Golf course superintendents in isolated locales from Maine to Alaska face problems most others in the business don’t. But they’re up for the challenges.
Salmon, Idaho, is one of the most isolated communities in the lower 48. It’s located at the base of the Bitterroot Mountains, 20 miles from the Montana border and approximately 160 miles from Butte, Mont., and Idaho Falls, Idaho. The population is just over 3,100.
It’s here that Josh Tolman chose to be a golf course superintendent, overseeing the nine-hole Salmon Valley Golf Course. He is also the only year-round, full-time member of the maintenance staff.
Tolman and other superintendents in isolated locales from Maine to Alaska and Nebraska face problems most others in the business don’t. Parts aren’t an hour away from delivery, the potential employee pool is shallow and at times the talent is thin.
“The greens mower was down for three days before I could get parts,” Tolman says, recounting one of his most trying episodes. “The green didn’t get mowed. I rolled if for three days and waited for it to get fixed.”
A Salmon native, Tolman, 36, returned 13 years ago for the job as superintendent. He has some knowledge of agronomy after taking classes at Utah State geared toward lawn and landscaping.
Salmon was built on logging and mining, but only a small bit of mining remains. Tolman said Salmon is becoming a retirement community and is already a tourist destination, thanks in part to the Sacajawea Interpretive, Cultural, Educational & Events Center. Sacajawea, a Lemhi-Shoshone woman who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their exploration of what became the western United States, was born near the town.
During the golf season, which runs from the middle of March to the end of October, two seasonal employees, one part time, the other full time, join the staff. The nine-hole course hosts about 13,000 rounds a year.
Tolman was fortunate to have quality workers this season, but that’s not always the case. He says that a few years ago the town lost perhaps 50 percent of its workforce to oil fields in North Dakota, where high fuel prices spurred a resurgence in drilling.
“That’s the biggest challenge, finding reliable help that can work seasonal,” he says. “I’ve had a couple of years where the employees weren’t so good.”
Reliability is also the reason Tolman has a favorite equipment brand.
“I run Toro because they’re about the only one I can get to come up here,” he adds.
Tolman, though, doesn’t get to buy new machinery very often.
“I hit the used market pretty hard and beg, borrow and steal,” he says.
Sometimes the borrowing is done from the town, since the park and rec maintenance building is located next to the golf course. There are no nearby courses to aid his cause. The closest nine-hole layout is 65 miles away, and the closest 18-hole course is a 100-mile trip.
The Salmon area is classified as high desert, but the town is in a bit of a valley and averages 8 inches of rain a year.
The course opened in 1979, and the greens are Penncross bentgrass with some Poa, tees are a bluegrass-ryegrass mix, while the fairways are “a combination of junk,” according to Tolman. He’s in the midst of converting the fairways to bluegrass.
Tolman said being active in the Idaho Golf Course Superintendents Association (IGCSA) is critical because of his isolated location, and also because it’s the only way for him to continue his education. He would have to pay his way to attend the national conference. Tolman is the immediate past president of the IGCSA.
“That’s one thing I’ve focused on and made a priority,” he says. “If I don’t go to meetings, I don’t see other supers.”
Seeing and knowing his peers is a significant advantage when a problem arises.
“I can call someone up and ask him, ‘What works for you?’ ” he notes.
IN THE UPPER REACHES of north-central Nebraska is the town of Valentine, with a population of just under 3,000. Take Merritt Dam Road heading southwest for 20 miles into the Sandhills region and there you will find The Prairie Club with its two 18-hole courses and the short 10-hole Horse Course. Brandon Arens, 25, is the superintendent of the property. He first journeyed to the site for an internship in 2010 without a place to live.
“I had some numbers to call, friends of friends,” he recounts of looking for a place to live.
Now that he’s in charge of the course, getting workers is his chief concern – much like most other far-removed courses.
“The biggest struggle is labor, finding guys for this big of a golf course,” he adds.
Much of the staff comes through the H-2B nonimmigrant visa program. Even though most of the crew members return every year, there are still complications. This season, for instance, a government holdup prevented his staff from getting to Nebraska until May 16, three weeks later than the target date and the same day The Prairie Club opened for the season.
Unlike others who are far from a distributor, Arens doesn’t have the same concerns since he has two-plus courses worth of iron.
“I’m fortunate to have quite a bit of equipment. If something goes down, we can change our schedule. I try to have one extra of everything,” he states, adding, “A good mechanic is key.”
When it comes to his irrigation system, though, a mechanical failure is a grave concern. “It’s more of an emergency if a clock or a satellite goes down,” Arens says.
The two closest golf courses, Ainesworth Municipal and Sand Hills Golf Club, are 60 miles away. According to Arens, a nine-hole course in Valentine closed this season.
Arens says his relationship is solid enough with the existing clubs that in a bind he can borrow equipment from them.
The other predicament that can occur at The Prairie Club is the emergence of an unexpected pathogen. Arens tries to keep all the necessary chemicals in stock while also working within his budget. It’s a tentative balance.
“If I have a fungus working and the chemical is not on hand, we’re out of luck,” he says.
