Andy Woolston, left, and Bob Scott adjust the location of the cup on hole 15 at The Riverfront Golf Course. Along with dozens of others, they work to keep the courses green year-round.

Keepers of the greens

Published 11:50pm Thursday, March 22, 2012

Suffolk’s five golf courses means there are 90 greens and fairways to keep green for thousands of golfers each year.

But the grass hardly keeps itself green — especially in the winter, when players mostly have to imagine the green as a state of mind.

But there are hundreds of employees at local courses dedicated to keeping the greens perfectly lush and trim for the players.

“I just try to think about doing the job perfectly,” said Kevin Clarke, a groundskeeper at The Riverfront Golf Course. “You can’t do half a job. It has to be looking good every day.”

Keeping the golf courses in top shape is a year-round job for some. Local courses employ a golf course superintendent, whose full-time duty it is to ensure the courses are kept green and perfectly manicured. They in turn employ help on a full-time and part-time basis, which vary in number depending on the season.

The groundskeepers don’t just mow the grass. They also fertilize, water and maintain the sand bunkers — the biggest use of time.

“We joke the bunkers are kind of a money pit,” said Chris Petrelli, the golf course superintendent at Cedar Point Country Club. Employees have to even out the sand, rake the bunkers, clear them of debris and edge them.

“The golfers hate them, too,” Petrelli said. “They’re challenging.”

While the sand pits may be the most troublesome to care for, the greens are definitely the most important.

In some ways, golf course superintendents are like farmers — they spend the vast majority of their time caring for a genetically engineered crop, but Mother Nature can always come along and spoil everything.

But Petrelli and his counterpart at The Riverfront, Andy Woolston, are reluctant to call themselves farmers.

Petrelli grew up on golf courses because his father was a golf course superintendent, but that didn’t mean he got into working at a golf course right away.

“Initially, I wanted no part of it,” he said. But then the greens drew him back in their direction. He was an assistant superintendent in Atlanta for five years before coming to Cedar Point.

“It’s challenging from a weather standpoint,” he said. “Mother Nature has her own ideas about what she wants to do.”

Woolston came at it from a different direction. He initially wanted to be a game warden because he loved wildlife. But then he realized he couldn’t feed his family on a game warden’s salary.

He still gets to see wildlife on the course, though.

“Golf courses are wildlife magnets,” he said. He admits to being a “terrible golfer,” though he does play every once in a while to get a feel for how the course is doing.

But the real folks who do the work, he said, are the employees.

Both golf courses mow the greens six times a week and the fairways three times a week during the growing season. Both courses use Bent grass, a cool-season crop, on the greens.

The greens are kept trimmed to 1/8 inch using special mowers that are more precise than the ones folks use at home. These mowers have a continuously turning drum that slices the grass, rather than rotary mowers that can leave patches.

When mowing the greens, employees take care to mow in a different direction each time to keep the grass looking fresh.

The crop also must be fertilized and watered. Though golf courses often get a bad rap for using so much of these resources, the reality is that golf courses use much less per square foot than the average homeowner.

Both The Riverfront and Cedar Point said they use only two to three pounds of nitrogen, the active substance in fertilizer, each year, though the amount of actual fertilizer is higher.

Despite all the work in all kinds of extreme weather, employees said they are dedicated to keeping the courses looking green.

“It’s good to do everything perfect, so when the golfers come out, they enjoy every moment of it,” Clarke said.

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