Focused on a mission

A Rhode Island course personifies the power of quality golf in urban settings.

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John Rourke and Shane Drury are a superintendent and pro driven by a mission.

Button Hole, a 26-acre urban golf site in Providence and Johnston, Rhode Island, represents their work home. The 9-hole, par-3 course and practice facility personifies the power of golf.

Opened in 2000 and operated as a non-profit 501(c)(3), Button Hole has a defined mission:

To enrich the lives of young people by providing the facilities and programs that develop strong character, teach life values, and champion success through golf.

The mission attracted Rourke, whose résumé includes stints at multiple New England private clubs, to Button Hole. He’s held the superintendent job since 2014 and can’t imagine working anywhere else at this point in his career.

“I’m not just preparing a course for some people to play a good game,” Rourke says. “I’m here to provide the best possible surface for people and change their future.”

Rourke was raised in nearby North Kingstown, earned a turfgrass management degree from nearby University of Rhode Island and previously worked as the assistant superintendent at nearby Agawam Hunt. When a state encompasses just 1,214 square miles, everything is nearby. But Rourke had never visited Button Hole until an April 2014 job interview.

Button Hole superintendent John Rourke and head golf professional Shane Drury.
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“Beyond the game-growing end of it, there’s a benefit on the superintendents’ level there, too,” he says. “The more golfers there are, the better the job market becomes and there are more clubs that can come around. I liked that. It was a win on all sides. My overall impression was this is cool and there needs to be more places like this.”

The pull of Button Hole — and the number of potential golfers nearby — has attracted Drury to the mission twice. He worked at Button Hole from 2001 to 2004 and returned in 2020. He’s also the director of programming. More than 25,000 children of different backgrounds reside within five miles of Button Hole, according to Drury. Button Hole also offers programming for adults, making it perhaps the most accessible facility in a region filled with private clubs. On a Wednesday afternoon last month, Drury and his team provided group instruction for Special Olympians, veterans and the YMCA of Greater Providence. “It’s super rewarding working here,” Drury says. “You can’t put a financial number on how rewarding it is.”

Button Hole is a communal effort. Green fees, range revenue, pro shop sales, donations and grants fund maintenance, operations and programming. The highest adult green free is $13, while Button Hole Kids play for $1. Numerous Rhode Island private courses place “Button Hole Buckets” near their respective pro shops to gather ball donations. Donated clubs, balls, divot repair tools and tees are available in the Button Hole pro shop. The Rhode Island Golf Association, which has 54 member clubs, is based at the course.

Rourke and Button Hole have received support from the Rhode Island GCSA. The chapter has hosted demo days at the course, with companies donating hard or soft goods in exchange for the forum to showcase products and services. Members of the local turf community have donated their time to help with maintenance projects.

And Rourke can use the help.

Like many courses, Button Hole has experienced significant play and practice increases since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Exact round totals are tough to calculate because programming occurs on the course. Drury describes the level of activity since spring 2020 as “non-stop.” Golfers arriving at 7:30 a.m. to begin playing or practicing when Button Hole opens at 8 a.m. are a common sight. Instructional programming is offered Monday through Saturday, making Sunday the quietest day of a typical week.

“It can’t possibly get any busier,” Drury says. “We set a record last year with green fees and range balls. The job John does with the amount of play we get is unbelievable.”

Rourke relishes increases in activity because he understands how it advances the mission. But a course packed with developing golfers yields maintenance and logistical challenges. For starters, Rourke is the lone full-time turf employee. In fact, he’s been the only full-time turf employee the past eight years. “I’m a jack of all trades,” he jokes. Three part-time workers assist Rourke during the peak season. Rourke has received encouraging news on the labor front: Button Hole is adding a full-time equipment manager.

Executing tasks around play — and avoiding unpredictable ball fights — on a compact site requires efficiency and alertness. Built atop an abandoned gravel pit, Button Hole measures 651 yards from the front tees and 972 yards from the tips. The second hole parallels the driving range, the Woonasquatucket River flows along the third, fourth and fifth holes, and the eighth tee plays over the entrance road.

“We have to be quite alert,” Rourke says. “That’s the deal when you’re dealing with beginners. Private golf is easy. When I worked in private golf, I knew who the guy was, how far he hits it and where his landing areas are. I knew whether I could cut in front and whether that would affect play or not. Here, many of the people hitting don’t know where the golf ball is going, so it can be a crapshoot at times.”

Button Hole’s palette includes a combined three acres of greens, tees, fairways and approaches, four acres of mowed rough, two acres of native areas, and 12 bunkers. Footsteps produced via 10,000 annual rounds are dispersed on greens totaling one acre. The longest shot is 142 yards, meaning the bulk of shots are struck with irons and wedges, meaning divots are abundant. “You can go out and do divots one day and completely scan every inch of a tee,” Rourke says, “and the next day it’s like you’re starting anew.”

Donations and grants have funded multiple infrastructure and accessibility upgrades. The practice range and practice green were shifted in the course’s early days. A grant from Wadsworth Golf Charities Foundation helped fund a project in 2013 guided by architect David Johnson, ASGCA to make the course and practice facility accessible for disabled golfers. Rourke has elevated Button Hole’s environmental profile by adding birdhouses, establishing native areas and conducting sprays late at night. A new well and renovated pumphouse allow him to overcome toasty summers such as 2022.

Besides being guided by a philanthropic mission, Button Hole provides expansive greenspace in a crowded spot. A heavily trafficked freeway, industrial sites and densely populated neighborhoods surround the property. The course’s name stems from the area’s industrial heritage. Refuse from a shoe factory where buttons were used as shoe fasteners once polluted the Woonasquatucket River. The buttons would gather in a swimming hole used by children.

The area has become less industrial over the years — and children are now playing golf along the revived river.

“Once they get out there, play and make their first par or birdie, they are hooked,” Drury says. “That’s what separates us from all the other youth programs in the region.”

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