Watering Golf Courses
GOLF ENTERED MY LIFE EARLY. As a youngster I was fortunate to learn the game from two avid players disguised as parents. They enjoyed playing golf with me and I with them. After my Detroit Free Press paper route days had ended my employment for eight summers centered around maintaining golf courses where I served as a worker at two rather noted venues in southeastern Michigan. I learned the grooming essentials to create a pleasing golf course. I also added diversity to my resume by performing such tasks as digging drainage ditches and freshening up toilets.
At my second course, I became the cup changer. Elevated to this key position when the old-time cup changer had a stroke as he was teaching me the craft. He keeled over right next to the Cushman Truckster we were riding in and rolled onto his side. An ambulance was summoned. It came out on the course with its lights flashing and took him away. I never saw him again. I was promoted to the head cup changer on the spot, a much better job classification than mowing grass, or raking traps. I felt a bit undeserving now having my own vehicle and a title, but it heightened my resolve to do an excellent job and I did for four summers at Oakland Hills CC in Bloomfield.
Later, in my adult life, I was fortunate to become a member at a few country clubs in the Midwest. At a couple of the locations I served on committees that oversaw greens operations and, because of my summer experiences, brought some real understanding to the many issues the courses faced. Golf has filled my life with much satisfaction and has been a great part of my happiness in all my levels of engagement. And yes, I even still enjoy playing the game.
In the mid-1960s, I recall being assigned the night watering duties at Meadowbrook Country Club in Northville, my first golf course employer. Little did I know how one evening would become a lasting memory taken from my care-free teenage years when immaturity stirred the pot of poor judgement.
Irrigation was all manual back then, we used quick coupler valves and utilized large brass sprinklers to deliver water to the golf course. I recall the brass valve covers all had the Buckner name cast in them. After sun set the valve heads were sometimes quite difficult to locate under the accumulating web of creeping bentgrass and darkness. We learned to count 23 steps to find them, often with the aid of a flashlight. In theory, they were spaced equal distance along the subterranean water lines, but I can assure you this was not always the case.
My boss, Andy Bertoni, the greens superintendent, was under great stress in his attempts to keep the golf course lush for the members. He had trouble doing just that as the course’s soil was mostly clay, and nearly all the turf consisted of annual bluegrass (Poa annua.). Poor drainage and disease susceptible grasses are the bane of quality turf. Andy tried his very best, but August was usually brutally hot in the Detroit area, and our turf displayed vast swaths of mottled tans mixed with many shades of green spaced between the many sand bunkers on the course. From a birds-eye view it had similarities to the vast lunar surface that was always in the news in the 1960s. Water was the hope for green turf on planet earth, coupled with large doses of fungicides used to battle turf diseases.
I was called to night watering duty in early August. The sprinkler rotation called for up to twenty-four heads to run at a time and we scattered them throughout the eighteen-hole course. This balanced the demand on the old pump located on the 4th hole in a cinder block shed that was full of cobwebs and musty odors. Entering the pump house was always a bit nerve racking, especially if you had an active imagination, and I certainly did, having been raised on Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff at the Saturday matinees. It still gives me shivers remembering how I would slowly stick my head through the doorway into the pump house gathering my nerve to push switches and hear the clunk and whine of the old pumps during start-up. I think there were even sparks. It was very spooky.
We would begin the evening watering operation after priming the pump about 7 PM just as the late playing members had cleared the early holes. My utility vehicle hauled the trailer of sprinklers as they rested securely in their wooden carrying nests and begin placing the sprinklers around the course. I always focused on the job at hand and my speed became legendary. I could complete my rounds in about twenty-five minutes, this feat allowed a fifteen-minute break at the maintenance building prior the next rotation. I would finish watering about 11 PM if all went well.
It seldom did.
I discovered that August night that a few of my fellow workers, those who lived in Northville where Meadowbrook was located, would be hanging out at the maintenance barn for their evening beer drinking. Rick, Ron, and Jimmy, who was Andy’s son, were all present and ready to party. They even offered to help me later to move the sprinklers, perhaps an early warning that I should have decoded. The Kelvinator refrigerator that stored bagged lunches during the day became the infamous “beer locker” at night. Wow, all this happening right in front of me. I could feel my adrenaline kicking in - a party in the making, and I was getting paid. How good was that.
