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The golf-course superintendent is the golfer’s best friend.
He or she (because there are more and more female superintendents each year) works like a dog to keep the greens slick, the fairways lush and the tees level. The crew rakes and edges the bunkers, tames the rough, cultivates the flower beds and mulches under the trees. They blow the debris from the cart paths and they trim the edges of lakes and ponds.
Your golf-course superintendent most likely has a degree in agronomy and/or turf management. He has studied chemistry and botany; he has business and management skills and is licensed to apply pesticides and other chemicals.
To be a golf-course superintendent, you have to love your job. Imagine being at the mercy of the weather. Imagine dealing with infestations of funguses, weeds, insects and burrowing animals while every day your work sits out there in plain view, an art form for golfers to critique.
Job security? Not much. If the greens get a bad disease and go bye-bye, your job may go bye-bye, too. If the fairways get a fungus and go funky on you, update your resume immediately.
Then add economic downturns to the mix. Budgets get cut, but everyone—management, members and visiting golfers—expects the same results with fewer workers, less fertilizers and weed killers, no seed, old equipment.
In the meantime, fuel prices are going though the roof, and since most golf equipment runs on gasoline, your careful cost estimates from last year are shot.
In all this pathos and chaos, John Shaver, the superintendent at Rivers Edge, is not just surviving but thriving. The course looks gorgeous and was recently ranked 67 in the list of Best 100 Courses You Can Play compiled by Golf Digest.
Shaver brings a world of experience to the job. He was director of maintenance at the 54 holes at Bay Tree for years. He has worked at Melrose and Sea Pines in Hilton Head and at Tidewater in North Myrtle Beach.
A congenial family man who lives in Little River, S.C. with his wife and three children, Shaver enjoys his job.
“I like being a golf-course superintendent because it’s outside work and there are challenges every day,” he said as we sat on the expansive back porch of the Rivers Edge Clubhouse. “I need to be creative, to make decisions based on my best judgment.”
Shaver came in last year, when the greens at Rivers Edge were less than perfect.
“I found that the water in our irrigation system was brackish, it had too much salt content in it for our bent-grass greens. Bermuda doesn’t mind salt, so the fairways were decent, but the greens were suffering. We needed to get fresh water on our greens, so I went out and got three 500-gallon tanks and we began hand-watering the greens. It’s made a world of difference.”
All of this takes time and energy, especially in July and August, when bent grass wilts in the brutal heat and humidity of the Carolina coast.
“We deep water in the morning, then mist in the afternoon. Sometimes we’ll mist them two or three times between 2 and 4 p.m. I patrol all the time; if I see a green starting to go, we jump right on it. Usually, the green will come back within about 30 minutes of getting a cool water mist on it.”
John explained when bent grass gets stressed, it changes color from a deep green to a purple shade. The next stage is brown—and then it may be too late.
Three crews patrol the course with their water tanks. Two are on the front nine, and one is on the back. The front nine is more delicate and requires greater care, John explained.
As you play golf in Brunswick County during the dog days of summer, you’ll notice most greens are rolling slower now.
“We keep ours at about an eight or nine on the Stimpmeter,” he said. “Most courses keep the greens a little longer in the summer. We’ll cut them back when the World Amateur comes here later this month.”
I asked John how golfers can help their superintendents, especially during the hot summer months. He suggested golfers follow basic etiquette, which includes fixing ball marks, repairing divots and raking yourself out of a trap.
The ball mark issue is a personal irritation with me. When a golfer hits onto a green with a high lofted club, his ball usually leaves a small indentation known as a ball mark. If that tiny indent is fixed immediately, damage to the green is slight. If the ball mark is not fixed, there will be a hole and/or brown spot in that location for several weeks. Because the greens are watered a lot this time of year, they are very soft and the ball marks are deep.
When the pin is in the back of the green, balls will land in the front and then roll to the back. If the entry to the green is in the back, not many golfers will take the time to explore the front of the green and repair their ball mark.
In the days when most people walked the golf course, it was easy to do because you walked right over the ball mark to get to the pin. Now with almost everyone using carts, we often forget to take those few extra steps to repair our ball marks.
When a golfer takes a shot in the fairway, a chunk of grass or divot is often dislodged, especially with an iron. Divots in this area do not need to be replaced, according to John.
“All of our fairways here have Bermuda grass. It will not re-root if you replace the divot. In fact, that loose clump of grass will dislodge when we mow or blow the fairway the next time. So just fill the divot with the sand provided in your cart.”
Keeping your cart on the path when directed will help the superintendent also. When you can drive on the fairways, scatter the carts. Most superintendents do not want you to drive the carts down the edge of the rough because that mats down the longer grass and ultimately kills it.
The best way we can help our superintendents is by understanding they have a difficult, time-consuming job.
If you need to wait a few minutes while a green is hand-watered, just wait without grousing about it. If a superintendent charges by in a gas-powered cart, perhaps he’s going out to rescue a failing green or to fix a broken sprinkler head. If the rough is being mowed while you’re playing, maybe the crew was busy raking up debris from a freakish windstorm and couldn’t get to it before you arrived.
Just stand aside and smile and wave. It’s all being done for you.
GOLF GAB GROANER
Statistics about golfers:
A recent study found the average golfer walks 900 miles a year.
Another study found American golfers drink, on the average, 22 gallons of beer annually.
That means, on average, that American golfers get about 41 miles to the gallon.
Makes you proud to be an American, doesn’t it?
ELSA BONSTEIN is a golf columnist for the Beacon. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.