Urban stagnation emanates when first departing Interstate 45 via exit 279, where Highway 12 loops through south Dallas. Behind the city’s towering skyscrapers and opulent business parks, a motorist passes budget motels, murky rivers and ponds, symmetrical apartments, bus stops, a gated lot selling heavily and gently used cars, and billboards touting consumer financing opportunities.
Trees block views of the most unlikely sight in this gritty slice of south Dallas: a private golf course frequented by A-list influencers and maintained by a diverse agronomic team.
For one week in May, the PGA Tour visits Trinity Forest Golf Club, an inland links surrounded by an urban forest and neighborhood where the median home value of $80,975 is only $895 more than the five players who tied for 21st place received for four days of work during the 2018 AT&T Bryon Nelson at Trinity Forest. A member of the quintet, Jordan Spieth, is a Dallas native who attended a private high school on the city’s glamorous and affluent north side.
Neither neighborhood affiliation nor wealth matter at 6:08 a.m. on a mid-April Monday morning. Managers hailing from Florida, Illinois, Alabama, Wisconsin and a pair of Texas cities introduce daily assignments to two dozen workers representing Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and, yes, south Dallas. A 3½-inch dousing two days earlier keep the brakes on the John Deere mowers Trinity Forest uses to maintain more than 100 acres of deceivingly delightful playing and practice surfaces. With the AT&T Byron Nelson just three weeks away and members returning to the course Tuesday, a 10-hour workday consisting of restoring bunkers to their normal condition, repairing drainage, blowing clippings to wayward spots and “slinging’ fert” commences.
Workers execute tasks in small groups, wearing Trinity Forest hoodies, jackets and even stocking caps on the slow-to-warm Dallas morning. Multiple languages are spoken, yet groups operate in unison.
Directory of agronomy Kasey Kauff allows his managers to lead the morning meetings and he begins this day completing administrative tasks inside his office. The walls are partially covered with pictures and memorabilia of celebrities such as Michael Jordan, Trinity Forest co-architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and Kauff’s mentor and Georgia Golf Hall of Famer Ken Mangum.
Kauff is the only director of agronomy in Trinity Forest’s history. He received the job in 2014, two years before the course opened. Creating an environment to promote zoysiagrass and Bermudagrass growth atop a former landfill is exhilarating. But assembling a cohesive agronomy team in an area where nobody envisioned a world-class golf development represents the most fulfilling accomplishment of his career.
“It has been a really interesting dynamic,” says Kauff, who lived in West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida before arriving in Texas. “I love the fact that we have men, women and different races working here. That makes me proud. I want to show people the diversity of our staff. That’s what this neighborhood is – it’s diverse.”
Digging the revived land
Tierra means soil, dirt or land in Spanish. Trinity Forest’s tierra doesn’t resemble what other courses possess. Before Coore and Crenshaw arrived, and before Kauff uprooted to Dallas, Trinity Forest was a landfill for contractors and residents looking to cheaply and discretely unload waste. Dump a giant concrete road barrier on the site – Kauff has the pictures to prove such actions – and eventually see it disappear beneath shifted tierra.
State-mandated remediation resulted in the landfill being capped with impermeable clay. A partnership’s desire to build a golf course on the site led to sand mined from a pit across the highway being used to add another cap to the former landfill.
Oxni Ochoa arrived at Trinity Forest to work in the tierra. Family brought him to the future golf course. His father-in-law, Jesus Ruvalcaba, was serving as a construction superintendent for the Landscapes Unlimited team building the course. The company needed people to install the irrigation system.
Ochoa dug away, wearing full Personal Protective Equipment, even during devilish stretches of 100-degree Dallas days, installing HDPE pipe needed to irrigate an 18-hole championship golf course, 9-hole par-3 course and spacious practice facilities. More than 1,200 sprinkler heads alone irrigate the 18-hole course. Attached to their blue Tyvek apparel, workers donned methane detection meters.
“We made the lake,” says Ochoa, pointing toward an irrigation lake beyond the periphery of the championship course. “We did all the pipe. Everything here before this was garbage.”
A native of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, Ochoa emigrated to the United States in 2003 and worked a variety of home construction and painting jobs before landing at Trinity Forest. The equipment used to maintain the tierra intrigued Ochoa enough to convince him to explore employment opportunities as Trinity Forest morphed from construction site to golf course.
“He came up to me one day and said, ‘Tony, I want to be your mechanic,’” equipment manager Tony Bevolo says. “I asked him, ‘Do you have any experience? Are you a mechanic?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘That’s not too far off, I did the same thing. No big deal.’ I knew he worked hard, he was a nice guy and we got along. He knew the golf course better than anybody. He built it.’”
