A silver four-seat golf cart, a black four-door rental sedan, a lifelong southerner, a lifelong northerner and a Goldendoodle are the lone occupants of The Preserve Golf Club parking lot on a late Monday afternoon in early December.
The southerner, director of golf course operations Stephen Miles, wears a black Mississippi State baseball short-sleeve quarter-zip. His beloved Bulldogs are the reigning NCAA College World Series champs and he’s itching for the new season to begin. Miles relishes competition. The way he views it, his job overseeing a 245-acre property within an 1,800-acre natural slice of southern Mississippi provides abundant opportunities to compete. For Miles, that competition started in 2005, a year before anybody played the course.
Mondays are the most competitive days of his week, because The Preserve, a Palace Casino Resort-owned course 15 miles from the Gulf of Mexico with three-figure green fees, closes for maintenance. The sky darkens on this Monday as a crew led by superintendent Jeremy Stevens topples wayward slash pines. Clearing unsightly trees represents a small victory in a competition with no defined ending.
Miles explains to the northerner that nearly anything, including trees nobody planted, can grow anywhere at any moment in his part of the country. The northerner knows Miles isn’t bluffing. But sometimes you must see for yourself what others insist.
As the parking-lot conversation concludes, Miles suddenly looks over his right shoulder and across an entrance drive with a 27 mph speed limit. “There’s some lightning over there,” he says.
Goodbyes are exchanged. The northerner must drive 80 miles to reach his second hotel in a five-day, five-night journey designed to learn more about golf course maintenance in the bottom halves of Mississippi and Louisiana.
The drive from Vancleave to Hattiesburg should take an hour and a half. It lasts close to two hours. A popup storm produces lightning, winds exceeding 27 mph and a dousing that leaves the northerner scrambling to find the rental sedan’s emergency flashers.
You must see what others experience to believe them, right?
Gautier, pop. 19,024
Rounds are up. Revenue is up. So is the speed and efficiency with which superintendent Jeremy Ely must maneuver the six-worker Shell Landing crew.
A pair of Ely’s employees, including assistant superintendent Martin Banda, have been around since the popular public course opened in 1999. Two others have been around for a decade. Two more have been around for five years.
“I feel like the six guys that I have can do as much as if I had 10-person crew,” Ely says. “They are that good and that vital. They want to make the place better. They take pride in this place just as much as I do. It’s insane what they can get done.”
Ely is in his seventh season as superintendent. With annual rounds now approaching 40,000, he has adjusted practices to keep his half-dozen loyalists ahead of play. Summer shifts begin at 4 a.m., with the workday ending when 9-to-5ers begin lunch.
The fact he must concoct ways to limit golfer-mower interactions excites Ely. His bosses, a group that includes general manager/part-owner Kenny Hughes, are reinvesting in a course reaching the end of its first life cycle. Bunkers are being reduced by more than 50,000 square feet, redesigned and reconstructed in a project guided by Mississippi-based architect NathanCrace (see Help? You bet, page 17).
The renovation will help Shell Landing stay competitive with surrounding casino-owned courses. The casinos closed for around 2½ months following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The pace along the Gulf Coast changed once visitors returned. “Since the casinos reopened,” Hughes says, “we have been non-stop.”
No. 6 is arguably Shell Landing’s most scenic hole. The par 4 begins within a slot of trees bordering a 15-acre gopher tortoise habitat and plays over and along a marsh. The exposed green sits one mile from the Gulf of Mexico.
The sixth tee is Ely’s favorite spot to absorb Shell Landing. Unfortunately — or is fortunately? — he must gulp instead of savor coffee when he arrives at the tee. Play is seemingly always approaching these days, and Ely jokes his region might be losing its snowbird population. “We don’t have snowbirds anymore. We just have birds. They are here all the time now.”
Ely and his small team are glad to have them around.
“Things have changed so much in the past two years, but it’s all been positive,” he says. “It’s exciting to me, because now we’re actually getting to do stuff that I have been looking at for years. It’s not stale. We’re moving, things are happening. This is what I want to do. I don’t hate it at all. I like it.”
The Preserve Golf Club
Vancleave, pop. 4,939
The Preserve opened in 2006. The timing stunk.
Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005. Newly married with a baby, Miles had purchased a home 1,800 feet from the water in spring 2005. Built atop a concrete slab, the house sat at elevation 13 feet above sea level. “Three months later here comes Hurricane Katrina,” Miles says. “We didn’t have anything left but a slab.” Miles and his wife settled in Mobile, Alabama, 50 miles from The Preserve. They returned to Mississippi in 2018.
A year after The Preserve opened, the Great Recession commenced. Tourism slowed as the region continued rebuilding from Katrina amid a collapsing economy. For the next decade, The Preserve supported around 13,000 rounds annually, a neither spectacular nor troubling number. A casino-owned course represents one segment of a holistic entertainment strategy. “We add another sense of quality to the Palace Casino Resort,” Miles says. “It’s a brand. We help extend that brand.”
The golf part of the brand is more recognizable than ever. COVID-19 changed the dynamics of the competition facing Miles and his team. Rounds played approached 16,000 in 2020. The total approached 18,000 in 2021. “This course had never been around for a golf boom until now,” Miles says.
Busy brings challenges. Vancleave and surrounding communities once supplied The Preserve with ample golf course labor. The labor pool has dwindled the last two years. The Preserve used contract labor for the first time in 2021.
The combination of increased rounds and decreased labor doesn’t fluster Miles. He remains ultra-competitive. As he traverses the seventh hole, he points to a cluster of pine trees and undergrowth behind the green. They are competing with Bermudagrass turf for air, light and water, a trifecta required to cultivate the tidy conditions golfers paying those three-figure green fees expect. The numbers indicate Miles and his team are winning.
“The reason why the course is what it is today is because we have that never-ending competition from one year to the next,” he says. “We are always getting better. I was taught at an early age in the industry that you are either getting better or you are getting worse. You’re not staying the same.”
Hattiesburg Country Club
Hattiesburg, pop. 48,730
The Mississippi Pine Belt encompasses nine counties and spans around 5,200 square miles. Hattiesburg, home to University of Southern Mississippi, is the region’s largest city. Hattiesburg Country Club, established in 1919 and relocated to its current site in 1959, boasts rolling land and majestic longleaf and loblolly pines.
The trees present a conundrum. They contribute to making Hattiesburg Country Club one of the Deep South’s idyllic courses. They can also make longtime superintendent FrankOgletree’s workdays chaotic.
“The biggest challenge we have is growing grass under these gigantic trees,” Ogletree says. “The trees obviously make the golf course. It wouldn’t be what it is without them, but when the wind blows for five minutes, it’s three days of work picking up all the debris.”
Ogletree drives his utility cart between clusters of pines on a dank Tuesday with only one golfer on the course. Wind blew and rain fell the previous evening. “We have two months when pine straw doesn’t fall: May and June,” says Ogletree, who leads a peak-season crew of eight workers.
The ride between pines continues down the third hole, a par 5 bending left with a generous fairway framed by trees. “See this pine right here?” Ogletree asks, gazing skyward. “We have roots encroaching in the fairway and a mower will hit it. That tree needs to be cut. It’s too close to the fairway.”
Ogletree arrived at Hattiesburg Country Club as a young superintendent in 1998. The pines forced him to quickly change his management practices. “One of the first things I did when I got here was I quit trying to fight growing grass where it wouldn’t grow,” he says. Pine straw replaced rough between trees. Hattiesburg Country Club, which hosted a PGA Tour event from 1968 to 1993, became an even better golf course.
Along the way, Ogletree admits he’s made a few mistakes, including replanting pines after Katrina downed more than 1,000 trees in 2005. “That was one of the dumbest things I have ever done,” he says. “Now I’m cutting down some of the pines that I planted.”
Violent storms develop without warning in southern Mississippi. Hattiesburg Country Club loses a few healthy longleaf pines each year to lightning strikes. There are too many pines to accurately provide an official count; major storms occur too frequently to remember them all. “We have had several tropical storms and hurricanes here,” Ogletree says, “and I have forgotten some of their names.”
A superintendent doesn’t last 24 years at a prized course without making thousands of correct decisions before and after erratic weather. “For the most part,” Ogletree says, “everybody likes working here. It’s something different every day.”
The Club at Ole Brook
Brookhaven, pop. 11,674
Is The Club at Ole Brook a reset? Or is it a restart?