Most of my fellow workers were a year or two older than me. At seventeen years of age that difference was extremely telling, especially when it came to knowledge about alcohol and females. I was learning a lot by hanging out with these guys, listening to their amazing exploits. I think some of their stories might have been true. One such lesson that would take this evening to learn - consuming beer alters one’s frame of time. That fateful night I lost track of time after I consumed a few beers late in my shift while waiting in anticipation for the first delivered pizza I had ever had. I thought I was within my fifteen-minute window on my rotation’s break. It turned out not to be even close.
The four of us chipped in a dollar each to get the pizza. A guy in a car, outfitted with a warming oven delivering hot pizza, how cool was that. It was the gooiest mozzarella and pepperoni laden pizza I can ever recall. Even to this day, I can see the near perfect creation of meat and cheese and I can smell the garlic and oregano as it rested in the cardboard box inviting us to grab pieces. As we all laughed and drank our beers I passed out napkins in full anticipation of the coming taste delight, but a problem arose. A lurking figure appeared out of nowhere at the doorway to our lunch room and it wasn’t Boris Karloff. It was Andy Bertoni. He was dressed to the nines. I had forgotten he loved to go to the horses on Thursday nights at Northville Downs.
At first, he wore a curious smile looking about the room, then his eyes widened, and they dominated his facial expression placing him almost in caricature. Tension filled the lunchroom.
Shit was about to hit the fan.
Looking only at his son, Andy blurted out, “What in the hell is going on here, Jimmm?”
Jimmy said, “Oh, hi AB.” A name we used quite frequently to address Andy in lighter moments. “You want a peas of pissa,” the slur was so obvious, heard by all, except Jimmy.
My eyes immediately locked on a spot on a floor tile avoiding all eye contact, a survival tactic I learned in church to prevent me from going into absolute hysterics. It was the last thread of hope.
The scene went from bad to worse. Jimmy, sitting in the molded plastic chair turned to offer the first piece of pizza to Andy. The open cardboard box that had been on his lap happened to hit the corner of the Kelvinator and the entire 16” pizza slid forward, then flipped upside down, landing on Andy’s dress shoes. There was red sauce and cheese and pepperoni appearing like bronzed coins all about Andy and the floor.
Jimmy fell immediately to his knees, using napkins he began wiping the gobs of pizza on Andy’s shoes, socks, and pants. Andy was quivering and stared straight down at his pitiful son and ever so slowly asked why the course was flooded. I immediately raised my hand and took full responsibility. My senses had returned quickly. The forty-minute cycles I was supposed to be fulfilling had turned into almost two hours. I had lost all track of time with my drinking of beer.
The party came to a screeching halt. I quickly looked out the window catching the moonlight reflections in places I had never seen, confirming evidence that the course was flooded. For those driving on Eight Mile Road the course might have appeared like the spring thaw along the flood plains of the Mighty Mississippi. I finished the modified night watering rounds and collected the sprinklers, punching out at 12:45 AM, sober as a judge.
The next morning at 6:00 AM I was back to work quite a bit wiser and totally embarrassed. Later that morning, after I had mowed my greens, Andy briefly rubbed my head with his outstretched hand as we passed each other in the maintenance building. This single merciful act assured me that he had come to forgive me for my mischievous behavior. I also noticed that some of the tan areas on the course had begun to green-up, a result of finally getting some badly needed water.
This morning as I watered my new garden that spruces up the front entrance to our golf course, I found myself reflecting on seasons, present and past, and how golf courses, gardens, and watering have always been part of my life. Hypnotic sounds and sights and such earthly memories. I had planted mums, fall sedums, dwarf fountain grass, and black-eyed Susan’s. I am a part-time gardener at the golf course and hand watering is one of my favorite tasks. It seems to produce a state of relaxation in me, not to mention the benefits to the plants in these rather sandy soils of northern Michigan. The garden beams back happily announcing the coming of our fall season, my favorite time of year.
How quickly this summer passed. Each new season seems to come faster. I would like it to slow down, just a little.