The Other Legendary Golf Tournament
At the Splusso, spirits and scores soar.
Thursday, September 6, 2007
The Golf Capital of the World, also known as the Monterey Peninsula, is home once a decade to the prestigious US Open. Once a year it is the site of the celebrity-laden AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Then there’s the Splusso.
While it lacks the cache as the others, to present and past employees of the city of Monterey, their families and their friends, it may be more important.
For the past 25 years, these folks have gathered annually for a one-day, one-of-a-kind, 18-hole golf tournament where the pars are less meaningful than the participation, and the results are less significant than the reminiscences. With about 100 in the field, this year’s event will be held Sunday, Sept. 9, at Laguna Seca Golf Ranch, followed by a banquet and raffle.
The Splusso’s origin dates back to a Sunday in early 1982, when a large number of Monterey city employees watched the 49ers win their first Super Bowl on TV at the Monterey Youth Center. During the celebration that followed, a challenge emerged. Although details are sketchy, the result was that Joe Splane, then the assistant to the finance manager for Monterey, and Kay Russo, then a recreation superintendent, agreed to meet in a nine-hole match at Pacific Grove Municipal Golf Links.
The soft-spoken Splane was then, and is today, an excellent golfer. The ebullient Russo, well, has always been a game competitor.
As many co-workers gathered to watch, some yelled, “Go Splane,” and others, “Go Russo.” At least one shouted, “Go Splusso,” merging the names.
Splane spotted Russo a stroke a hole but still won easily. But the outcome was less consequential than what ensued. City employees decided to stage their own event later that year.
The tourney hasn’t missed a year since. After being held for many years at Rancho Canada Golf Club under the gentle stewardship of the late Nick Lombardo, who championed the joys of playing golf, it moved to Laguna Seca, where it was been run in the same fashion by his cousin Gary Cursio, president of Laguna Seca.
Splane, in addition to winning the two-person event in 1982, has captured another title. Russo won once as well, but she is most proud of the year that it was won by her father, Allie, who recently passed at 93. Another year all her aunts and uncles played. The tourney is also a family affair for Splane, who will fill out a foursome this year with two brothers and his father.
The Splusso has its own set of unusual rules, including:
•A limit of 10 strokes per hole.
•The “hand wedge,” which permits lifting the ball out of a trap, with a one-stroke penalty, after two unsuccessful attempts to hit it out.
•Whiff tolerance – when a golfer swings and misses, it isn’t counted as a stroke.
Then there are spontaneous rule changes. One year an employee placed her ball on a tee wherever it landed, recalls Splusso regular Bill Wojtkowski, who retired this year as Monterey’s director of community development.
This is a net event, meaning that one’s handicap counts. Splane, who holds a bachelor’s degree from the Wharton School of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, determines the handicaps, which are based on the entire field’s average score. Or something like that.
Cursio puts it this way: “To this day, I am unable to explain their handicapping system because it’s unique to them.”
The tourney brings together longtime golfers with those who may be playing golf for the first time. But not the last.
What makes the Splusso special, says Splane, is “the camaraderie, the longevity, having folks who have been playing together so long. We’ve had folks who are no longer with us, and new folks coming on.”
One who helped get the tourney started was the late Patty O’Hearn, who was Russo’s caddy that first year and then the Monterey city clerk. Her obituary in The Herald last year pointed out that she was a “founding member of the Splusso Golf Tournament Committee.” Marie Mlacnik, who was revenue officer for Monterey, was Splane’s caddy back in 1982.
“Instead of the golf scores getting lower every year, they get higher,” says Russo. “They become worse. We just have such a good time.”
“There is a serious part, too,” says Wojtkowski. “Joe is really a good golfer.”
Splane, about a four handicap, offers a free lesson to the last-place finisher.
Although no city expenses are incurred, Russo notes that proceeds from the tourney go to provide scholarships for children’s camps put on by the city. Another outgrowth of the tournament is that the city started offering golf lessons.
Splane, now the finance and administrative services manager for the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District, has never missed the event. Neither has Russo, now Monterey’s recreation and community services director.
Come Sunday, both will be on the course again in an event that wouldn’t have a name without theirs.