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An inside look at the people and pride associated with preparing for a course’s big moment Part 2: Sparrows Point Member-Guest

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August 1, 2019

Patapsco High School student Charles Jones Jr. mows an approach during Sparrows Point Country Club member-guest week.
© guy cipriano
Superintendent Tyler Bloom paints hazard lines.
© guy cipriano

Tyler Bloom paints, collects data, calls, answers and troubleshoots. Unless the task calls for two hands, he’s also clutching his phone.

He raises his black hat throughout a mid-June morning, wiping sweat from a brow almost always pointed forward. A waterproof quarter-zip covers a golf shirt. The golf shirt is drenched by 9 a.m. Bloom’s intensity rises as fast as the humidity. A Baltimore summer can be unforgiving and unrelenting.

Every time Bloom stops, he grabs a tool from the crowded bed of a utility vehicle. He takes five firmness readings from a green. He looks toward the vehicle and sees a pair of high school students on his Sparrows Point Country Club maintenance team raking bunkers. He chats with the students, neither of whom knew their way around a golf course, let alone the 27-hole private club layout, a few months earlier.

Bloom lauds the duo and begins his next task, painting a red hazard line around a wayward stream. Red, yellow and white tournament marking paint, divot mix, black and white stakes, a hedge trimmer, a soil moisture meter, a device to take firmness readings and a granular product to control weeds. Bloom uses nearly every tool in the utility vehicle before anybody sees a golfer.

Medlin

The scene is duplicated throughout the summer: a superintendent and crew hustling to prepare a course for a big moment. For Bloom and his team, the annual Sparrows Point member-guest tournament offers an opportunity to make a major impression on members at a venerable club looking to dazzle guests. The week is packed with pressure and pride, because Bloom knows his team will partially be judged by the playability and presentation they provide over three days. “It’s really special for us because we get to show former members and the people who come back how the course has been elevated,” Bloom says.

Built by a steel juggernaut and preserved by passionate members, Sparrows Point resides in Dundalk, a middle-class neighborhood wedged between Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay. The 272-acre property overlooks bay tributary Bear Creek, with the three nines retaining key characteristics of architect William Gordon’s original design. The club opened in 1954 and expanded to 27 holes in 1961.

Sparrows Point existed as one of Baltimore’s more exclusive clubs for three decades. The rigid membership requirement involved working as a Bethlehem Steel executive. The company built and operated the club until changing markets and demographics resulted in the 1985 sale of the course to the membership. The industrial heritage dominates club folklore. Golf enthusiasts from diverse backgrounds comprise the current membership.

“I tell a story often to describe our membership. One of my first years here, this guy comes into the golf shop and he’s literally the dirtiest human being I have ever seen,” says head golf professional Eric Brock, a club employee since 2002. “He was covered in soot and ash, walked up the clubhouse, took a shower, changed his clothes and was ready to golf. That’s what our membership is – it’s hard-working.”

Narivanchik

The area surrounding the course has changed in the last three decades. The mill at Sparrows Point stopped producing steel in 2012 and an ambitious multimodal facility housing distribution centers for global companies such as Amazon and Under Armour now occupies the land. The club, though, has never stopped producing quality member-guest tournaments. “It’s our chance to really shine and show members that if money wasn’t a deterrent, we can really put on an amazing everyday experience,” Brock says. “We get to roll all that into three days.”

At its peak, the mill employed more than 30,000 workers, including Al Medlin. The 72-year-old Medlin started working at the mill on June 15, 1966, just days after graduating from high school. Medlin says his classmates had a trio of quality career options, because Western Electric and General Motors also had a significant presence in the area.

Medlin chose Bethlehem Steel, where his father hung iron at the mill. Medlin spent his entire career at the mill, working a variety of indoor maintenance jobs. He ascended to a supervisor position, although it didn’t include a club membership, and retired on Aug. 1, 1999. Golf has become a significant part of Medlin’s post-mill life, and four years ago, he joined the crew. Medlin executes detail-oriented tasks such as cleaning tee markers, edging tee boxes, emptying garbage and clearing debris from pavement. The job comes with golf privileges.

The mill provided a comfortable life – Medlin purchased a home, sent his daughters to college and retired in his early 50s – but a part-time job he secured in his late 60s represents his most pleasant work memories. “This is 100 times better than working in the plant, even in the winter,” he says. “In the plant, you have all that noise. Out here in the morning, it’s so quiet that you can almost hear your heartbeat. You see ducks, geese, foxes, deer, groundhogs. Everything you can think of.”

Kellner Jr.