Formerly known as Brookhaven Country Club, an area businessman rescued the course in 2020 by merging it with a nearby swim and tennis club. The businessman then hired a middle-aged commercial roofing salesman to run the lone golf facility in Brookhaven, a main-street community between Hattiesburg and the Louisiana border.
Jeff Henning is 13 months into his role as The Club at Ole Brook’s general manager/superintendent as he walks the seventh fairway on a soggy December afternoon. “It’s my dream job,” he says. “It’s a course I love. The Lord has a funny way of doing things sometimes.”
Henning first walked the course nearly 50 years ago with his grandfather. The club has been part of his life ever since. The semi-private club expanded from nine holes to 18 in 2000. Golf in Brookhaven started struggling in the mid-2000s. Ownership changed three times. Membership dipped. The club lost the familial vibe Henning fondly remembers.
Henning worked as the club’s assistant professional as a young adult before selling commercial roofing to customers in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas for 25 years. He spent three nights each week on the road until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I went nine months in my house selling over the phone,” he says. “I was about to go crazy.”
When it came time to selecting somebody to lead The Club at Ole Brook’s revival, the membership turned to Henning, who frequently volunteered to help the club in all areas, including course maintenance. Henning landed his dream job in November 2020 and the club has gained 130 members.
Playing conditions are improving as Henning and his three-worker crew, which includes 81-year-old Pete Kelly, enter the second year of a rigorous fertilization and spray program to promote turf growth and health in spots neglected because of financial woes. Ownership invested in a new equipment lease last year. Topdressing and aeration are becoming regular practices again.
Operating an 18-hole golf course in small-town Mississippi is tricky. But a late-career change has reenergized Henning.
“I’m 57 years old now,” he says. “I’m going to give it all I got for six, seven good years.”
Natchez Golf Club at Duncan Park
Natchez, pop. 14,520
Natchez Golf Club at Duncan Park weaves around athletic fields, walking trails, tennis courts and playgrounds. Picnic tables are 15 yards from the 17th tee.
“This is our Central Park,” superintendent Greg Brooking says.
Natchez, a city with brick roads and antebellum homes along Mississippi River bluffs, lost a paper mill, roofing plant and tire factory to begin the 21st century. The population dipped from 18,464 in 2000 to under 15,000 in less than 20 years. The course Brooking manages — he also oversees pro shop activities — supported 27,000 rounds in 2003. Annual rounds played now hover around 11,000. The fact Natchez still has a municipal golf course represents a victory.
A six-time city champion who also has run a sub-17-minute 5K, Brooking returned to his hometown in 1995 to maintain and manage a course where he learned the game. “I’m the pro-superintendent, like in the old days,” he says. “But I’m not a professional golfer. I’m an amateur golfer.”
One hundred forty of Duncan Park’s 220 acres are devoted to golf. Brooking maintains the course with three full-time employees. Small crews are a theme in Mississippi. Loyalty is also a theme. “I have had the same crew for 25 years,” he says. Brooking is 65. A few members of his crew are in the same age bracket. They are responsible for preserving one of Natchez’s most accessible amenities. The city’s other course is private. A resident can walk 18 holes at Natchez Golf Club at Duncan Park for $14. Going the distance with a cart costs just $29.
“It’s truly a benefit to our community,” Brooking says. “It’s a recreational opportunity for our people. We pay our taxes for recreational opportunities.”
Scottish professional Seymour Dunn designed the first nine holes in 1916. The course expanded to 18 holes in 1993. The original holes are today’s back nine. The Dunn-designed nine features small greens, strategic rollouts and a ditch between the 17th and 18th fairways. A large Gingko tree believed to be the oldest in Mississippi lives behind the 12th tee.
The back nine is also notable for what it lacks: an irrigation system. Spigots utilizing city water are near every green. Hoses can be connected to keep greens alive during drought.
“We hardly ever need to do it,” Brooking says. “If I see a bad spot, I will quit mowing that bad spot. I’ll let it turn into fringe. I have always said greens have grass on them. You can have bare spots in rough. But you can’t have bare spots on greens.”
Links on the Bayou
Alexandria, pop. 45,275
Andrew Rasch bends his knees, lowers his body and studies a back-right section of the Links on the Bayou ninth green. His biggest agronomic nemesis must be analyzed at ground level.