Like he did with installing irrigation, Ochoa proved a quick learner. Ochoa is Trinity Forest’s assistant equipment manager, helping Bevolo and colleague Felix Hernandez maintain a fleet consisting of 49 John Deere units ranging from reel mowers to tractors.
A married father with two children, Ochoa proudly wears a shirt with his name on it. The Trinity Forest tierra has been good to Ochoa, who spoke little English until beginning his equipment management career.
“When I started as a mechanic, all I could do was change oil,” he says. “It wasn’t easy for me at first, because I didn’t speak good English. Now somebody calls me, tells me the problem and I will fix it.”
From the pro shop to the equipment shop
Ochoa’s boss also took a circuitous route to Trinity Forest.
A native of Plainfield, Ill., a growing community in Chicago’s west suburbs, Bevolo decided as a 16-year-old he wanted a job offering free golf. So he accepted a non-paying maintenance position working three days a week at The Links at Carillon, a 27-hole public facility less than 10 miles from his home. For income, he added a second job at a pizzeria.
Inspired by an uncle who served as a golf pro at a pair of prestigious St. Louis clubs, Bevolo determined he wanted to become a club pro. He packed his bags for Blufton, S.C., and enrolled at Professional Golfers Career College. He graduated and spent two years as an assistant professional at Berkeley Hall in Blufton. But … “I hated it,” he says.
So Bevolo approached former Berkeley Hall superintendent Danny Malone about joining the club’s agronomy team. Knowing Bevolo had mechanical skills and understanding the looming talent shortage within the golf industry, Malone suggested Bevolo pursue a career maintaining equipment. “Danny told me nobody can find a golf course equipment manager who gets the game of the golf and also understands mechanics,” Bevolo says. “He told me, ‘If you can do that, you’re writing your own ticket to wherever you want to go.’”
Malone had Bevolo contact Skip Heinz, the respected equipment manager at Belfair Plantation, a highly regarded private course. “Skip said, ‘Give me two years of your life and I’ll get you a head gig somewhere,’” Bevolo says.
The wait for a head position proved shorter. On a whim, Bevolo contacted James Morgan, an industry acquaintance whom he interviewed with at Belfair. Morgan, one of Kauff’s first hires, described what was being constructed at Trinity Forest. Bevolo targeted Dallas as a career destination because he had family in the area. Shortly after speaking with Morgan, Bevolo saw an online posting for the Trinity Forest equipment manager position. He sent a resume and portfolio to Kauff. “We had a few interviews and we have been inseparable ever since,” Bevolo says. “It’s been a wild ride.”
Bevolo worked with Kauff to design a maintenance facility, helped acquire a fleet of John Deere equipment to maintain nearly 100 acres of Trinity zoysiagrass fairways and more than five acres of championship Bermudagrass greens, and hired and trained Ochoa and fellow assistant Hernandez. The 29-year-old Bevolo displays the same zest for the game as a 16-year-old working for free golf. He never envisioned consuming donuts and chatting golf for 45 minutes with a legendary architect such as Coore or organizing the equipment efforts for a PGA Tour event.
“I feel very blessed to be in the position that I’m in at such a young age,” he says. “I think I’m home. I want to say I’m home for good. I love this club. I hope Kasey stays here forever. I love what Trinity Forest is, what it’s going to be and what it stands for.”
We made the lake. We did all the pipe. Everything here before this was garbage.” – Oxni Ochoa
Around since the beginning
The acquaintance who sparked Bevolo’s interest in Trinity Forest immediately discovered the prowess of a Texas-sized storm when he reported for his first day on May 15, 2015.
“It was flooded at the time,” says Morgan, taking a break from dispersing fertilizer on the 10th fairway on a windy afternoon nearly four years later. “The river was at a 100-year floodplain. We were skipping rocks because there was so much water.”
Morgan didn’t envision slinging rocks or fert on a Dallas golf course when he finished high school. His initial plan involved playing quarterback at North Greenville (S.C.) University. But … “It wasn’t quite as much fun as I thought it was going to be,” he says.
He returned to his Orlando, Fla., home, transferred to nearby Valencia College and secured a summer maintenance job at Country Club of Orlando. “I fell in love with working on a golf course,” he says. Morgan enrolled at Lake City Community College in Lake City, Fla., and started hearing about a Lake City alum named Ken Mangum leading a crew preparing to host the 2011 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club. Kauff, one of Mangum’s AAC proteges, landed the superintendent job at CC of Orlando following the PGA Championship. Morgan worked for Kauff throughout college and followed him to Dallas after graduating with a turf degree.
Morgan meshed with Kauff and young assistants Chad Kuzawa, Adam Deiwert and Grant Sherwood. Bevolo says Trinity Forest might have assembled “one of the youngest grow-in teams in the history of grow-in teams.” Whatever pressure they felt growing sprigged zoysiagrass atop a landfill became tolerable because of the bonds formed.