Although he and his wife grew up in Nebraska, they don’t come from such an outlying location.
“You’re just so far from something big. It’s definitely been an adjustment for my wife,” Arens says. The nearest big city is a drive of up to three and a half hours. “When you do get a day off, you go to Rapid City, S.D., to go shopping or go out to eat and make a weekend of it.”
What appeals to Arens about working in such a remote location is the same thing that inspires golfers to make the long journey to get there. The peace and quiet.
“They get the same feeling. That’s why they come here,” Arens says. “It’s just you, your buddies and a golf course.”
AT PALMER GOLF COURSE in Palmer, Alaska, Superintendent Dirk Sture isn’t that isolated, but he does have a concern most of his brethren in the other 49 states don’t: The nearby Knik Glacier causes his most significant problem. The relentless grinding of ice upon rock results in a fine dust that ends up in the Matanuska River, which passes near the 18-hole layout.
When the water level drops to reveal the riverbed, the winds common to the area whip the silt onto the layout so much that in winter the snowdrifts turn brown.
As for the turf, the silt is not much of a concern on the rough and fairways.
“It’s almost like a fertilizer,” Sture says.
On greens, however, the particles can kill grass as it packs together and forms an impenetrable layer. When it’s at its worst, Sture can assign two of his crew to spend an eight-hour shift blowing off putting surfaces. He also employs repeated aeration with .25-inch solid tines to counter the dust that remains. “Once a month just to break that surface,” he notes.
Sture employes about 10 seasonal workers, mostly young men. He is the only salaried employee.
Palmer is the first and only course on which Sture has ever worked.
“I’m not into a lot of schooling, I’m more hands-on,” he states. “I know what works and what doesn’t.”
If he does run into turf or equipment issues, Palmer isn’t the only course around. In town is the nine-hole, mom-and-pop Fishhook Golf Course. Seventeen miles away is Settlers Bay Golf Course in Wasilla (home of Sarah Palin). The superintendents at those courses and Sture have a good relationship.
“There aren’t many golf courses around, so we’re not cutthroat,” Sture says.
Anchorage is 45 miles down the road, so most parts that Sture needs can be delivered to his course in two days, unless, of course, there’s a winter storm.
“Freight is the big thing,” he adds.
As an example, he located a used sprayer in Ohio that was selling for $9,500. The shipping would cost an additional $4,000, since the rig would have to be sent up by barge from Seattle.
“Every course has its issues,” Sture says. “This is what we deal with: dirt, wind and silt. There aren’t many problems in the ground.”
AT THE NINE-HOLE Fort Kent Golf Club in Fort Kent, Maine, Darold Bossie has his own challenges, such as the fact that hardly any of his players walk the course. The result is 125 member-owned golf carts, which necessitated wall-to-wall cart paths.
Also, because the season is short, May 1 to Oct. 15 on average, the membership doesn’t want Bossie aerating with hollow tines – ever. He gets material into the push-up greens another way, four times a week.
“We fill the [old] cup holes with bunker sand,” he says.
Golf course superintendents who work in remote locations face a variety of challenges:
- It’s not easy finding good labor. The labor pool is shallow, and the talent is often thin.
- With tight budgets, superintendents often have to improvise to get things done.
- If a piece of equipment breaks down, replacement parts can take several days to get to the course.
- Living in a remote location isn’t easy, because there’s not much around.
Also, for 15 years, Bossie has used wetting agents on his greens. He rigged a swimming pool chlorinator that injects the surfactant into his irrigation system.
Bossie, 61, has been at Fort Kent for 25 years. The town is the northernmost on Interstate 95. On the other side of the St. John River is Canada. When he arrived at the golf course, Bossie said he knew nothing about turf, which was not that bad since the layout didn’t look much like a golf course. Everything but the greens was cut with a gang mower, Bossie said. With barely a tree or a bunker on the property, players had nothing to fear.
“They just whacked the ball out of site,” he says.
In the ensuing years, Bossie built greens, turfing them with washed sod from Rhode Island; constructed tees using rocks from stone walls; and after the first fabric lining in the bunkers failed, he went to the local paper mill and came back with a synthetic canvas that Bossie says is akin to the popular bunker liners now used. They worked wonders. He also planted trees.
Parts aren’t extremely difficult to get, Bossie says, noting it takes two days most of the time. Sometimes, though, he takes a different route.
“You can make a lot of stuff, too,” says Bossie, who fabricates pieces when he can. “It was made by somebody. You can make it better.”
Bossie’s crew is comprised mostly of “old-timers” who return every season. Bossie has two seasonal full-time and two seasonal part-time staff, each of them is assigned the same job throughout the year, and they know exactly what’s expected of them.
“I’m not putting out fires everyday,” he says. In the off-season, Bossie works at a nearby ski area.
During golf season, he makes sure to take one day off a week.
“It gets you to back up and look at what you are doing,” he notes.
That day of rest is usually spent fishing for salmon and trout on Eagle Lake with his father, who’s 86. Their preferred method of enticement is plugs.
“We always catch our limit, ” he says.