Opened in 2002 as the first 18-hole public golf course in Alexandria, Links on the Bayou faces a common Deep South turf tussle: Poa annua outbreaks on Bermudagrass greens. Rasch recently completed his first full year in his first head superintendent job. His boss, director of golf course operations Jerrett Watson, served as superintendent from the course’s opening until 2017.
Poa annua first became an issue on the third green, a surface bordering the ninth green. It has spread to other greens. Rasch handled nematodes in Year 1. He has turned his attention to controlling Poa annua on 3.2 acres of TifEagle Bermudagrass greens in Year 2. “If we have to go war with it,” Rasch says, “we’ll go to war with it.”
Watson applied multiple herbicides to control Poa annua in his superintendent tenure. The toughest weed in golf eventually became resistant to a go-to herbicide. Poa annua is an easy problem to identify, yet tough to control because of limited tools. “We were still getting Poa in June, which was crazy,” Watson says. “I sprayed the same herbicide for years and I created that problem myself by doing that. It made it resistant.”
Rasch lives on the fifth hole of the flat, strategic course and drives a John Deere Gator utility vehicle to work. Links on the Bayou is appropriately named: trees are a non-factor and Middle Creek Bayou borders the city-owned property. Summer can be nasty. “The heat will cook you,” Rasch says. Winter can be unpredictable. The course was closed for 11 days last winter because of a deep freeze. December, January and February also bring 80-degree days.
There are more forgiving places to land a first superintendent job, but Rasch has settled nicely in Alexandria. His crew includes four full-time and six part-time employees. Rasch and pro JoeyWancewicz provide abundant support and are fun golf partners.
An Alabama native, Rasch attended Auburn University. So far, Rasch’s boldest move as a superintendent involves plastering a sticker of Aubie, Auburn’s tiger mascot, on the front of his Gator. Alexandria is in the middle of LSU country. A tiger mascot and loathing of University of Alabama football are among the few commonalities shared by Auburn and LSU supporters.
Coincidentally, Rasch strives to emulate the consistency demonstrated by the Crimson Tide and their famous coach.
“What I was most nervous about was just trusting myself when I didn’t see results right away,” he says. “I started doubting myself, but I always had to go back and say, ‘Trust the process.’ As much as I hate Nick Saban, you must trust the process, right?”
Lake Charles Country Club
Lake Charles, pop. 78,656
A CrossFit enthusiast with a linebacker’s physique, Lake Charles Country Club superintendent Chris McCallum endured two hurricanes, a wicked freeze, historic flood and open-heart surgery in a 14-month stretch. He stops near the fifth green of the southwest Louisiana course on a windy morning and does something he detests: he stands still. “I have to stay busy,” he says. “I’m geared that way.”
It takes a doer to maintain an outdoor landscape in Lake Charles. McCallum is stationary because he’s attempting to explain the unexplainable. Hurricane Laura in August 2020. Hurricane Delta in October 2020. Frozen pipes as temperatures dipped into the teens in February 2021. More than 12 inches of rain in one day in May 2021. Late-summer heart surgery to correct a genetic issue.
Recovery brings little time for reflection. And McCallum isn’t a reflective sort. But …
“It’s pretty freaking phenomenal what we have done, especially considering we were open six weeks after a Category 4 hurricane,” says McCallum, referring to Hurricane Laura and its 150 mph winds. “When I say Category 4 hurricane, it doesn’t do it justice. It was really bad. We had live oaks that actually moved 20 yards.” McCallum points to the rough between the fifth and 13th holes, parallel par 4s, and adds that Hurricane Laura destroyed 65 trees on this section of the course.
Lake Charles Country Club has lost 1,500 trees since McCallum’s arrival in 2003 through a combination of renovations and natural disasters. Lessons from Hurricane Rita in 2005 helped McCallum prepare the 103-year-old club for what it faced in 2020. Hurricane Laura hit the region on a Thursday. McCallum and his crew of reliable H2B workers returned to the course that Saturday. They worked for 32 days without power.
High winds and fierce rain are expected in Lake Charles, which sits 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. But the strangest weather-related scene McCallum has witnessed occurred last February, as turf froze, children made cardboard sleds and traffic stalled. “That was almost more damaging than the hurricanes themselves,” he says. “We are a tropical climate. We aren’t setup for that.”
