It started with unexpected terror. It has produced the two most terrific weeks of my professional career.
Knowing I needed to cover the 2017 Greenbrier Classic for a series of stories about the historic West Virginia flood and The Greenbrier’s inspiring golf rebuild, then-Old White TPC superintendent Josh Pope asked me where I planned on staying during tournament week.
“Beckley,” I told him.
“Do you really want to stay in Beckley?” Pope replied.
Let’s get this out of the way. There’s nothing wrong with Beckley. The city, population 16,972, is the largest metropolitan area in southern West Virginia. In fact, it’s the only metropolitan area in the region. But it’s 59 miles from The Greenbrier.
Josh asked if I wanted to stay in the same Lewisburg, W.Va., hotel housing turf management volunteers. I had never been so overjoyed to ditch a week’s worth of Hilton points. Lewisburg is nine miles from The Greenbrier.
I arrived the Sunday evening before the tournament with other volunteers. We toured the heroically restored course and were told to report at 5 a.m. the following morning.
Starting before sunrise? No big deal, I thought. I can handle it for a day or two. I stood in the corner of the maintenance tent as Pope and director of agronomy Kelly Shumate opened the first morning by praising their determined crew and enthusiastically welcoming volunteers. Pope then read assignments and I started trembling like somebody visiting their first haunted house.
“Greens … Jeff and Mikey, mowing. Blake and Guy, boards. 12-6, 3-9,” Pope said in his southern drawl.
Ummm. Yeah. OK. Sure. Whatever boss. But I haven’t worked on a golf course in five years. But I have never turned boards. But I don’t want to damage your new V-8 bentgrass greens. But I’m really here to take notes, snap pictures, provide social media updates and conduct interviews. But the dew might cause moisture to seep through my shoes.
I knew The Greenbrier team needed bodies. Fourth of July week is PGA Tour purgatory for securing volunteers. I looked at Pope – who was grinning – followed the crew outside and dropped my slender derrière into the passenger seat of a Gator. I concocted a plan on the nearly 10-minute drive from the turf care facility to the 10th green: I would fake it.
My anxiety level increased when we reached the green and Jeff Church, a West Virginia native and longtime Greenbrier employee, told us he fired his last two tournament board men. Intimidation? Or an odd form of Appalachian hospitality?
Following the lead of Church and his gracious co-workers, I faked it for 13 shifts. Terror turned into tremendous excitement and fulfillment. Somebody who caddied as a teenager and worked a part-time golf course maintenance job around a full-time sports writing gig in his early 30s received a PGA Tour agronomy pin from the legendary Cal Roth. A week inside the PGA Tour ropes represented the unexpected highlight of a career fulfilled with surreal moments.
And I couldn’t wait to replicate it.
With support from my bosses, I returned to The Greenbrier last month to help the crew. I reunited with dozens of friends, although Pope accepted a job as the superintendent at The Olde Farm, a private Virginia facility designed by Bobby Weed, less than two months before the tournament. Chris Anderson and Nate Bryant, two prominent subjects in last year’s recovery, are now responsible for overseeing The Old White TPC’s agronomics.
Fortunately, Church still works at The Greenbrier. He celebrated his 30th anniversary at the resort last winter. We remained in contact over the past year, increasing my anticipation for the 2018 tournament, renamed A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier. I arrived in White Sulphur Springs with job security and confidence.
Church warned me in a pre-tournament phone conversation a pleasant mountain climate had become uncomfortable. “A lot of man hours working in the heat,” Church said. “A lot of man hours … we’re tired.” The conversation foreshadowed a steamy week.
I pulled into the turf care facility shortly before a 5 p.m. volunteer meeting Sunday, July 1. I checked the temperature on my dashboard: 90. I walked outside and immediately wiped my brow. I greeted longtime equipment technicians Roy Young, Curtis Persinger and Ray Bonds on my way to the maintenance tent. “Welcome to tournament week,” Young said with his dry sense of humor. “We have had Derecho and we have had the flood. We might as well have a wildfire.”
I certainly didn’t want to drink to that statement. But after greeting the trio, I beelined to the large cooler in the corner of the air-conditioned maintenance tent and grabbed two 16.9-ounce bottles of water. I repeated the reach into the cooler dozens of times during the week, consuming 50 bottles (845 ounces) of water while on the grounds. Besides the meeting, the work week included morning and evening shifts Monday-Saturday and a morning shift before the final round.
The importance of hydrating represented a theme of Shumate’s Sunday night address to volunteers. His team took multiple proactive steps to protect workers and volunteers, including keeping the cooler stocked with water and sports drinks, noting locations of ice chests, and deploying an employee to deliver cold water to workers during evening shifts. Every drop of liquid was needed. Humidity levels exceeded 90 percent on the first five mornings; temperature reached 90 degrees in four of the six evening shifts.
One positive associated with sweat-inducing weather: the course played ultra-firm, tournament conditions agronomists and PGA Tour players relish. Original architects C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor would have been astounded by the awesomeness in the Alleghenies. Two years after serving as a search-and-rescue site following a natural disaster, a coordinated team of mowers, board flippers, rakers, hand waterers, data collectors, divot fillers, cut cuppers, pin setters and reel checkers prepared a photogenic and fiery course for established stars, rising stars, stalwarts, journeymen and regional dreamers. The field in a summer PGA Tour event wedged between two major championships might be as eclectic as the tasks required to polish a charming course.
As part of a team of four, my mornings included flipping boards and blowing debris for the duo mowing the 10th, 12th, 14th and 16th greens. Mornings proved a hustle and our group, which also included determined local teenagers Korin Cole and Matthew Sams, became more efficient as the week progressed. We understood each other’s tendencies by Thursday and shared abundant laughs, which I expected after working alongside Church last year. Chemistry amongst volunteers and crew members makes a special week even more enjoyable.
Evenings provided an all-encompassing glimpse at the course and maintenance efforts. I was on a team responsible for finding, gathering and filling divots. As we reached the landing zone on the first fairway Monday evening, the scope of PGA Tour maintenance finally hit me. The shift started with 32 people working on the 449-yard hole, including six volunteers hand watering dry spots. Do the math, and it equates to one worker for every 14 yards.
Divots ranged from misdirected pelts created by Wednesday pro-am participants to slender, 5-inch professional excavation jobs. Studying six straight nights of divots illustrated the power and precision found on the PGA Tour. Elite players know exactly where to launch drives and how to hit cunning approach shots. Filing divots with a green sand/seed mix helps a course improve television aesthetics and expedites the post-tournament recovery. Plus, there’s nothing terrifying about the work.
The final evening shifted turned into a photopalooza. The humidity level dipped below 60 percent, the sun gloriously faded below the mountains and the number of divots needing repaired by an 11-person team decreased because of the 36-hole cut.
Fall-like temperatures defined the final morning. October in July never felt – or looked – so pleasant. Later weekend tee times eliminated the need for mowing in the dark. Fog rose as tree shadows and a red sky reflected off Swan Lake at 5:43 a.m. Less than two hours later, the rising sun framed the 15th hole, a scenic par 3 known as “Eden.”
Eden is a template hole found at various courses designed by Macdonald and Raynor. In biblical terms, Eden is the garden where Adam and Even first lived. Eden also means paradise.
Once the shock of receiving a PGA Tour maintenance assignment subsided, I discovered my working Eden. Returning to it a year later amplified the surreal nature of the experience.