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Solana Beach’s Tony Perez, left, is greeted by Tiger Woods at a recent Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course. Perez will celebrate his 30th year as the event’s starter later this month. Courtesy photo
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Sports Talk: Perez delivers pizzazz as Farmers Insurance Open starter

The teeming crowds will soon be descending on Torrey Pines Golf Course, straining to see those inside the ropes at one of the PGA’s most popular tour stops.

The Farmers Insurance Open is Jan. 23 to Jan. 26 and countless patrons will be greeting a familiar face at the tournament.

Say, isn’t that Tony Perez?

“I’ve met so many people that I feel like a celebrity,” Perez said.

Perez is known for his wide smile and big voice. Before every player at the $7.5 million event tees off, they are introduced by Perez on the South Course’s No. 1 hole.

“It’s been 30 years in the making,” said Perez, a Solana Beach resident.

Perez is far from an overnight success. He’s a staple at the FIO, like the fog, deep rough and stunning sunsets.

As the FIO starter, no ball is struck until Perez finishes pronouncing the golfer’s name and hometown.

“It’s Louie, not Louis,” the 2010 U.S. Open winner once told Perez before his swing.

But on Perez’s pairing sheet it was “Louis Oosthuizen” so that’s what escaped his lips. While most stumble over the last name, Perez took a mulligan on the first.

Perez shares tales and they usually end with a laugh. Few have more fun at the FIO and even fewer have a better vantage point.

“To be able to stand on the No. 1 tee and see all the players and spend time with them, well, they have become like family to me,” Perez said. “I think I am the most hugged starter on the tour.”

The real offspring is Pat Perez, Tony’s son and a Torrey Pines High graduate who has won three times and more than $26 million on the tour. If he’s able to contend at Torrey Pines, where he’s had two top-five finishers, it would be priceless.

“I hope he is in the last group on that Sunday,” Perez said. “That would be something.”

Perez got his FIO gig after measuring drives on No. 10. That was before it was done electronically, so Perez would gauge the distance after chalking the fairways at various intervals.

Then word came that the event was seeking a new starter. With Perez knowing many of the officials through his son’s success on the junior golf circuit, he was told to clear his throat.

“It remains very, very special to me,” he said. “I can’t wait for it every year.”

One January he spotted five kids unable to see through the army of patrons. Perez gave them nudge and dipped the rope, inviting them to share the tee box with him and the pros if they remained quiet.

“Just then Rory McIlroy walks in and sees them,” Perez said. “He goes over and shakes every one of their hands. They left with a memory that they will never forget.”

We can’t ignore something: Tony Perez is a proud Vietnam veteran of the Air Force and he goes the extra mile for military service members.

Twelve years ago, he had wounded warriors announce the players. Among the heroes were those that sacrificed limbs for their country.

“One day when we were at lunch one of the guys said he wanted to learn how to play golf,” Perez said.

That led to Perez starting “Operation Game On” where injured veterans are introduced to the game.

Carlsbad’s TaylorMade contributed $40,000 to the cause and other funds raised by Perez went to outfit the novice players with the latest in golf gear.

“Golf helped get them back into a normal life,” Perez said. “Pretty soon all these guys and gals were out playing golf and talking to each other about it.”

More than 500 troops, many with post-traumatic stress disorder as well, have benefited from Perez’s endeavor. It proves he’s an ace without wielding a club and one with a big heart.

“I’ve had parents and wives tell me I saved their son’s or husband’s life because they got into golf,” Perez said. “That’s pretty strong.”

Loud and clear is their message and what will escape Perez’s pipes with be just as sound. Stop by No. 1 and say hello if you can, although be prepared to wait your turn.