An accomplished amateur golfer who didn’t begin playing until his early 30s, Medlin relishes preparing for an event such as the member-guest. The annual field includes some of his former Bethlehem Steel bosses. “It would be a tremendous opportunity to play in something like this and enjoy the fruits of your labor,” Medlin says between morning assignments. “I would put our greens up against any country club in the state.”

Assistant superintendent Adam Nari- vanchik was raised in a different era, yet he has developed a similar connection to the property. The abundance of well-paying mill jobs had been gone for decades when Narivanchik graduated from Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts, a Baltimore County Public School less than two miles from the club’s entrance. Seeking a job as a high school junior, Narivanchik opted to join a few of his friends on the Sparrows Point crew. Besides occasionally fishing with his grandfather at a cove near the 18th hole, Narivanchik knew little about the club or golf. His grandfather, a longtime employee at the Sparrows Point mill, died in 2016 from mesothelioma, a form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure. “He never really talked about work much,” Narivanchik says.

Narivanchik enjoyed working outdoors and learning about the intricacies of a golf course. But he never considered a career in golf course maintenance until receiving encouragement from Bloom, a Penn State graduate who worked at a quintet of highly regarded clubs before arriving at Sparrows Point midway through the 2014 golf season. Narivanchik is now close to obtaining an advanced turfgrass management certificate from Penn State. This year marked his fifth member-guest tournament and the internal emphasis on the event increases each year. “It’s not just like, ‘OK, this week is member-guest,’” Narivanchik says. “It’s a big deal to us and we’re always thinking and talking about it now.”

Narivanchik and Andrew Thornton are Bloom’s closest confidants. The trio shares a small office inside a maintenance facility lacking a restroom, air conditioning and space to conduct full-staff meetings. Thornton started working at the course as a junior attending Sparrows Point High School, another Baltimore County Public School within biking distance of the club. He performed multiple jobs as a student, including hand-mowing greens, before showing an interest in one of the more technical golf course maintenance tasks: fixing leaks and communications gaffes produced by an aging irrigation system.

Bloom paired Thornton, who competed in robotics events in high school, with a veteran golf irrigation technician. Thornton’s seasonal job developed into a fulltime position. “It was a stable job with 40 hours,” he says. “I live four minutes away, so it was the closest job I could basically get. It had steady hours and I like to be outside, so it fell into the couple boxes I had.” Thornton has obtained a turfgrass management certificate through Ohio State and takes online electrical classes through Penn Foster College. Thornton holds multiple roles, leading the irrigation efforts and helping Narivanchik and Bloom manage and train the crew. “I definitely like the problem-solving aspect of irrigation,” he says. “If you didn’t like that aspect, you would probably be fed up with it in a week.”

Thornton

On the day before member-guest practice rounds commenced, Thornton placed flags around many of Sparrows Point’s 650 irrigation heads. The flags directed co-workers to heads requiring edging prior to the tournament. Bloom is a detail-driven manager, so the volume of edging and trimming remains steady throughout the season. He uses morning meetings and casual course chats with employees to explain the importance of individual assignments. An event such as the member-guest, Bloom says, helps employees visualize why their work matters.

Bloom’s team is unlike any group he has managed. Only nine of the club’s 28 maintenance employees had worked a member-guest anywhere before this year. Some employees such as Kenny Kellner Jr., who joined the crew last August, had never stepped on a golf course before arriving at Sparrows Point. “I never thought I would work at a golf course,” Kellner says. “I had no idea how to cut grass for a golf course. It was like, ‘What am I doing?’ I thought it was just cutting grass. I had no idea about things like taking care of bunkers and how important things like bunker care are.”

Acclimating a crew to the logistics of golf course maintenance while preparing for a member-guest represents a unique challenge. The Sparrows Point crew includes 10 high school students participating in a work-study program through the county school district. During the middle of member-guest week, a crew consisting of veteran workers and older newcomers started at 6 a.m., followed by the high school students at 7 a.m.

At the beginning of a Wednesday morning member-guest week shift, Bloom emphasized the importance of tournament preparation by showing the students a video featuring former Merion Golf Club director of grounds Matt Shaffer’s involvement in the 2013 U.S. Open. Bloom served as an intern under Shaffer in 2006. “This member-guest, to me, is at the same level as that tournament,” Bloom tells the students.

“I never want to let our staff down,” Bloom says a day later. “It’s probably my own pressure more than anything driving me. Every year, you try to set that bar higher and higher, then the reality sets in what we are doing here. I chose this crew and they chose working here. Sometimes you have to take a deep breath and appreciate what you’re doing.”

Intern Jason Wildt obtained tournament maintenance experience during Sparrows Point Country Club member-guest week.