Water Hazard

As one greenkeeper shows, adapting to the drought is just par for his golf course.

Unbeknownst to most of his acquaintances, Joe McCleary leads a double life. By day, his job is to lovingly tend 105 or so acres of the most green-velvety, luscious, ease-down-on-the-ground-and-take-a-nap-looking rye/Kentucky bluegrass hybrid this side of the Front Range.

But at night, he heads for his suburban Aurora home, where one of his first home-improvement projects was to rip up part of the lawn and install a cactus garden gilded by drought-tolerant native grasses and irises. "I'd have taken out the whole thing, but my wife would have killed me," he says. He remains a member in good standing of the Colorado Cactus and Succulent Society.

This reveals two things about McCleary: He's partial to plants, and there can be plenty of conflicting forces pulling at a modern golf course superintendent.

Joe McCleary takes a ride on the dry side at Saddle Rock Golf Course.
Joe McCleary takes a ride on the dry side at Saddle Rock Golf Course.

The latter is especially true in a time of drought, and Colorado happens to be in the middle of one. As of last week, the state's snowpack stood at less than one-fifth of what it normally is this time of year. Three weeks ago, the City of Aurora imposed water restrictions on all its users, including its seven public golf courses.

For a business that purports to peddle pastoral splendor, such deprivation is akin to restricting professional wrestlers to pastels. After all, fairways are as close to nature as many golfers get. To a hacker's way of thinking, things should look nice. And by "nice," they mean green.

McCleary is boss man of the turf at Saddle Rock Golf Course, on the swelling eastern boundary of Aurora. At $30 a pop for eighteen holes, these links qualify as the city's ritziest. It is also his personal baby. McCleary, who is 36 and looks like a less psychotic version of Christopher Walken, has been in on every major -- and most minor -- decisions having to do with the course's short life, from its design to its two-year construction to its grand opening, five years ago.

He knows every slope of every green, every bump in the tee boxes, every curve in the fairway. You want dedication? At the start of each year, McCleary tees off with the ladies' golf club, just to make sure the short tees are fair. And he doesn't even drink during the round.

But now there is no water. So you might wonder what draconian measures he's taking to comply with the city's conservation demands. Draining ponds into slick mud hazards, perhaps? Or adding a handsome coat of brown fuzz to the fairways? (Dennis Lyons, the city's manager of golf, has tried to put a positive spin on the blasted earth: "While brown may not be beautiful to some, an additional 20 yards of roll off the tee can be a beautiful thing," he suggested in a recent communiqué.)

The answer is: surprisingly little. The reasons have less to do with emergency drought measures, however, and more to do with welcome changes in the way the game of golf is managed and played. The truth is, if you had to have your golf during a dry spell -- and still wanted to feel good about yourself -- you could do far worse than Joe McCleary and Saddle Rock.

It's exactly 5:30 a.m., and Saddle Rock's irrigation czar, Josh Hoovestol, is giving instructions to his 25-man turf crew. "There's a hockey game on tonight," he notes dryly. "We'll keep you up to date on the score so you can tell our customers who have an interest. But," he adds ominously, "no headphones." No one really wants to miss a "Fore!" warning.

The two dozen hired hands disperse onto the course. McCleary, a blue jean-wearing, university-trained horticulturist and MBA who can talk comfortably for hours on vegetable-crop ecology, prepares to get his hands dirty by stationing himself...in front of a computer in his office. This is modern golf course superintending.

It's not where McCleary intended to end up. He began studying engineering at the University of Kansas. One day in his sophomore year, an ice storm hit; he volunteered to help out on the local golf course. He liked the work and stayed on. Eventually, the superintendent noticed him, pointing out, "You know, you could go to school for this."

"I said, 'No way!'" McCleary recalls. "'Make a living doing this?' But it turned out I liked the ag guys better than the engineers." The following year, he transferred to the state university in Manhattan and began studying horticulture, with the idea of someday running his own course.

A lot has changed about the business of being a golf course superintendent, even in the fifteen years McCleary has been on the job. (The supers were once called "greenkeepers," a British term that inadequately explains what the job really entails, from divot-replacement theory to the selection of the correct kind of sand to pile into a bunker.) For one, courses have begun to try to fit into their surroundings rather than stand out from them.

It wasn't so long ago that the words "golf course" and "environmental sensitivity" were as incongruous as "Tiger Woods" and "Adidas." Known as "park-style," traditional golf courses -- think Overland and City Park -- were famous for stripping away the landscape, unrolling some turf and calling it good. "We'd just fill in a wetland, and nobody would ever say a thing about it," recalls Gregg Blew, superintendent of Denver's Wellshire Golf Course and current president of the Rocky Mountain Golf Course Superintendents' Association.

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