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Legendary Birchmont starter Keith Mooney remembered with salute on the shore

David Mooney drives a ball into Lake Bemidji as part of a posthumous tribute to his father, Keith Mooney, Thursday night at Bemidji Town & Country Club. Keith Mooney served as The Birchmont starter for 43 years. Pioneer Photo/Eric Stromgren1 / 2
A rainbow broke the clouds during Thursday night's long drive competition. Pioneer Photo/Eric Stromgren2 / 2

A bright rainbow curled high in the sky over the first fairway during Thursday night's long drive contest.

"You see that," David Mooney said as he pointed to the clouds, "That's my Dad right there, brother."

The Birchmont remembered one of its legends Thursday night as family and friends of Keith Mooney lined up along Lake Bemidji's shoreline to launch golf balls into the water in a posthumous tribute to the former tournament starter.

The tribute started with the theme of a 21-gun salute with 21 drives into the water, but David openly invited everyone down to the shore and nearly 50 answered the call.

Keith Mooney served as The Birchmont starter for 43 years. He died at the age of 82 on March 21 after a battle with cancer.

"He knew everyone in town, loved people and people loved him back," David said. "Anyone who met him never forgot him."

David, who currently lives in California, said when he used to caddy at the Bob Hope Classic, players would come to him and say they had met his father.

And at Bemidji Town & Country Club Thursday night, there was no shortage of people who wanted to share their fond memories of 'Moon.'

"He was just a good guy," said Paul Daman. "One time I was a little late for my starting time and he never let me forget that. He was a type of guy who lived life the right way, he never drank and never caroused. He was respected and I think that's a pretty good legacy to leave behind."

Marshall Johnston said that he never saw Keith without a smile on his face.

"He was a gentleman of all gentlemen and I've got a ball right here that I'm going to put out there into the lake for him," Johnston said.

Scott 'Hinny' Hinners worked at Bemidji Town & Country Club in the 1980s and said Mooney was like a grandfather to the teenagers who worked there and the junior members who played there.

At The Birchmont, Mooney always told Hinners to wipe his feet when he walked out of the sand traps. Hinners agreed only if Mooney would drive his red cart out to the sixth fairway to help him find his ball.

"He was always there," Hinners said. "He was a good, good man."

Mooney was not only an avid golfer, but a lover of baseball throughout his life.

He worked at the Country Club as a bartender while attending Bemidji State. He graduated from BSU in 1952, earned his masters degree in 1956 and served as the BSU baseball coach for a season before moving to Redlands, Calif. where he taught physical education for three decades.

"Keith was a legend amongst not only the Bemidji population but also the reservations around Bemidji," Joe Aitken said. "The Indian people adored Keith - he was a coach and a mentor. Most importantly he was easy going, kind hearted, respectful and genuine."

Mooney coached baseball legends Will Antell, Jim Lawrence, John Buckanaga and Dewayne Dunkley.

"He recognized talent and people loved and appreciated him from the 1950s to the 2000s - every year at The Birchmont is like a reunion," Aitken said.

David Mooney has not played in The Birchmont since 1985, but decided to return this season to play in a tribute to his father. He played well this week and made the round of 16 before he was knocked out in 19 holes Thursday afternoon.

"I wanted to come back and play," David said. "I never gave up and gave it my best out there. I fought back but it just wasn't enough today."

David said his father loved Bemidji Town & Country Club. Keith was a 10 handicap golfer but shot 72 only twice in his life. He shot par at ages 37 and 73 - both scores came at Bemidji Town & Country Club.

"He loved tournament golf but he never played in The Birchmont because he loved to start. He did what he loved his whole life," David said.

In the middle of the long drive contest, the starter's shack behind the first teebox was officially dedicated to Keith by head pro Rick Grand. A plaque memorializing Mooney and his service is permanently placed on the front of the shack.

Keith's wife, Harriet, and David were presented with a Birchmont flag bearing the many signatures of Keith's friends. Hinners presented the flag given by the Country Club.

The tribute group then walked down to the shoreline to begin the salute. David teed up with Harriet, looked out into the lake and then around at everyone on shore and back toward the people watching from the clubhouse deck.

"Isn't this great," he said.