Tending to fairways, greens, and those darned birdies

At 6 a.m. on a steamy June morning, the grounds crew at The Oaks golf course in Cottage Grove is restless. Though storms were predicted for the evening, nobody anticipated the early-morning cloud-to-ground lightning and impending rain moving in. All hopes of getting onto the golf course are temporarily dashed.

John Tucker, course superintendent, and Erik Christenson, course mechanic, have been watching the line of thunderstorms approach all morning, and another line behind it. Weather, to be sure, has been a challenge this year. "It makes us nervous to see severe weather," Christenson says. "We're constantly watching."

Christenson, 32, has worked for The Oaks for four years. His salaried, full-time position includes managerial oversight as he helps assist Tucker. Each morning just before 6, about a dozen staff workers gather briefly to review the day's assignments. Most maintenance is conducted on a rotating basis. Greens are mowed and trash is collected every day, while other parts of the course are mowed three times a week.

"Rain really throws us off," Christenson says. "We will work through it, but there's no work when there's lightning. If we see any visible lightning, we stop." (About 20 minutes later, the weather clears.)

At The Oaks, 13 different mowers are used to maintain the course's 18 holes, and each has a specific use. Three mowers, for example, are used only on fairways. Others are used for the rough, the "collar," the "apron," and the tee boxes. Fairway and rough mowers are the most expensive pieces of equipment, costing about $40,000 each, while greens are all maintained carefully with gas-powered push mowers.

Greens – cut to .125 of an inch – are critical to the game, and cutting them requires blades with razor-thin precision. Christenson has blade sharpeners he uses about every two to three weeks to assure the cut, and the look, is impeccable. Fairways are cut to a little under half an inch, and the rough, 2½ inches. Fertilizer is applied to the rough each spring and fall, and greens receive a small nutritional boost about every two weeks. "Applications are always very managed and timed," he said. "We're always applying with the intent of watering it so it soaks in. We're very mindful of the amounts used, and use careful management."

The combination of proper water usage and grass cutting helps manage course stress, reducing disease and insects. Asian beetles are not of particular concern, he explains, though grubs are, and this is the first year the course has had geese on it, he says – a new problem to contend with.

Christenson works full-time, five days a week, from 6 to about 2:30 in the afternoon, rotating weekends with other staff members. Ironically, he's not a golfer. As the course mechanic, his primary responsibility is equipment maintenance, inside and out, training employees, cutting grass, and overseeing the course's buildings and grounds. "It lets me be a jack-of-all-trades," he smiles. "One day, I'm fixing an oven in the kitchen, and the next, a mower."

His mechanical expertise has saved the course thousands of dollars in repairs. In winter, he sees that every cart, piece of equipment, and outdoor trash barrel is maintained or refurbished. Recently the course added another revenue stream: repairing the cutting equipment for other courses. Christenson also runs that show, which has become a lucrative business.

Christenson noted that 2010 was particularly difficult because of the rain. "We have 70 bunkers, or sand traps, on the course. Heavy rain washes all the sand down to the bottom of the bunkers, and we have to shovel it all back by hand." It's time-consuming, involves heavy lifting, and jacks up labor costs.

The course's maintenance staff is mixed in age, with first-year hires earning $8.50 an hour. Mowing a green this morning is Pat, a recent high school graduate working his second summer at the course. He's got no problems waking up early. "I'm a morning person," he says. "All my friends sleep until around noon."

This is the work ethic that Tucker and Christenson look for when they hire, which doesn't happen often because kids keep coming back. "It's rare to have job openings," Tucker agrees. Because of the variety of mowers used, it may take three summers before a worker gains sufficient experience to operate heavy cutting machines.

On hole number one, Mark, a five-year course veteran, is mowing the fairway. According to Christenson, this is the most coveted job on the course. This is Mark's second career, after working for the state for 30 years. "I love it here," he smiles.

"The wildlife – deer, fox. It's quiet, and you don't take the job home with you."

It takes about five hours for two workers to mow all 18 fairways.

Beneath The Oaks' 160 public acres are hundreds of miles of water pipes used for irrigation, fed from a well and pump house located next to a small retaining pond. The well fills the pond, then two large pumps (30 and 40 hp) distribute water throughout the course.

This morning, with just a few sprinkler heads open, 125 pounds of pressure are blowing out 265 gallons of water every minute. On the far side of a fairway, an inconspicuous green box houses a computerized irrigation substation, one of 14 on the course. As if on cue, John Tucker drives by in a cart. "Turn on 16 to 19 for about 15 minutes," he instructs. With a couple of keystrokes, Christenson programs and activates specific fairway sprinkler heads depending upon the location of dry spots and golfers. Greens, on the other hand, are watered the old-fashioned way, with hoses.

Tucker says the biggest threat to a golf course is the potential for fungus, adding that The Oaks uses very little fungicide because the course is blessed with good air movement, drainage, and water. "That, in itself, saves labor and costs."

Then he motions toward a nearby green, where swallows swoop and dive to its surface. "See those birds over there? Certain worms live on the green and are hatching into flies. The birds are eating the flies. That's something we have to watch."

The Oaks opened in 2003, and Tucker, who built it in just 19 months, admits it's a work in progress. He'd like to see 30,000 rounds of golf played there this year, but so much depends on outside factors such as the economy ("People seem to be shopping rates more"), and weather ("This spring was difficult"). Nearby construction, he says, which closed Highway TT, has had no discernible impact.

Tucker looks to the skies. It's clear there's a stormy day ahead, and he hopes golfers aren't scared off. His biggest frustration? "Weather," he answered quickly, "and meteorologists."


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