Pick a city or town in Iowa and there’s a good chance it boasts a 9-hole golf course. The Hawkeye State still supports more than 250 9-hole facilities. The courses are social centers and more than 90 percent of them are open to the public.
And I failed to visit one during a 48-hour stretch in the state.
No matter how many terrific people you meet and tantalizing places you visit, you always return home with a few regrets. I regret not stopping at Pine Lake Country Club (weekend green fee: $15), River Bend Golf Course (discount Wednesday green fee: $11) or Meadowbrook Golf Courses (lifetime membership: $3,000) while making the 250-mile roundtrip trek from Des Moines to Cedar Falls. I’ll bring an extra $20 and build two free hours into my next Iowa trip for an authentic small-town Iowa golf experience.
The superintendents I visited last month shared passion for all things Iowa, including its 9-hole courses, and they are still applying lessons learned from working at quaint facilities as teenagers to their current jobs maintaining large swaths of private club turf.
Like most Golf Course Industry trips, a golf course represented the first stop upon landing. Des Moines Golf and Country Club is unlike any Iowa facility. For starters, it’s the lone 36-hole operation in the state. The club hosted the two biggest golf events ever conducted in Iowa, the 2017 Solheim Cup and the 1999 U.S. Senior Open, and it has prospered through member and employee ingenuity and continuity. Pete Dye designed a pair of courses on the 471-acre tract 12 miles west of downtown Des Moines in the late 1960s.
The club has employed just two turf leaders since moving to the West Des Moines location: Bill Byers and current director of grounds Rick Tegtmeier. Both are in the Iowa Golf Hall of Fame, with Tegtmeier’s induction occurring earlier this spring.
Tegtmeier started his career at Rockford Golf & Country Club, a defunct 9-holer in northern Iowa. He now manages close to 50 employees, yet a do-it-yourself attitude permeates at Des Moines Golf and CC. On the day of my visit, North Course superintendent Nate Tegtmeier repaired a mainline to a green and South Course superintendent Mitch Myers plugged a wire beneath ground to an oxygen diffuser and pump. A week earlier, Nate devoted almost an entire day demonstrating sod cutting to new employees. “You never know what you’re going to do from one day to the next,” he says.
Des Moines Golf and CC employs just one mechanic, so Rick, Nate and Myers must be as adept indoors as they are outdoors. Besides the number of co-workers and club acreage, their days resemble what colleagues at 9-holers experience. Becoming a versatile manager, Rick says, isn’t for everybody.
“You have to know how to do everything here,” Rick says. “If you don’t, you’re lost. You look across the industry and you see these interns go to big-name clubs. They become very one-dimensional. We quit having interns because we couldn’t find them. But when an intern comes here, they are going to be on every piece of equipment from top to bottom. They are no good to us unless they can be. We cross train across the board for everything. We all know how to run sprayers. We all know how to run chainsaws. We all know how to weld and fabricate.”
After the inspiring and educational stop at Des Moines Golf and CC, I scurried to Cedar Falls to visit golf enthusiast and Standard Golf director of marketing Matt Pauli. Pauli provided a tour of the Cedar Falls-based company’s headquarters and introduced the team responsible for making, shipping and selling flags, cups, rakes, signs and other course accessories. Standard Golf employees are comparable to the superintendents in the company’s home state. A diverse product line means they must be willing to quickly shift focus depending on facility and industry needs.
The creation to course process became apparent during a stop at Beaver Hills Country Club. Beaver Hills is the only private course in Cedar Falls and superintendent Josh Petersen has worked at the club since graduating from Hawkeye Community College in 2002. Petersen is soft-spoken and, like the Des Moines Golf and CC trio, willing to use any piece of equipment to provide quality conditions for the membership. When fully staffed, Petersen manages a crew of 12 responsible for maintaining a peaceful 200-acre property. Beaver Hills employs three year-round turf employees.
A new worker behind the clubhouse bar caught Peterson’s attention during our conversation following a tour of the course. The worker runs the hurdles for the Division I track and field team at the nearby University of Northern Iowa. Petersen immediately asked the hurdler if any of his teammates are looking for summer jobs.
With the heart of a Heartland golf season approaching, Petersen, like most of his colleagues, must scramble to fill open positions. Whether or not he fills the positions, Petersen braces for another season of mowing, raking, hauling and trimming. He has spent every summer since his freshman year of high school working on a golf course.
Petersen brings small-town humility – his high school graduating class had just 50 students – to a private club management position. He keeps a list of Iowa’s 9-hole courses and still enjoys mowing fairways.
I can’t imagine the superintendents at courses on Petersen’s list being much different.
Guy Cipriano is GCI’s editor.