"It's the name of the game," some say, but for me, the name often is the game.
I've been treasuring them since the third grade when I made sports page acquaintance with then-Cardinal outfielder Joe (Ducky) Medwick. No matter that he eventually made it to the Hall of Fame, "Ducky" was the attraction.
Ah, names. Maybe that's why I stopped short at Muffin Spencer-Devlin, another top-of-the-liner. Was she a British war waif? Member of Parliment? A London guest at the manor house in an Agatha Christie mystery?
Muffin Spencer-Devlin -- none of the above.
This hyphenated handle leaped out at me from a list of Ladies Professional Golf Assocation tournament scores one night two years ago in the line of copy-reading duty. For the LPGA, such duty means keeping the Jo Anns in order:
Washam, Jo (space) Ann.
Carner, Jo (no space) capital A, nn, e.
Prentice, Jo (space) Ann, no e.
Muffin Spencer-Devlin: no Jo Ann, but a certified winner. The only Muffin on the list, and 13 letters and a hyphen strung out beyond.
In 1979 she was a stranger with no sketch in the LPGA Guide, no information forthcoming from the Post golf staff. But even strangers need Washington-based rooters and I became one, all on the strength of a marvelous name. "Hey, Muffin shot a 72 today!" and "Did you see? Muffin finished in the money this week." Coworkers were puzzled, but tolerant.
The disembodied name took form in July 1980 at the Greater Baltimore Open on the Pine Ridge Club course. I joined the Spencer-Devlin gallery.
Her first words to me were: "Please keep looking for the ball. It may be around here somewhere." We never found the ball, probably swallowed by the miniswamp behind the trees, but Muffin found the hole often enough to finish in a tie for 46th, winning $310 on three 74s.
Back at the copy desk, a persona began to develop. Over the winter, a golf magazine fasion layout modeled by Muffin and three other Lpga tourists . . . a profile in the new LPGA Guide . . . in my mailbox, a photo of Muffin and boxer Gerry Cooney . . . and news flashes: "Did you see Muffin had a hole in one Sunday?" (At Malvern, Pa., June 7, worth $1,000.)
It clearly was time for closer acquaintance. On opening day of the recent tour stop at Meadow Brook Club in Jericho, N.Y., for the WUI Classic, I fell among friends. There were six of us. A racehorse-owning family friend from Florida; Drue Kerls, one of Muffin's sisters; Billy and Danny Kerls, nephews; Shanne Henkel, a niece, and a vacationing copy editor. The adults were out of uniform but the three youngsters all wore red T-shirts emblazoned "Muffin's Mob."
On the course, her conversation is confined to a few quiet hellos to marshals and some banter with her caddie. "He's the only one inside the ropes who is on your side, who's looking out for you 100 percent," she said later over lunch. (A quantum jump for the copy editor: from scanning scores to sharing a table).
Current custodian of the Spencer-Devlin bag is Bob Burns, called "Bullet" for reasons his employer can't explain. He's her second caddie of this season, his predecessor being a no-show at the Peter Jackson Classic in Quebec several weeks back.
In the first LPGA event this season, the Whirlpool Classic at Deer Creek in Florida, Muffin gave vent to her frustration over some missed putts by walking behind the 17th green and kicking a tree. The tree survived bu the golfer broke a toe. With the help of acupuncture and massive doses of bone supplements, she missed on two weeks of play.
The Spencer-Devlin golf career shows a record of steady if not spectacular improvement. In her rookie season her best finish was a 43rd and she finished 112th on the money list. In 1980 she moved up 20 notches in money with a best finish of a tie for 13th. Through mid-July this season, she ranked 75th and alrady has equaled her 1980 earnings.
Although introduced to golf by her parents at age 5 ("My mother still has a 4 handicap") her life hasn't been all golf. Born 27 years ago, in Piqua, Ohio, home of the singing Mills brothers, Muffin grew up in Rockville Centre, N.Y., where, while still in high school, she became the youngest-ever club champion at her home course.
Then came college (Rollins and the American College of Switzerland) and a three-year hiatus from golf in favor of the pursuit of a theater career. In addition to college work, this included study with the respected drama coach Stella Adler and work as a model and photographer's representative. And, the hyphenated last name.
"I wanted it as a name in the theater and didn't want to drop the Spencer, so my step-father and I went through all the legal business and changed it," she said. "When I was a photographer's rep, it was great for opening doors -- and nobody seemed to forget it."
Muffin occasionally travels with Beverly Davis-Cooper, another player, and in her words, "Introductions -- Spencer-Devlin and Davis-Cooper -- can get hilarious. I also get introduced as Spencer-Davis, after the music group."
Despite experience in comedy and serious drama, Harold Pinter, among others, and lots of auditions and scenes, the Spencer-Devlin name didn't go up in lights in New York and she turned again to golf.
After a year and a half on the minitour, playing mostly in California, she qualified for the LPGA school in February 1979, joining the tour immediately.
Just voted one of the 10 best-dressed women in golf by a panel for Women Golfers Week magazine, Muffin expects to do some modeling for one of her sponsors, Lyle-Scott (cashmeres) of Haywick, Scotland, in the off-season. She also represents Amaretto di Saronna, which in turn helps sponsor the three-day National Ladies Club Championship in Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic. She is spokeswoman for that event.
Her maternal grandmother is responsible for her real name, Helene, and for Muffin. "I was named for her and they tell me that when I was born, I had a forceps mark right in the middle of my forehead, and Grandmother is supposed to have said, 'She looks just like a little muffin.' They tried to call me Helene in school but that was too formal for me so I fought for Mufflin."
In a P.G. Wodehouse plot, Muffin Spencer-Devlin inevitably would become involved with a young man named Herbert Heavlin-Sevlin or something like that, giving promise of a Spencer-Devlin-Heavlin-Sevlin.
But in the real world, Muffin leaves it to an aunt, who sometimes calls her "Muffin-Spuffin-Duffin."