This would not be the first time I have posed a question about the simplification and/or reduction of maintenance on the golf course. With the recent trend in increased bunker maintenance requirements – a cost now almost equivalent to greens maintenance – this should be a focal point for the industry. Golf has dealt with reduced demand. If there are ways to make our beloved sport more viable, then let us consider them.
Bunker maintenance requires several laborers and significant time, equating to roughly 15 percent of the maintenance budget for many courses. Don’t get me wrong, the maintenance performed by the staff is essential in repairing damage from Wile E. Coyote and preventing player injury by assuring adequate sand over the bunker liner. Staff also spends time redefining highly delineated bunker sand lines in less minimal course design styles.
Jim Pavonetti, CGCS at Fairview Country Club in Greenwich, Connecticut, told during the spring: “We are machine raking bunker once every two weeks to prevent tree seedlings from sprouting, and we are raking footprints once or twice per week, depending on the weather or amount of play we have been receiving.” And that depended upon the staff’s availability given they were at reduced numbers and needed to focus on essential maintenance, which bunkers were not.
So, for clubs in financial difficulties, do they really need to smooth out footmarks and eliminate turf within the bunker? Minimalist design style courses have fescue turf, muddling the delineation between sand and turf. These bunkers then require less maintenance. Do they really need to irrigate the bunker area to firm up the sand? I have seen renovation projects in which the club replaces the sand just a few years after renovating the bunkers. The members were not happy with the sand consistency and, thus, found the bunkers to be, shall I say, unfair. Why do we think golf has to be fair? What happened to the “rub of the green?” It is fine in Scotland, but not in the United States? Golf is one of the best analogies to life. Sometimes it just is not fair.
If the bunker is an actual hazard, then why is a “fried egg” that bad? Yes, a less accomplished player will not be sure where the ball will end up in that situation. This is the same feeling low handicappers get from playing from the rough as there is less ball control. PGA Tour players we see on TV often aim for the sand knowing they’ll have a more consistent lie than out of the rough. The unknown of ball flight and/or control is one of the more subtle design tools an architect has. Why are we eliminating this hazard for the better player with bunker maintenance?
Then there is bunker rake etiquette. Say your ball lands in the bunker from a distance where you can’t see the ball come to rest. Architects like to set the bunker lower in elevation than the rough and fairway surrounds, hoping the feature comes into play even more by collecting rolling balls. Golf is a ground game. Bummed that your 7 iron was a touch short, you first find your ball. Then you look for the rake, the first step in rake etiquette or rake management. You go and retrieve the rake and walk back to a location with the shortest distance from the rough edge to the ball. The shorter the distance, the less raking
Sometimes players utilize the fingers or capes in a bunker form to shorten the distance even more. Your shot is played and then holding the rake you carefully smooth the sand where the ball was played from. No evidence remains. Carefully you walk out of the bunker, no heavy heels please, dragging the rake behind in an attempt to smooth the footprints. Often our route is slightly off, and the rake misses the steps. Down goes the sand wedge, back into the bunker you go to finish the job. If the superintendent is lucky, a player might also rake sand up the side slope, toward the turf edge.
These days we are all dealing with new rules related to COVID-19. Details follow what phase the course’s location is. Some locations are even by county. Rhode Island Phase 2 guidance includes continued one player per cart, but now caddies are allowed. The USGA has their guidance as well. Focusing on bunkers, rakes are still removed.
Now comes the confusion as there is no set rule or guidance on what to do if your ball is in the bunker. Some clubs are playing it as ground under repair so you can REMOVE your ball from the bunker. Others, a private course near Boston and Bethpage, for example, allow a player a drop within the bunker in a spot where the sand is not disturbed. A friend of mine’s daughter plays professionally and is down South this year. The courses she has been playing have the same situation, but no one is complaining. They can roll the ball to an area within the bunker that hasn’t been disturbed.
Where I have played, no one made any recommendation, so I suggested to my playing partners that we play it as it lies (first USGA recommendation). Foot sweeping to smooth the sand is suggested. Of course, this type of player bunker repair has been in existence long before the pandemic. Friar’s Head on Long Island established this upon opening. The venerable Pine Valley in New Jersey does not have rakes.
Before raking by superintendents, bunkers were actually a hazard. Whether it was pressure from professionals for consistent playing conditions or a member complaining golf was not fair, smoothing of bunker sand started in the early 1900s.