“It was definitely tough, but we made the most of it,” Morgan says. “We made it a fun experience. I don’t think any of us realized how rough it was because of the group of people we have.”
Floods, wind, 100-degree temperatures. For Jose Sarlmaeron Jr., working alongside family and seeing a sports icon lurking in his workspace make the challenges worthwhile.
Sarlmaeron Jr. and his father, Jose Sarlmaeron Sr., also joined the Trinity Forest team in 2015. Sarlmaeron Sr. hails from El Salvador and the father-son duo worked a variety of construction jobs until arriving in Dallas. The pair spent most of their first year installing sod and drainage. They still execute sod and drainage work, but they also help mow the zoysiagrass fairways, tees and surrounds, a massive twice-a-week effort because most of Trinity Forest’s 100 acres of zoysiagrass resides on the surfaces. “The fairways are too big,” Salmaeron Jr. jokes.
The view from a Trinity Forest mower can be memorable. President George W. Bush frequently plays the course. Bush speaks Spanish and has held conversations with multiple crew members. Jordan doesn’t speak Spanish, but he also enjoys Trinity Forest. Looking to gather information for a golf course development in Florida, Jordan has studied Trinity Forest’s zoysiagrass. Kauff was once explaining to Jordan how brushes attached to a mower promote upright zoysiagrass growth. Sarlmaeron Jr. looked down from the John Deere 2500B triplex and noticed Michael Jordan studying the machine he was operating. “I was nervous meeting him,” he says. “He touched the machine while I was sitting on it.”
The celebrity encounters are memorable. But Trinity Forest provides steady employment for Salmaeron Jr., his father and his brother-in-law. Working on a Texas golf course, Salmaeron Jr. says, beats working construction in Washington D.C., where his family lived before moving to Dallas. “A lot of people that come here like the work and they stay,” he adds. “There’s not a lot of coming and going.”
Sometimes ditching law for landscapes proves worthwhile.
William Weller leads the maintenance of Trinity Forest’s “northside,” a parcel featuring nearly every imaginable warm-season turfgrass variety for nearly every imaginable level of golfer. Weller is a trained attorney – he graduated from the University of Cincinnati College of Law and passed the Texas bar exam – who would rather be preparing surfaces for Trinity Forest members honing their games on the practice range or nine-hole par-3 course, Southern Methodist University golfers and The First Tee of Greater Dallas participants. Law pays more than turfgrass management. But … “I hated being in an office all day,” Weller says.
Weller figured golf course maintenance, a job he relished while in high school, offered a career alternative. After leaving law, he landed positions at a trio of Dallas-area clubs, ascending to an assistant superintendent at each facility. He taught himself the science behind golf course maintenance by studying agronomy books, articles and digital resources like a student preparing for the bar. “I don’t think people would know that I didn’t go to turf school,” he says.
The turf knowledge allows Weller to guide a seven-person team maintaining three varieties of Bermudagrass, two varieties of zoysiagrass, ryegrass, and bunker sand from three states. He also must juggle various personalities. Division I college golfers and private club members harbor different expectations than children learning the game.
The confluence of elite and entry-level golf in south Dallas surprises Weller, who attended Rockwall High School in the city’s east suburbs. “It’s amazing to see what was created on what was pretty much a useless piece of property,” he says. “I’m from the suburbs. Almost nobody knew there was a landfill down here until they built a golf course on it.”
Brian Bolben lives in south Dallas, where his grandmother has resided for 95 years, and he says many of his neighbors didn’t realize a golf course had been built until seeing giant images of Spieth near a spectator entrance prior to last year’s AT&T Byron Nelson. “They know it’s a golf course now,” he says.
Bolben’s connection to Trinity Forest is different than other south Dallas residents. A temporary employment agency placed him on the crew in 2017 and he has spent the last two years learning land he had only previously heard stories about. “I never saw it,” he says, “but I knew a landfill was back here.”
The job provides stability for Bolben, whose body was breaking down after years in the long-distance furniture moving industry. He considers working on a golf course the “most laidback job” of his life. That doesn’t mean the work is always easy.
He spent his first week at Trinity Forest shoveling sand from an 8,000-square-foot bunker on the first hole. “It was a test to see if I was going to stay,” he says. “That’s the only way I can look at it. I had to prove myself. I was new. It was a temp agency job. I wanted them to say, ‘We need this guy.’”
Kauff decided Trinity Forest needed Bolben. But Bolben wasn’t sure if he needed Trinity Forest. He waffled on accepting the job. He’s glad he stayed. Where else in south Dallas can somebody witness a different sunrise every morning, observe hogs sprinting in open space, learn the nuances of zoysiagrass and work alongside equally determined professionals from different diverse backgrounds? “There’s so much here,” Bolben says, “that’s hard to believe.”