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.

Water Hazard

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.

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 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.

Today, though, most of the golf establishments being built are known as "links-style" courses. They are characterized by narrow fairways that conform to the landscape, with designers striving to leave as much native vegetation around the holes and fairways as possible. It's like the difference between Frank Lloyd Wright and Highlands Ranch.

Golf is a business, so it shouldn't be surprising that the change in course styles has not been entirely altruistic. In addition to their slim fairways and topographically friendly layouts, links courses are also typically characterized by the fancy homes that line them. The development of Saddle Rock Golf Course was inspired by the promise of a hefty addition to Aurora's property-tax base when it is built out as an exclusive subdivision. Prices for homes along the course can approach $1 million, and a building lot adjoining the actual course commands an extra $50,000 to $80,000 over a spot more inland.

Yet social pressures have also forced golf courses to adapt. The golf industry had an embarrassing record of waste and pollution, usually in the form of extravagant use not only of water, but also of pesticides and other toxic lawn spreads that infected water tables for miles around. "The environmental movement has had a big impact on us," Blew says.

One thing that hasn't changed is that golf courses still rely on water, and lots of it. Lyons guesses that Aurora's courses alone use more than 300 million gallons of water a year to keep fairways, tee boxes and putting surfaces green and pristine. So with their thousands of sprinklers per course and huge swaths of immaculate lawn, golf courses are prime targets for public ire when life turns dry.

The industry has discovered conservation, though. The difference between park- and links-style water use shows up most clearly in a course's ratio of irrigated acres to total acres. Aurora Hills, that city's oldest course, was built in the park style in 1968. Its eighteen holes take up about 130 acres -- "all of it irrigated except for the parking lot," says Lyons. Saddle Rock, by comparison, irrigates only 105 of its 240 total acres.

Golfers can still view antiquated ideas of turf management. These days, however, it's usually not on golf courses -- which live and breathe water -- but on the giant lawns surrounding them, whose owners seem to take it for granted.

Denver's Water Department points out that in a year, the average yard sucks down as much water as a family of four. Half of all the water used in Aurora goes toward outdoor use -- "lawn-sprinkling, gardening, things like that," a city worker explains.

Residents of many upscale developments have the same relationship to their lawns as they do to their meat, which somehow makes its way mysteriously from the ranch to small, shrink-wrapped packages without any fuss. Typically, their lawns are mowed, fertilized, watered and groomed by someone else.

An early-morning tour of Saddle Rock reveals several residential sprinkler systems in full spray, oblivious to the cool, moist weather. One home boasts an artificial waterfall. "I'm willing to bet most people here don't even know how to adjust their sprinkler systems," says McCleary, rolling his eyes.

In contrast, the first thing McCleary does each day is check the weather readings. Like many modern courses, Saddle Rock has an on-premises weather station. The most important reading it delivers is the evapotranspiration rate, which, while eye-glazingly complicated in actual calculation, is basically the amount of water lost from soil and plants during a given period.

From that number, McCleary can then calculate how much moisture his course is low. "It's like filling a gas tank," he says. "Whatever has been used up, we replace." Four days ago, the course received a much-appreciated .13 of an inch of rain. Yesterday was the first day the course was watered since then.

Unlike in years past, watering at Saddle Rock is orchestrated largely by computer. Each hole is broken down into eight sections -- green surfaces, approaches, tee box, etc. Those, in turn, are divided up into separate sprinkler heads -- 1,800 throughout the course -- that can be adjusted by volume, time and spraying direction. "We don't water any sidewalks anymore," McCleary says. Employees carry special radios with punch keypads so that they can call in dry areas, which can then be spot-watered.

The holes are lined with native plants: buffalo grass, wheat grasses and the like. These swaths are mowed once a year, in the fall, to simulate the effects of a prairie burn. After that, the plants are left to their own devices. As the drought has progressed, McCleary has let the natural grasses in some areas creep closer into the fairways. Here and there, a hillock or knob is left to fall completely back into its original state. "Does the average golfer notice that?" he asks. "No."

In fact, the biggest complaints have come not from golfers, but from residents whose homes line the course and who apparently moved into their chateaus expecting a vast green lawn for a backyard. "The biggest challenge we've had," McCleary says, "is educating people on what the area between their houses and the fairways will look like."

Unimpressed by the unruly native plants, for example, one homeowner recently sprayed a ten-foot swath parallel to his fence with Roundup, a potent herbicide. Nothing lived. Others have protested what they see as a cluttered, uncultivated -- i.e., wild --landscape.

"People are always calling and saying, 'Are you going to remove this dead tree or what?'" McCleary says. "We tell them, no, we're trying to keep this as natural as possible." (The local homeowners' water extravagance does contribute to Saddle Rock's lush look, though. What was once a dry streambed bisecting the golf course is now full of water. The entire flow comes from the runoff of nearby homeowner water use.)

To help get the message across, Saddle Rock keeps a paid "golf naturalist" on staff who also arranges birdwatching tours when the course is shut for scheduled maintenance. Participants usually get a good show. Recently, the course's recirculating wetlands have produced a growing number of redwing blackbirds, hawks and a family of owls. (If golfers slice a ball there, they're out of luck; signs warn that they may not stomp around looking for it.) The staff knows the number of birds is growing because a wildlife census was taken before the course was built. The course has been certified as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. Students at nearby Grandview High School use it for biology projects.

That isn't to say that Saddle Rock hasn't had to tweak here and there to try to accommodate the drought. In addition to reducing water use by about 15 percent across the board, carts are now required to follow the 90-degree rule. The golfer motors his cart along the path until he is even with his ball, then turns on a right angle and drives directly to it, thus stressing a minimal portion of the fairway's grass. Other fairways are closed to cart traffic altogether on a rotating basis.

Small chunks of land around each hole deemed unessential to play have been left completely unwatered. The once-lush gardens in front of the clubhouse are being converted from grass to xeriscaping. The driving range, a twenty-acre plot of previously irrigated lawn, has been taken off the water train, too.

It hasn't happened yet, but lest any golfer complain about the state of the target greens, McCleary has a solution waiting. He has already mixed up a light-green dye that he will use to "paint" the greens when their deprivation becomes obvious. "Sick, huh?" he says.


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