Early Birdies


Whoever first said, "The darkest hour comes right before dawn," must have been a golfer.

An early bird golfer.

Every day at virtually every course around the world, golfers who rise before dawn get to the clubhouse ahead of even the pros who open the golf shop.

"I know when I get here, they'll be lined up outside the door," said Mike Harrington, assistant pro at Porter Valley Country Club in Northridge.

They are golf's Dawn Patrol.

After grabbing a cup of coffee and taking a few practice putts, they are hoping to sneak onto the course a little early, even if it's still dark.

"These guys just can't wait to get going," said Dan Hernandez, assistant pro at Valencia Country Club. "We have one guy, and I can't tell you his name, when he stands around waiting you can almost hear him vibrating."

When Hernandez was assistant pro at Industry Hills Golf Club, there was a twosome that earned a place in the Dawn Patrol Hall of Fame.

The 60-something couple were charter members of the club and had the earliest tee time on the Babe Zaharias Course every weekend.

"People would see Mr. and Mrs. House tee off and be irate if they were playing next," Hernandez said. "But we would tell them they would see the Houses on the first tee and that's about it.

"They would play in a little over two hours every week and then come into the clubhouse and announce how long it took them--2:15, 2:20 or whatever. I think their record was 2:05.

"Not only would they play that fast, but they would look for lost golf balls. Usually they'd come back with a bag full."

Some golfers play early for the solitude, others to get in a quick nine or 18 holes before work, but most because they can play without having to wait behind slower players.

Matt Pourlier plays in the first group at Porter Valley six days a week.

"Your progress isn't impeded by somebody who seems to take all day deciding if he's going to hit the ball or not," Pourlier said. "You can set your own pace, for nine holes at least, if they're sending groups off on the back nine.

"We play quickly, and when we're done we have the rest of the day to do whatever we want. We might even have a drink or two before we go home.

"We open the course and then we open the bar."

Every golfer's nightmare is waiting to hit on virtually every shot and playing a round in five hours or longer. Jim Helms plays in the first group every Saturday at River Ridge Golf Course in Oxnard to avoid slow play.

"There's nobody in front of you, so you can play in three hours instead of five," said Helms, who returns home in plenty of time to finish his Saturday chores around the house.

"I don't get into trouble with my wife. I don't mind [the chores] if I get my golf in. I look forward to my golf all week."

Daylight comes earlier this time of year, but during the winter Dawn Patrollers often start in the dark.

At Sepulveda Golf Complex in Encino, which includes the Balboa and Encino courses, starter Rick Kopper sends golfers off in the dark even during the summer if they want to play early and haven't reserved a tee time.

"We call them rabbits," Kopper said. "They're usually singles or twosomes who show up early. I get here about 4:30 and some have been waiting to be first since 3 a.m.

"We'll send them out well before any of our scheduled groups. They definitely start off in the dark. They have to play in the dark if they want to play."

Pourlier knows the drill.

His group, which usually includes Joe Ghiglia, Paul Whealen and Darrell Norris, often starts in the dark during the winter months.

"[During the summer] you can see a little bit at 6:15, but during the winter it's pitch black," Pourlier said. "We get antsy and try to push it, starting out a little early if we can get away with it.

"Sometimes the lake is frozen in front of the clubhouse and we throw golf balls out there and they bounce or skid on the ice. One time it was snowing on the 10th fairway while we were playing. Your hands feel brittle because it's so cold, but after a few holes you warm up."

Helms has played for about 15 years at River Ridge in the early Saturday group that includes Kevin Enders, Bruce Dandy and Kevin Hartzell.

He has experienced almost every sort of weather.

"We've had rain, wind, fog and frost delays," Helms said. "A lot of times we can't see the pin because it's dark or foggy, or both. Sometimes we can't find a tee shot on the first hole, but we all help look and hardly ever lose a ball.

"It can be below 40 degrees during the winter when we start, and with the windchill it gets really cold. I remember one particularly windy, cold day when it was so awful only two of us played. But if we start, we always finish."

Helms remembers the day John Clark, a regular substitute when one of the foursome can't make it, accidentally drove his cart into 6-foot-8, 300-pound Dandy on the first hole.

Dandy went down like he was shot.

"It was wet and when John hit the brakes, the cart just slid right into Bruce," Helms said. "I was worried at first, but Bruce is such a big guy he just shrugged it off. He got up and kept on playing.

"It looked comical but it wasn't funny at first. We always get a laugh out of it now."

Clark gave the group another moment to remember when he made the only hole in one during the group's early bird play on the 133-yard 17th hole at River Ridge.

First order of business for Helms when the clubhouse opens is making a reservation for the next week.

"They don't get any preferential treatment," said Susan Sipes, assistant pro at River Ridge. "They have to make their tee time just like everybody else.

"And they know if they want to be first out, they have to be willing to hit their first shot in the dark."

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