Making the cut

Features - Making the Cut A Special Series Presented by JOHN DEERE

Big crowds, famous holes and acres of prized turf. An inside look at a trio of unique tournament venues. Part 1: TPC Scottsdale

February 11, 2019

The Champions Course is one of two courses maintained by the TPC Scottsdale agronomy team.
© photos by guy cipriano

A January day in the desert begins with layers. A golf shirt. A pullover. A jacket. Some workers wear a long-sleeve layer beneath their golf shirt.

Layers are not what you envision in Scottsdale, Ariz. You sweat when somebody mentions Scottsdale. You wipe your brow and take a swig of water. You try to empathize; you truly can’t unless you have pulled an aerifier, hauled sand, sharpened reels or pruned a Mesquite tree in a desert, in July.

You also expect to be surrounded by thousands of boisterous fans when arriving at TPC Scottsdale. Television conditions us to the rowdiness. TPC Scottsdale hosts the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Yes, that tournament.

There’s no rowdiness at 5:20 a.m. on a mid-January day. Employees, wearing layers, walk into an orderly golf course maintenance facility to begin an 11-hour workday. For a place that will host more than 700,000 fans in three weeks, solitude permeates throughout a two-course property divided by a busy suburban street and bordered by one of the West’s most important waterways.

A morning meeting begins at 5:30 a.m. A manager from North Carolina, followed by a manager from Illinois, followed by an intern from Australia address a crew preparing to shiver. A translator flips their words, even the funny ones uttered by the young Australian, from English to Spanish.

Jim Day is happy to see people. The 28-year TPC Scottsdale veteran arrives two hours before co-workers – either closing or coyote time depending on perspective – to begin loading green and yellow mowers onto trailers behind green and yellow utility vehicles.

Every morning second matters. Hundreds of customers are playing golf and the first competition round of the 2019 Waste Management Phoenix Open begins in exactly three weeks. TPC Scottsdale operates at a furious pace. The layers are numerous.

Bill Brown mows rough on the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course.

Early morning on the Stadium Course

Let’s begin in darkness on the 5th fairway of the Stadium Course. Joaquin Valenzuela Gamez is inspecting an irrigation head. Tools of the irrigation trade, hoses, flags and shovels, fill the back of his Gator, the lone vehicle on the fairway. Gamez wears gloves and a TPC Scottsdale jacket above a pullover as he meticulously slices the overseeded blend of ryegrass and fine fescue surrounding the head.

The Stadium Course’s irrigation system includes more than 2,500 irrigation heads. Neither darkness nor 45-degree weather deters Gamez in his quest to ensure each one works properly. “I love what I do here,” he says. “I hope I’m here longer.”

Gamez arrived at TPC Scottsdale before the Stadium Course’s 16th hole became the hippest spot in golf and before anybody imagined something like #greenestshow would attract attention on newfangled wireless devices. Gamez emigrated to the United States from the western Mexican state Sinaloa in the mid-1980s. One of his first jobs here stunk. “I worked in a horse ranch,” he says. “I didn’t like the smell of it.”

His mornings went from pungent to pleasant when he joined legendary agronomist Cal Roth’s TPC Scottsdale crew on Aug. 16, 1990. A golf course, even in the middle of a desert summer, smells better than a horse ranch.

Gamez’s title is irrigation technician. But he’s willing to perform any job to satisfy golfers. Gamez relishes encounters with customers. “I hear good comments every single day,” he says. “They will come straight to me and say, ‘You guys do an awesome job on the golf course. I like what you guys do.’ I tell them, ‘Thank you for the good comments. I hope you enjoy your time here and come back.’”

Bill Brown has one job on this morning. The task is performed sitting and it doesn’t produce many direct interactions with golfers. He loves it anyway.

Brown is mowing rough alongside the eighth hole as the sun lifts. Nearly every time Brown punches in, he mows rough. Consider it magical monotony.

A Michigan native who worked for General Electric in Indiana, Brown moved to Scottsdale in the mid-1970s. “I feel I’m a damn near native,” he says. Compared to those around him, Brown qualifies as an Arizonian. Scottsdale had less than 80,000 residents when Brown escaped the Midwest. The city’s population will surpass 250,000 this year. On 2018 Waste Management Phoenix Open Saturday, 216,818 spectators trampled on the rough Brown maintains.

Brown worked for a parks and recreation department and multiple golf courses before joining the TPC Scottsdale crew in 2011. At 82, he’s the oldest member of the 53-worker unit. He doesn’t sound like somebody bracing to stop operating machines such as the John Deere 9009A TerrainCut he’s operating on this January morning. “I’m not very good at doing nothing,” he says. “I like this. I enjoy the outdoors. The people I work with – and the people I work for – are wonderful.”

