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 full-time 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.”
In 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 2019 event was cancelled 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 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 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 watch 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 — via 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. And he’s given 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 has ascended within the golf industry. A family friend informed Zertuche years ago of a teenager searching for a job. Zertuche explained to the teenager what working at TPC Deere Run entailed and Stuedemann added him to the crew. Julio 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. Stuedemann, fortunately, understands 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 this full-time 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 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.”
When the daydream becomes reality
Veteran superintendent Ron Furlong finally gets a chance to see how a course performs without bunker rakes. His observations are proving a hunch he always had.
I never had a very good relationship with bunker rakes. Safe to say we got off on the wrong foot. We’ve never really recovered since.
As many of us know, the first place a new golf course maintenance worker often starts is in the bunkers, which, in itself, is odd as bunker conditioning tends to be one of the things golfers notice the most on a golf course, often only behind the condition and speed of the greens. But for whatever reason, bunker maintenance seems to be treated as the dregs of course conditioning.
As a new golf course worker 32 years ago, and a new Bunker Tech, I immediately discovered a couple things about bunker rakes and their relationship to golfers. One, they are quite often completely ignored by golfers, who leave the bunker with their lasting footprints behind as an obvious, fairly obnoxious testament to this. And two, if they are actually used by the golfer, they are more often than not placed in the wrong location. Most golf course have decided on a specific policy for where to place the rake after use, either back in the bunker or along the edge outside of the bunker. The USGA has decided it is up to each golf course to decide which of these two to use on their course. At our course, we ask the golfer to place the rake outside the bunker. Guess where they most often end up? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not outside the bunker. And funny enough, when I’ve worked at courses that asked the golfer to put the rake inside the bunkers, of course, they mostly ended up outside the bunkers. Ugh.
These two things, golfers not using the rakes at all, or placing them where we (the golf course) don’t want them, have stayed in my thoughts over these last 32 years. It’s brought me to a place in my mind of not particularly caring for bunker rakes on the golf course. Or, to be completely truthful here, even believing bunkers themselves don’t need to be on a golf course.
If you think about it, when golf first came into being back in Scotland hundreds of years ago, the bunker was a very different thing than it is now. On those first golf courses, including at the home of golf, St. Andrews, sand blew across the course and would end up in pits that became known as bunkers. They were not manicured or well-maintained hazards. They were rugged and more than anything they were natural. They were a part of the land.
However, I am not naïve enough to think bunkers are miraculously going to disappear from golf courses in the future. They are, whatever your feelings about them, here to stay. But that doesn’t mean the way we maintain them or, more to the point, the use of (or need for) the bunker rake itself cannot change.
One of the byproducts of this summer of COVID-19’s result on golf courses — and golf course maintenance in particular — has been the removal of bunker rakes from most golf courses. As you can no doubt guess, when we removed the bunker rakes from our course here in western Washington, I most certainly did not shed a tear.
This summer of no bunker rakes has been a great trial for me in seeing how our bunkers have fared without rakes. And the results of this trial are fairly thrilling to me. As I’ve suspected all along, golf courses really don’t need bunker rakes.
Even with bunker rakes on the course, consider only about half the golfers at best were actually walking over to a rake, bending over to pick it up and even then only making a half-hearted attempt at smoothing out their footprints. Bunkers, with rakes available, were a mess at the end of the day. A golfer landing in a bunker, especially by the end of busy day, was almost as likely to land in a footprint before rake removal as they are now without the rakes on the course.
The wonderful removal of the rakes has not made the bunkers much different than they were before we all happily pulled them from the course in late spring. Maintenance crews still all rake them with trap rakes in the morning. Their outcome at the end of the day has changed little.
What has changed is less money spent on replacing rakes, as well as labor time spent moving the rakes to their proper location. But perhaps the No. 1 advantage to no rakes on the course is this little gem: Bunker rake removal has sped up the game. That fact alone should be enough to keep rakes from returning to the course.
It is an understatement to say this has been a tough year. But finding something positive in this year of negativity can mean so much. For me, and I think for the game of golf, perhaps, we’ve stumbled upon a little something positive going forward: No more bunker rakes.
At least I can dream …
GCSAA cancels in-person version of 2021 Golf Industry Show
There will be no formal Las Vegas gathering for the industry in 2021.
The GCSAA announced the Golf Industry Show, scheduled for Jan. 30-Feb. 4 in Las Vegas, is moving to a virtual format. GCSAA President John Fulling made the announcement on a video distributed to members and partners last month.
“This was not an easy decision to make,” Fulling said. “We considered global health concerns, travel bans, restrictions on large gatherings, social distancing requirements, adjustments other shows were making and the state of economy. We listened to members, engaged exhibitors and consulted our industry partners and it became clear a virtual event would afford the best opportunity to offer you a safe and quality GIS experience.”
Details for the virtual event will be released in October. Fulling said in the video attendees can either participate in the event live or through “on demand” capabilities. The live portion of GIS 2021 is scheduled for the first week of February.
The GCSAA is one of multiple superintendent and green industry organizations to recently announce a change in event format. The Carolinas GCSA announced that its annual in-person conference and show scheduled for November in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is moving to a 30-session online educational format beginning Nov. 2. The New England Regional Turfgrass Foundation is moving its 2021 conference and show to a virtual format.
Organizers of the GIE+Expo announced the postponement of their 2020 show scheduled for October in Louisville, Kentucky, to 2021 while the Irrigation Association canceled its in-person 2020 Irrigation Show and Education Week scheduled for Nov. 30-Dec. 4 in San Antonio, Texas.
The 2022 Golf Industry Show is scheduled for Feb. 5-10 in San Diego.
Agustín Pizá uses witty analogies to help sell and explain golf course architecture projects. Turning analogies into realities has helped him improve the golf situation in his native Mexico.
From his office in the coastal resort town of Puerto Vallarta, Pizá joined the Tartan Talks podcast to explain how somebody hailing from a nation with a limited golf supply became an American Society of Golf Course Architects member. “I still don’t think it has hit me,” he says. “It feels like I’m living a dream.”
After studying structural architecture as an undergrad, Pizá earned a master’s degree in golf course architecture from Edinburgh University in Scotland and has more than 20 years of experience in the golf industry. For the past three years, he has served as director of The First Tee-Mexico.
Pizá is an advocate of melding sports and all forms of architecture. He recently established his #WellnessGolf concept at Chablé Resort & Spa. The facility he designed for the resort features nine tee boxes stretching to 200 yards, four creative greens with two or three pins, and multiple hazards. Pizá compares the facility to a board that supports distinct boardgames.
Enter bitly.com/AgustinPiza into your web browser or visit the Superintendent Radio Network page on Apple Podcasts or Spotify to learn more about Pizá’s work and philosophies.