They work so you can play.
Superintendents and greens keepers at golf courses put long hours into a job that can be thankless at times. They’re generally too humble to point it out, but it is a fact of life: Every time we tee it up, we have them to thank for those lush fairways, smooth greens and even that thick rough.
This summer, the weather has made the tasks of the greens keepers more difficult. Judging by their reactions, it has been the most challenging summer in recent memory.
June will be remembered for sizzling temperatures, with several days in the 100s and almost all in the high 90s. That kept the crews trying to help courses merely survive, keeping greens watered enough to live.
Then, just as the drought seemed to be at its worst, July came and things took a turn for the wetter. Fifteen consecutive days of rain left even the driest parts of any area golf course soaked.
“I’ve told everybody we’ve gone from a desert setting to a swamp,” Bill Henderson, the superintendent at Johnson City Country Club, said earlier this week. “June was so bad and we kept wishing it would rain. Now we’ve had rain every day since July 5. The golf gods are paying us back.”
As difficult as the conditions have been, the challenges are just part of the profession.
“Mother Nature has a lot to do with this job,” says Louie Hopkins of Elizabethton Golf Course. “June was tough just keeping things watered. Now it’s so soaking wet that we can’t mow like we want. It’s been tough.”
Out at Blackthorn Club at the Ridges, a mere .15 inches of rain fell in June. The level of the irrigation pond got so low that the club was forced to buy water from the city.
Now, with 10.5 inches of rain in July — including almost three inches in one night — it’s an entirely different story.
“The pond was actually overflowing,” said Blackthorn superintendent Russell Lutz. “It’s just two totally different maintenance practices. In June, we had to syringe every day and keep the greens cool. In July, we’re trying to dry them out.
“We’re lucky here that we have USGA-spec root zones. They drain really good. Some other courses are really hurting. Our greens don’t even puddle when it rains.”
Blackthorn’s greens are known as some of the fastest in the area. Trying to keep them that way has been a major part of the challenge for Lutz.
“We’re so used to having such fast greens and we really pride ourselves in that,” he said. “But with all this rain, there’s only so much you can do. A lot of the members seem to be very understanding. They can tell just from walking outside in their yard how wet it is.”
Jim Hughes, Johnson City’s director of golf, oversees Pine Oaks and Buffalo Valley. He said the heat and rain has forced more golfers to stay away, leading to a vicious cycle that takes its toll on the bottom line and the grounds crews’ ability to take care of the public courses.
“It’s been a challenging year for a lot of people,” Hughes said. “When it’s too hot, people don’t play. When it’s too wet, people don’t play. That affects our revenue and our ability to maintain the courses.
“Not only are we having this hellacious weather, but the golfers aren’t out. That makes it tougher.”
It’s not the just the temperatures and moisture that have tested the grounds crews, it’s also the effects of the rain. The intensity of some of the storms has left bunkers completely washed out, where all the sand is forced to the bottom of the trap, leaving erosion ruts and unplayable surfaces.
Henderson says Johnson City Country Club’s bunkers washed out 10 times in a 15-day period.
“We spent two days working on them, putting them back,” he said. “And then they washed out again within 12 hours after we did them. It’s pretty frustrating. Not only is it frustrating from the playability standpoint and the work that goes into it, but also the contamination that happens to the bunkers over time. Usually in a season, you might only get half a dozen washouts. We’ve just about doubled that in a couple weeks. It just makes them worse as the season goes on.”
In early June, before the heat really came, Johnson City Country Club was the site of the Tillinghast Invitational, and the course was in perfect condition for the event.
“Leading right up to that, the temperatures, moisture levels, everything was perfect,” Henderson said. “That was like the peak of it. Since then, it’s been anybody’s guess.
“We have a real jewel of a golf course, a Tillinghast golf course, and we take a lot of pride in it.”
Every Fourth of July weekend, Elizabethton puts on the East Tennessee Amateur, which draws the biggest fields of any competitive tournament in the area. Hopkins always has the course in tip-top shape in order to show it off for the visiting guests, and the guests are quick to compliment the layout and its smooth greens.
“It makes me feel good when people come from out of town and give us the compliments,” Hopkins said. “It makes us feel good that people appreciate what we do. We work hard and it’s good to hear when people appreciate it.”
Working hard might be an understatement for Hopkins, who is out at the course seven days a week and routinely puts in more than 60 hours a week.
“I really love my job,” said Hopkins, whose son Travis is an assistant superintendent at Gaylord Springs in Nashville. “I get frustrated that we don’t have a lot to work with, a lot of people to work with. But I love it.”
At Johnson City’s two municipal courses, Pine Oaks and Buffalo Valley, superintendent Tim Fields and director of maintenance Bill Fuller are faced with trying to overcome the difficult conditions.
“Generally speaking, we’re holding our own right now,” Hughes said. “It’s been a real challenge. This is the time of year when you earn your money. This is our fourth quarter with the clock ticking down. We always look toward Labor Day as the time when it will start cooling down a little. ”