By James Brabenec, Fort SillSeptember 27, 2012
FORT SILL, Okla. -- Eighteen little undulating putting greens, like emerald jewels, adorn Fort Sill Golf Course, keeping them healthy year-round requires an annual five-step makeover with four specialized machines.
Mark Jung, Fort Sill Golf Course greens manager said bent grass, the turf of choice for golf greens, is a cool season turf, and anyone who knows Oklahoma summers realizes right away cool rarely describes this time of year. With most of the hot season over, this is a time for the maintenance staff to celebrate, even as they prepare the greens for next year's triple digit assault.
"Right now we made it through the summer with our greens, and we did a good job here," he said. "In this kind of heat, all this grass normally wants to do is lay down and die."
Most golfers might not realize there's far more to Fort Sill's putting greens than meets the eye. Jung said the greens were built to United States Golf Association specifications. During construction once each green takes shape, the top 16 inches of soil are scooped out. Into this depression, workers lay drain tile and 4 inches of gravel. The next 12 inches consists of 90 percent sand and 10 percent peat moss initially. The peat moss provides enough organic matter to help the bent grass to establish itself on the green. Over time, maintenance doesn't add organic matter, because the decaying turf and root structure provides an abundance of such material.
Despite this textbook foundation, the golf course maintenance staff completed their annual "emerald makeover" Sept. 17 and 18 turning the otherwise smooth pool table-like surface into uniform-holed Swiss cheese.
"The reason we top dress is to ensure our golfers have greens to putt on year round," said Jung. "If we didn't do this, we would have weak, dead turf throughout June, July and August."
The process begins by pulling a massive machine that looks like a gigantic rolling pin with hollow metal spikes uniformly sticking out of it across the green. These hollow spikes cut into the turf, through the root structure and decaying organic material and pull out 0.5-inch wide by 4-inch deep turf and soil plugs every 1.5 inches. These interspersed holes in the putting green speed up the process of breaking down organic matter. It also loosens up the soil, allows water to percolate through this material and oxygen to get in to the root structure. Together these improvements create optimal conditions for good turf growth.
At the aerator's controls, Ken Reese pulled the beast across the green like a seasoned maintenance pro, except his work experience at the course only dates back a couple weeks.
"Ken is a great example of the kind of workers we need at the golf course. He's a self-motivated person who I can turn loose, guide him along the way and give him what he needs to do his job," said Jung. "Today at 5 a.m. was the first time he ever saw the aerator, sure he would be nervous at first, but here it is two hours later and he has it down to an art form."
Dressed in a camouflage jacket, Brian Roberts blends into the golf course's natural environment even as his bright red utility vehicle provides an exclamatory contrast. Roberts pulls another big machine that on a dry day picks up all the debris the aerator leaves on the greens. Sept. 17, with its dense fog and high humidity was anything but ideal. Even so, his machine still picked up the majority of turf and dirt. Jung said under such conditions maintenance workers use snow shovels and rakes to clear off the green. This task goes to all hands from Jung himself on down.
Aerating greens not only gives golfers healthy and alive greens during the summer, the organic material lifted from the greens benefits the maintenance staff, too. The nutrient rich soil provides maintenance with great fill dirt, something they never have enough of and Jung said is like gold around here. Years ago Jung could buy top soil cheaply, but those days are gone. He estimated the organic material they extract from the greens could cost $300 - $400 were they to purchase it.
With a quarter century tending Sill's golf courses, Roberts is another of the maintenance workers Jung said he relies on to do what needs to be done without much direction or guidance. His appreciation for working in Fort Sill's extreme temperatures reinforces Jung's opinion that workers must enjoy working outside to work golf course maintenance.
"This is never just a job, and that's why I'm still here and why I do what I do," said Roberts. "At times it gets old, like on cold winter days or the oppressive dog days of summer, but I'm proud of where I work and what I do out here."
Perched atop the roller, Ira Rogers drives near straight lines back and forth across the green smoothing the surface. He said the roller is a bit tricky as he has to sit sideways when driving backward to keep from hurting his neck.
Rogers arrived at Fort Sill five years ago with a resumé filled with hard labor -- picking cotton 12 hours a day, working in a dairy 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
"This is the greatest job on earth, like being on vacation all the time," he said. "When you worked some hard jobs, you know when you have it made -- I'll never leave."
Rogers admitted working some of the machines scared him at first, because he didn't want to mess anything up. In time though, he grew comfortable with them and of course with the environment he daily works at.
With the rolling done, Rogers moves on to another green while Bill Wood follows with a sander that distributes a thick, even layer of sand onto the green. It is a close player to beach sand having been dredged from the Red River then sifted to meet USGA requirements. The sand's main purpose is to prevent soil compaction, which in turn helps water filter through and oxygen get down to the developing root structure.
The last step doesn't involve expensive machinery, but it is every bit as essential as the previous four. Dragging a fiber mat behind a maintenance vehicle spreads the dry sand and helps work it down into the aeration holes. Jung said ideally this sand will descend to where it's needed in about a week.
All told the maintenance staff puts in about one to two hours per green. With weather uncertain and golfers returning the following day, there's no time to wait for optimal weather conditions. Still, once all is done the results can be satisfying.
"The beauty of the job is after doing something you can see the results of what you did and get that sense of pride in doing a good job," said Jung.
Next summer when hot temperatures return and turn much of the Southwest Oklahoma landscape a dull brown, 18 green emeralds will remind Fort Sill golfers of fall work that enabled summer golf to continue here.