Director of golf course maintenance operations Blake Meentemeyer stops to chat with Brown and inspect what might be the deepest frost pocket on the course. “You can see the stripes,” Meentemeyer says. “Bill is always thinking ahead and he’s always thinking about where he needs to go, thinking about frost and when we are going to spray. He’s got a tough job jumping around all the time.”

Cold. Darkness. Heat. Tournament preparation. Overseeding. It doesn’t matter to Brown. Few people his age keep this pace. Heck, few people of any age can handle the hustle associated with TPC Scottsdale.

“I feel like I’m in a hurry and in motion all the damn time,” Brown says. “I don’t know why. This time of year we are working long hours. I will wake up early in the morning and say, ‘Wow.’ I’ll get up and have a couple of cups of coffee and read the paper. I don’t get up, dress and leave. I get up at 3:30 and sometimes 2:30.”

Has today’s paper arrived by the time Brown leaves the house? “I read yesterday’s,” he quips.

By the time Ali Guessous reaches the 16th green, Scottsdale residents have received today’s paper and the sun partially hovers above the McDowell Mountains. Guessous, an intern from Morocco, where golf is in the developmental phases, mows diagonal passes. He pauses every few minutes to shift turning boards, absorbing a scene unlike any other in golf. Bleachers, seats, floors, tables, awnings, steel and cellphone towers surround Guessous. He’s mowing a 5,897-square foot green on an enclosed hole accommodating 20,000 fans. “You just don’t mess up here,” he says. “You can’t do that.”

Valentin Giles understands the pressure of the 16th hole. A 30-year TPC Scottsdale employee, Giles is mowing the 72-inch cut of intermediate rough on this morning, reaching the 18th hole 35 minutes before a 9 a.m. shotgun start.

He worked his first PGA Tour event here in 1990, raking bunkers during a tournament that ended with Tommy Armour III outdistancing Jim Thorpe (the golfer), Billy Ray Brown and Fred Couples to earn $162,000. Estimated weekly attendance was 362,000. When Gary Woodland toppled Chez Reavie in a playoff last year, he received $1,206,000 and 719,719 fans entered the grounds.

Giles performed course presentation duties during the 2017 Waste Management Phoenix Open. When he walked through the 16th tunnel on Saturday, a capacity crowd hollered as he cut the cup and set the pin. “It makes me crazy,” Giles says. “It makes me nervous. I walk from the tee to the green with a flag, and as soon as I show up at the tee, everybody is already there.”

Quite a journey for somebody who grew up between Acapulco and Mexico City and harvested crops in Idaho fields before arriving in Arizona. Asked how the tournament has grown, Giles points to a three-story structure to the right of the 18th fairway. “It’s getting bigger and bigger,” he says. “That tent was one story last year.”

Longtime crew member Hector Velazquez.

Late morning and early afternoon on the Champions Course

The 16th and 17th holes, along with the 18th tee, run adjacent to North Hayden Road, which separates the Stadium and Champions courses. Advancements across the street startle Giles more than anything on the Stadium Course.

The Arizona Canal borders the south parts of the Champions Course; apartments surround the north holes; Highway 101 looms to the east. Giles worked 16 years on the Champions Course before shifting to the Stadium Course. “When I started, this street wasn’t here,” Giles says. “There were no houses around the course, Highway 101 wasn’t there. Everything was desert.”

Giles represents a rare TPC Scottsdale constant. Development alters the desert landscape. Supervisors, especially at the assistant superintendent level, zip through Scottsdale like jackrabbits in the Sonoran Desert. The bosses work a few tournaments, learn the nuances of warm- and cool-season turf, and hone water management skills before landing their next industry position.

Hector Velazquez has outlasted every coworker and boss, but he’s too busy and humble to mention this fact. Velazquez parks his Gator on the entrance drive to the Champions Course, a dirt road when he arrived in Arizona in the 1980s, to discuss life as TPC Scottsdale’s longest tenured maintenance employee. Velazquez joined the crew on March 18, 1987, less than two months after TPC Scottsdale hosted PGA Tour players for the first time. Velazquez has performed nearly every job on both courses. “Every part of the year is busy,” he says.
Irrigation foreman Ascenion Giles.

The courses combine to support more than 90,000 annual rounds. They close in July, a punishing, exhausting month because every surface is aerified multiple times. The courses close again in early fall for overseeding, a labor-intensive practice performed annually to ensure winter vitality.

Hard work doesn’t fluster Velazquez. A father of two, Velazquez holds two fulltime jobs, also working indoor maintenance at a nearby Marriott. His Marriott shift begins less than two hours after he leaves TPC Scottsdale. Velazquez has worked both jobs for the past decade. “Maybe I’m still young,” he jokes.