McCallum and his crew covered the TifEagle Bermudagrass greens before the freeze. They were walk mowing the surfaces a week later as temperatures climbed into the 70s.
Bayou Oaks at City Park
New Orleans, pop. 383,997
, the director of golf course maintenance operations at Bayou Oaks at City Park, devises them. But how do you plan for more than 1.7 billion gallons of water — an actual number McCavitt calculated from 2021 rainfall totals — being dumped on the 540-acre property where you work? Heck, how do you follow any kind of plan when the 36 holes your team maintains can grow cool- and warm-season grasses on the same weekend?
“The best agronomy plan here is that you have to be able to adapt and change your plan, because things aren’t going to go to plan with extreme weather swings,” McCavitt says. “You just have to go with the flow. That’s the whole thing with New Orleans, just going with the flow and being laid back.”
City Park once had four golf courses, but Katrina altered every plan for every aspect of New Orleans, including its largest municipal golf facility. An Illinois native, McCavitt arrived in New Orleans on May 16, 2016. A year later, the new South Course at City Park debuted, giving Bayou Oaks at City Park a pair of contrasting courses separated by Filmore Avenue.
The South Course is a sprawling Rees Jones and Greg Muirhead design with three-figure visitor green fees and seven tee markers on every hole, allowing the course to play anywhere from 5,011 to 7,302 yards. The North Course maxes out at 5,762 yards, opened in 1969, closed in 2005 because of Katrina and reopened in 2008. Residents play the layout for less than $30.
New Orleans native Keith Bryant started picking balls at City Park’s two-level range in 1985. He was displaced by Katrina and started working on the turf team at TPC Louisiana when he returned in 2008. Now an assistant superintendent on the Bayou Oaks at City Park North Course, Bryant stands with McCavitt as golfers play the 18th hole, a par 4 where a miss left often means a wet ball, on a 75-degree December morning. A few days later, temperatures drop into the 40s.
“We have seen a lot of crazy things out there,” Bryant says. Oh, the New Orleans stories. “We had a guy who used to play all the time,” he adds. “One day he started out here, and by the time he got to the 18th, he had just a headband and skimpies on.”
Good luck planning for that sight.
Chateau Golf & Country Club
Kenner, pop. 66,448
On Friday, Dec. 10, 2021, tree limbs fill the grassy median intersecting Chateau Boulevard in Kenner, Louisiana. On Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021, Hurricane Ida ripped through the suburban New Orleans neighborhood. The limbs are reminders that living and working near the Gulf of Mexico requires patience.
Chateau Golf and Country Club superintendent Gary McCulla knows sticking around during a hurricane proves nothing. He escaped the brunt of Ida by evacuating 135 miles to the in-laws’ home in Lafayette. He then made an 1,100-mile roundtrip journey to Atlanta with his wife to secure the closest available 56-kilowatt generator to restart the course’s pump station and run power to the maintenance facility. Once crews restored energy to the area, he traveled back to Atlanta to return the generator and fulfill a promise to the rental company’s workers.
“On the day I got there after the hurricane, it was right around the time they closed at 5 p.m. and they were still waiting for me,” McCulla says. “I told them I appreciated it and said, ‘If I’m bringing the generator back, I’m bringing you guys beers for holding it for me.’ When I had to bring it back to Atlanta, I stopped in Alabama, and got those guys beer. If I tell somebody I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it.”
Treks to secure equipment can be part of a superintendent’s job in places with extreme weather. McCulla left the industry shortly before Katrina to enter the lawncare business. He returned to golf course maintenance in 2017. Competitors mature. They become wiser. Sometimes they relish the opportunity to bring an evolved perspective to a familiar competition with no defined ending.
“You set the expectations and you just shoot for it,” McCulla says. “Sometimes you get there, sometimes you don’t. Just like any superintendent, you work with what you have and sometimes you are only successful on 70 percent of what you want to get accomplished. I say that now at 51. If you had asked me about this when I was 31, I would have been pissed off and angry. My cockiness and ego would have gotten in the way. Now it’s like, tomorrow is another day.”
Tomorrow in the region where McCulla works means another chance to overcome the unexplainable.