Bookmark and Share

Golf course: The grass is always greener

It is a common summer sight in Pagosa Springs that many take for granted — the lush green grass on the fairways seen off U.S. 160, highlighting Pagosa Peak and the San Juan mountain range.

But, for two dozen employees who toil from dawn to dusk to maintain that green grass, the work is anything but routine.

Not only was course superintendent Terry Carter difficult to track down, he was reluctant to speak about the course. While golfers see beautiful fairways, dark green from the summer rains, Terry sees the endless work that still needs to be done and the days growing shorter, leaving less time to do it all.

The Pagosa Springs Golf Club is made up of three, nine-hole courses: Ponderosa, which winds through the Pagosa Lakes neighborhood near Piedra road; Pinon, seen from U.S. 160; and Meadows, located in the flats around Park Avenue. It was the Meadows course that brought Terry here from eastern Colorado in 1986. At that time, the golf club was only 18 holes and construction of the Meadows course was in the planning phase. Terry started as a golf superintendent in 1972 and was on a break from the job when the opportunity came to construct the course in Pagosa Springs.

“It was the only golf course position in Colorado at that time,” he recalls.

Terry was involved with the irrigation layout, course installation, final grading and seeding of Meadows, and became the course superintendent in February 1991. With over 20 years of experience working on the fairways and greens in Pagosa Springs, he has a wealth of knowledge to provide. But even with all that experience, running the golf course is an ever-changing job full of surprises, problems and endless work.

I finally found Terry near Pinon 5, at the top of the long, steep fairway that drops down to the highway. He was foraging in the long grass on the far side of the cart path, searching for the sign that marked the yardage on the hole. “Vandalism again,” he groaned. “The same thing happens all the time.” The thieves had tried to take the whole sign, post and all, but the large chunk of concrete attached to the post made them abandon it and take only the sign. Still hopeful that the perpetrators were merely vandals, Terry gets on the radio to let his crew know to be on the lookout for the sign.

After spending a few hours with Terry, I suspect that his trim and lean stature is not due to diet, but to the fact that he moves non-stop during his days at the course. As we travel from hole to hole, Terry empties trash from waste bins, picks up discarded tees, gathers branches and debris, and wipes down any tee-box markers that have obvious dirt or scuffs. I manage to get in a conversation only when he is changing the hole placement on the greens, but I am careful when I ask my questions so I don’t distract him from remembering where the hole is going next. The pin placement is changed each morning by Terry and his assistants and follows a set rotation so golfers will know before they get to the green where the hole is located.

Changing the placement involves pounding a tubular contraption into the ground where the new hole will be placed. A cylinder of dirt is removed, held in the device and set aside. Another tool that looks like a lid with a handle is twisted into the existing cup. The cup is placed into the new hole, and the cylinder of dirt is maneuvered into the old hole. During the process, Terry pauses to mend marks made by balls dropping onto the green, marks that should have been repaired by the golfers who made them.

While working at one of the greens, one of Terry’s assistants approaches in a cart and asks him about the edges of a hole on Ponderosa and if their treatment has worked. They discuss their plan of action for a moment (what’s the worst on Ponderosa, check the dry spot on number 2, number 4 needs water) and then are off again. Terry informs me that most high-dollar golf clubs have dozens of employees to work on the courses. His staff is less than two dozen in number, with many of those being part-time. With 27 holes of fairways and greens to be maintained, the upkeep is constant and workers perform tasks in between golfers’ swings. Mowers buzz around in the distance as Terry continues on, working on pin placements, lining up tee-off markers and adjusting displaced rocks along the cart paths.

In addition to a superintendent that knows the course, having a great staff is essential to keeping the course in prime condition. A challenging but unseen problem is the miles of irrigation pipe that lay hidden underneath the course, always in need of replacement and repair. Three huge pumps masked in small house-like structures push the water through the pressurized pipes and technician, Bob Moody, is the irrigation specialist who has maintained the system for nearly 20 years. An indicator of an irrigation problem is the course “buffaloes.” When a leak occurs in a pipe, the water rises and lifts the sod into a hump of spongy turf that looks like the back of a buffalo.

Knowing the course and how to adapt to changing weather conditions that affect the grass comes from years of experience. Every green is mowed every day, except when fertilizing takes place. When it comes to mowing the tricky and hard-to-reach spots, the grass is under the care of employees who have learned by trial and error how to get it just right. Joe Marion has spent 10 years mowing the greens and fairways, and Juan Rosales has been riding a mower at the Pagosa Springs course for more than 20 years. He can maneuver his machine for the perfect cut.

Unlike a simple home mower with a single blade, the machines on a golf course are multi-bladed units run by a computer system.

“You’ve got computers running hydraulics, running machines,” explains Bill Trimarco, one of only four year-round employees of the golf course. Bill does a little mowing, but his primary job is the maintenance of the high-tech machines that can run $25,000 to $40,000 each. When one of the mowers breaks down, Bill’s job is to get it running again. His current project involves taking off a set of reel-blades that will be sharpened in-house by a retired machinist. A maze of hydraulic tubes and wires dangle from the front of the mower being worked on, waiting for the sharpened blades to be reinstalled. Different blades create different effects, from short greens to stripes on fairways. Bill knows first hand the behind-the-scenes work that goes into every aspect of maintaining the Pagosa Springs course. “It’s kind of like a helicopter,” Bill notes, “You watch it fly by and don’t realize the maintenance that goes into it.”

One aspect of the course maintenance that the superintendent is uncomfortable speaking about is the responsibility of golfers to do their best to repair their own damage. When I asked Terry about this, he was reluctant to answer, but did offer some advice about divots on the fairways. A divot refers to two things: the piece that goes flying after you hit your ball, and the scar left in the fairway.

“If your divot has turf attached to it, replace it and tamp it down so it can reattach,” he explains. A thin divot will just end up as a dry, dead piece of grass, so players can use the sand found in a container on the golf cart to fill the scar and the grass will eventually grow in. Fixing ball marks on the greens is another way golfers can keep their course in good condition, although many players either don’t repair, or repair incorrectly. Use a repair tool or tee and work around the rim of the crater, pushing the grass at the edge toward the center of the depression. One way to visualize this is to picture reaching down with your thumb and forefinger on opposite sides of the ball mark and “pinching” those sides together. Incorrectly digging up the center of the mark to raise it up to level will tear the roots and kill the grass.

When the sunup-to-sundown hours are toughest in the middle of summer, Terry Carter shrugs it off as just part of the job. Pausing in between the holes he is working on, he looks up at a small group of clouds rotating above us. “Look at those clouds spinning up there,” he points, “You can’t see that in an office.” The eight-month season begins in the spring with removing snow from the greens and is nonstop from there. The reward of the hard work is 27 holes of lush fairways that wind through Ponderosa pines and around beautiful lakes. Visitors to other area courses return to Pagosa Springs for the well-maintained fairways and beauty of the facility. As Bill Trimarco explains, “The end result is the grass is green, the course is clean, and people golf.”