Someone soon after that – and my money is on a professional from America – came up with the idea that if we are going to smooth the sand, players could use a rake. Maybe this would reduce the superintendent’s duties a touch? Maybe the real reason is the superintendents were not getting to prepare the bunkers as often as the players wanted. I wonder if we will ever know. But plenty of courses did not rake their bunkers before World War II.
Old-timers and architects were not in favor of bunker prep. A.W. Tillinghast talked about running elephants through bunkers on tournament day. I hear old-timers and architects still complain about Tour players and their bunker demands.
For the vast majority of recreational golfers, bunkers are truly a hazard even in the highly prepared state we usually find them. Maybe these golfers just do not practice sand recovery shots enough? Maybe more courses need short-game practice areas!? As an architect, I know that a good player will doubt a recovery shot from grass while the recreational golfer plays it without a second thought. Precise ball control from the sand is actually easier for the better player.
I played several times this past spring and have found that the bunkers have been maintained by the staff and aren’t any more difficult to extract from than before. Of course, I’m not on Tour. Foot smoothing reduces the bunker “rake management” time immensely. Proper bunker smoothing as shown in this video actually can speed play.
We could even start utilizing waste bunker or area rules for all bunkers. Play it as it lies, remove stones or loose impediments, and play away. Loose impediments that do not require the other members of your foursome to move, right Tiger? What if all bunkers received only a light weekly raking to control weeds and manage sand depths? Would the recreational golfer be more terrified of being in a bunker? Most likely not. Would a low handicapper be tested and possibly lose the hole or a shot in a match? Yes, but isn’t that the point of a hazard? Courses like Shennecossett in Groton, Connecticut, haven’t put the rakes out and don’t plan to according to Eric Morrison, CGCS.
As one greenchair I asked from a private course in Connecticut said: “Honestly, not all that different than we see with divots and ball marks. Some people are just more conscientious than others around proper golf etiquette.”
Then why not eliminate rakes, reduce maintenance expectations so the staff can spend their resources on essential maintenance, and play bunkers as hazards? All it takes is a little etiquette and consideration of your fellow player and how they would like to find their ball in the bunker.
Tim Gerrish is a Rhode Island-based golf course architect and landscape architect with more than 20 years of experience as a project architect. He has taught classes at Stockbridge Winter School of Turfgrass Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
BrightView Golf Maintenance has been selected by Orlando’s West Orange Country Club to maintain its championship course. BrightView will be responsible for all aspects of course maintenance, including turf, irrigation and tree care, with maintenance of putting surfaces a top priority.
The Lloyd Clifton-designed course in Winter Garden is known for its “Tin Cup” tournament, a two-day Ryder Cup format pitting junior and senior golfers against each other. The course has played host to mini tour events, including the Hooters Tour and Suncoast Ladies Series.
The club was founded in 1967 by West Orange County citrus families and rebuilt in 2006.
“We are honored to have been chosen to care for this historic course, one of the best-known private golf facilities in central Florida,” BrightView Golf Maintenance president Greg Pieschala said. “We are looking forward to helping West Orange continue to establish itself as a premier family recreational facility, providing the best golf experience in the region for members, visitors and competitive golfers.”
BrightView is a leading golf course maintenance company in Florida, caring for 24 championship courses around the state.“After extensive analysis on options available to us, we concluded BrightView Golf Maintenance gave us our best depth of resources while balancing quality against cost,” club partner and owner Jeff Haire said. “We are very pleased with our decision.”
Think being a leader at a golf course can be stressful? How about this scenario:
You arrive at work … and an irate parent greets you. The parent yells at you while narcotics are found in a locker as smoke drifts from a bathroom.
At least the turf and the trees don’t shout or break laws.
Perhaps that partially explains why Abel Zertuche, a married father of three with a demanding fulltime job, has been working at TPC Deere Run even before golfers played the sprawling and sparkling course.
Zertuche is the dean of students at United Township High School in East Moline, Illinois. Deans make big decisions in response to the action — or inaction — of young people. Good ones improve lives; bad ones create long-term problems. There are nights when Zertuche can’t sleep because of something he saw or heard at school. “It’s definitely not for the weak of heart,” he says.
When he needs an escape, Zertuche visits a pair of longtime friends. The school is just five minutes from TPC Deere Run, where he calls trees by names and knows he can always chat with a supportive boss. Director of golf course maintenance operations Alex Stuedemann considers Zertuche a summer stalwart on a crew filled with stalwarts. They are close friends who are continually learning from each other.