With temperatures approaching 60 degrees and golfers roaming all 18 fairways on both courses, Velazquez scurries between assignments on the Champions Course. Senior assistant Heath Booker stops to chat with him in the parking lot. Later in his inspection of the course, Booker describes what Velazquez means to the crew. “I have worked three jobs at one time, but that’s only 15 to 20 hours at each job,” Booker says. “For him to do 80 hours every week for 10 years … that’s pretty amazing.”

Booker, a NC State graduate, is second on the agronomic hierarchy. He moved from North Carolina to Arizona in 2015. He says the people and pace separate TPC Scottsdale from his past stops. The crew includes seven employees with tenures of 28 years or longer, a remarkable feat considering the unforgiving climate, abundance of job opportunities in Scottsdale and grueling pace accompanying an elite daily-fee facility.

Equipment operator Valentin Giles.

“People say they work at a golf course and it’s 365 days,” Booker says. “This property is 365 days a year. It never slows down. You can talk about how busy it is, but until you experience it, I don’t think you can grasp how busy it is.”

Julio Riojas relishes the people and pace. An assistant superintendent on the Champions Course, Riojas first visited Arizona while playing college baseball at William Penn University. He became enthralled by the desert landscape. He also became enthralled by golf course maintenance, earning a turfgrass management degree from University of California Riverside. He worked at TPC Deere Run, in his hometown of East Moline, Ill., before becoming an assistant at TPC Scottsdale.

Standing along the Arizona Canal above the fifth hole on the Champions Course, a par four with a split fairway curling around a desert wash area, Riojas describes recent aesthetic and agronomic enhancements. Riojas lives in the apartments on the other side of the course. He moved to Arizona because of TPC Scottsdale and has stayed five years.

Like every young manager with a turf degree, Riojas harbors grand aspirations. People determine a manager’s success, making his future as bright as the midday desert sun.

Irrigation technician Joaquin Valenzuela Gamez.

“Some of them sacrifice almost their lives and time with family and doing things they like to do to put in the hours that are required just to get this place the way it is,” he says. “This is what they enjoy doing. We have guys that have been here for more than 30 years. Things are always changing, but I give them credit to be able to adapt the way that they have.”

Riojas has adjusted to the people and the scenery. He’s still adjusting to the weather. It’s 2 p.m., the temperature approaches 65 and he’s still wearing three layers.

Inside the shop and one final ride

Equipment manager Randy Waymire.

Fewer layers are required inside the equipment management center. Randy Waymire wears a jacket anyway. Waymire leads a four-person team responsible for maintaining more than 200 pieces of equipment. Their indoor and outdoor workspaces brim with activity.

Everything about the maintenance facility is systematic. Inventories and parts are digitized. Each Gator has its own numbered parking space. Riding mowers are parked beneath a covered structure. Walking mowers are parked in straight lines beneath signs. When operators return from assignments, mowers are pointed toward the shop, a sign they must be checked by the equipment staff. Mowers are inspected following every use.

TPC Scottsdale’s leased John Deere equipment is in well-trained hands. Waymire spent 15 years with Stotz Equipment, Jim Day is approaching his three-decade anniversary at TPC Scottsdale, and Miguel Jimenez Hernandez and Luis Munoz are former equipment operators now working inside the shop. “There’s a lot of pride that comes with working for this property,” Waymire says. “There are unspoken benefits that you don’t see. The people here are our best benefit.”

Dialogue between operators and technicians stretches into the late afternoon. Unless you arrived at 5 a.m., you wouldn’t know the people working inside the shop are nine hours into an 11-hour day. The energy level remains high.

Assistant superintendent Bryan Pierce begins his final inspection of the Stadium Course at 3 p.m., passing dozens of golfers whose tee times started after the shotgun event. The mower stripes on greens overseeded with Poa trivialis, velvet bentgrass and ryegrass resemble images from geometry textbooks. On a dark, cold morning, workers beginning another long day achieved something that can only be observed a few hours later.

Senior assistant superintendent Heath Booker and director of golf course maintenance operations Blake Meentemeyer.

“Looking at past notes, we’re ahead of the game,” Pierce says. “Yes, it’s maddening. You want it to be perfect all the time.”

That’s why Booker hangs over a fairway bunker edge, pulling weeds from white sand when Pierce strolls past the third hole. That’s why when Pierce enters the 16th hole, interns Nikolas McGuiness and Jacobo Cortines, who hail from Australia and Spain, respectively, are spraying a preventative fungicide on the tees and approach. McGuiness is wearing a stocking hat and jacket; Cortines is hatless and in a golf shirt.

It’s all maddening. It’s all adding a day’s layer to a deep, desert golf story.

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s senior editor.