, the tension between McIlroy and Reed was palpable. Just feet away from the action, Startzel could feel it, too. The former Tour pro, turned PGA Club Professional, turned rules educator and PGA of America referee, was nervous. But in a good way. Much like players harness that energy to perform their best under pressure, Startzel does too.
“You’re inside the ropes and under the big top, you just don’t have your spikes on,” Startzel explained. “I want to be keyed up. I don’t want to be ho-hum boring. If I’m not nervous, I don’t want to be there.”
For nearly two decades, Startzel has been the primary referee on the first tee at the PGA Championship. He’s also walked with critical matches at the Ryder Cup, including the anchor match at the 1999 Ryder Cup. Self-described as a ‘square peg, square hole’ kind of guy, he believes his no-nonsense, workmanlike personality makes him a perfect fit for the high-intensity role he plays at the PGA of America’s premier events.
“I’m a nervous person, number one,” Startzel said. “But that’s how much it means [to me], and how important I know it is to do it perfectly, as it needs to be done.”
Startzel looked on as McIlroy and Reed matched each other birdie for birdie, punctuated by one crazed celebration after another. The match hit its peak at the 8th hole when McIlroy rolled in a 40-footer for birdie from the front of the green and erupted in a celebration rarely seen from the Irishman, who egged on the American fans to get louder. If that was possible. Then, all eyes shifted to Reed, who delivered in the moment by draining a 25-footer, also for birdie. All McIlroy could do was laugh. If there was any question about the intentions of these two, they put that all to bed with a friendly exchange of sportsmanship as they fist bumped and put their arms around each other on the back of the green. It was one of the highlights of the day for Startzel.
“You couldn’t even breathe, there was no oxygen in the air,” Startzel said. “We were outside, and you can’t breathe, that’s how intense it was.”
U.S. Captain Davis Love III named Tiger Woods as one of his assistants after he failed to make the team. Since the duel between McIlroy and Reed was the first match of the day, and the Captain wanted to see the rest of his team off, Love III sent Woods to follow the pairing. At the 12th tee, Love III came out to check on the status of the match and asked Startzel directly.
“’This is two heavyweight champions just swapping body blows.’ That’s exactly what I said,” Startzel recalled telling the Captain, who is also a longtime acquaintance. “It was just unreal. One guy hitting as hard as he could, and the next guy would hit him back as hard as he could.”
That was a rare exchange for the referee, who tries to not speak to anyone while he’s working. He’s not there to be a ‘social butterfly,’ as he says. Rather, he’s there as a representative of the PGA America and he has a job to do, and that means ensuring whatever final match or group he is following, successfully makes it through the day without issue.
But he also believes fate has a role to play.
Startzel is superstitious, as are many Tour pros who after a good day will continue wearing the same article of clothing or repeat the same meals for the remainder of the week in hopes of continued good play. Startzel has carried those same beliefs over from his playing days, which led to another rare exchange during the McIlroy and Reed match. This time with Woods.
That Sunday in Minnesota, the weather was beautiful. Temperatures crept into the lower 70s and the sun was shining. Startzel wore a button-down shirt, a tie and a vest, which began to feel a bit warm as the day, and the match, heated up. At the fourth hole, Startzel carved out a position near the front of the green, away from the players and out of camera shot. Woods also took up position nearby.
“’Are you going to take that vest off?’” the referee remembers Woods asking. “I said, ‘That depends on how the day is going.’ He laughed and said, ‘Been there, done that.’”
It was moment that didn’t just make Startzel’s day, but his year. He told Woods what the exchange meant to him as they took the 100-yard jaunt to the fifth tee. Woods simply laughed and patted him on the back.
Startzel wore the vest the entire match. He kept it and it now has a home in the storage unit on his ranch where he has stockpiled decades of other mementos from his years as a member of the PGA of America.
The referee also kept the text messages he received that day. When he returned to his locker at Hazeltine National to pick up his personal items, he had received countless text messages from those who had watched the match and observed Startzel’s role in it. Some of those messages came from special people in his life, others came from people he’d rather not name but says they are at the highest level in the game.
How did he respond to them? How did the referee of nearly 40 years begin to sum up the incredible day he had just witnessed?
“I was there,” he texted back.