Zertuche’s association with TPC Deere Run started in 1997 when he heard the PGA Tour planned to construct a course in his hometown. He toured the rolling land along the Rock River and met architects D.A. Weibring and Chris Gray. “I was sold from the start,” he says, “and I have never looked back.”
During the last 23 years, Zertuche has attended and graduated from college, met and married his wife, Denise, raised children who are now 8, 9 and 14, earned an administrative position, and helped coach East Union’s varsity basketball team and his oldest son’s travel baseball team. He’s also worked every John Deere Classic since the event moved to TPC Deere Run in 2000. The 2020 event was canceled because of PGA Tour scheduling shifts stemming from COVID-19.
Zertuche helps Stuedemann by mowing greens and executing other tasks during tournament and public play weeks each summer. They first met when Stuedemann, a Minnesota native, accepted a job at TPC Deere Run in 2002. Rising through the golf industry required Stuedemann to pursue positions at TPC San Antonio and TPC Twin Cities. He returned to the Quad Cities in 2014 to lead the TPC Deere Run team. “When I first got back to town, the first call I made was to Abel and I asked him, ‘Are you coming back to work?’” Stuedemann says.
The answer was implied.
“Here’s what I tell people,” Zertuche says. “If I was going to tell you that I was part of a conception and when something was created and I watched its birth and watched it grow up and watched it become what it is, you’d think I’d be talking about my kid. That’s exactly how I feel about this property.”
Zertuche revealed his feelings during a mid-summer conversation. The remote interview was conducted the old-fashioned way — phone instead of computer — and Zertuche made a point of describing his wardrobe. He dressed appropriately for the interview, wearing the golf shirt the crew received for the 2005 John Deere Classic. Zertuche has given away more TPC Deere Run and John Deere Classic shirts than he owns. He has also provided summer employment leads to multiple East Union seniors or graduates over the years. “He’s an automatic recruiter and marketing tool for us,” Stuedemann says, “and he stands behind who he brings in.”
A recent employee Zertuche lured to TPC Deere Run balanced golf course work with his classwork as a nursing student at a nearby community college. That employee assisted in the COVID-19 unit of a local hospital this past spring.
Another Zertuche-referred employee, Julio Riojas, has ascended within the golf industry. A family friend informed Zertuche years ago that Riojas was searching for a job. Zertuche explained to the teenager what working at TPC Deere Run entailed and Stuedemann added him to the crew. Riojas loved the job and eventually moved to Arizona to become an assistant superintendent at TPC Scottsdale, site of the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
As much as Zertuche enjoys working at TPC Deere Run, his schedule continuously condenses, especially as his children age. Fortunately, Stuedemann understands that flexibility is a key to retaining a quality employee. John Deere Classic advance and tournament weeks represent the only two-week stretch Zertuche fully devotes to golf course maintenance.
“There’s a great lesson here in both directions,” says Stuedemann, whose wife is a teacher. “Abel has clearly shown his love and commitment and pride in this golf course. When you have people like that, the best thing you can do is let them shine and give them the freedom and flexibilities they need. And we have benefited because we not only have Abel’s expertise, positive attitude and family mentality on the crew, but he’s helped us get people to come here in what’s a very challenging job market in a generally small populace.”
There are many ways to measure employee devotion and most maintenance tasks are conducted in solitude. But anybody who crosses Zertuche in the morning might hear him mumble to trees — he calls the catalpa tree on the 10th hole “popcorn” because its buds resemble the snack — or salute the Native American burial grounds on the drive from the 15th to the 16th holes. He’s a part-time employee in payment status only. “I feel really weird telling you about the trees out there,” he says, “but full disclosure … I’m being honest with you.”
Zertuche is also honest about his fulltime job. Handling students, parents, societal problems, school boards and political decisions — especially with the uncertainties surrounding the fall semester because of COVID-19 — can leave somebody filled with immeasurable zest uncharacteristically downtrodden. On the toughest winter days, Zertuche pulls into the TPC Deere Run parking lot and stares at the 15th, 17th and 18th holes. The view foreshadows what awaits when the school year ends.
“It’s my way to reset, it’s my way to feel normal” he says. “Deere Run has always been that outlet for me for 20-plus years. For that, I feel a commitment to keep coming back.”
Guy Cipriano is Golf Course Industry’s editor-in-chief.