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 fulltime 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.”
During 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 2020 event was canceled 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 Run 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 first 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 watched 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 — 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. He has also provided 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, Julio Riojas, has ascended within the golf industry. A family friend informed Zertuche years ago that Riojas was searching for a job. Zertuche explained to the teenager what working at TPC Deere Run entailed and Stuedemann added him to the crew. 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. Fortunately, Stuedemann understands that 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 his fulltime 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 uncharacteristically 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.”
Guy Cipriano is Golf Course Industry’s editor-in-chief.