Americans At Work: Golf Course Superintendent Sweats To Beat Par

* Months ago another writer and I teamed to syndicate a jobs column called Americans At Work. At least we tried. The project never got off the ground and the  endeavor folded. But some interesting stories came out of it. From time to time I’ll post the jobs we highlighted. Hope this helps someone.

By Rick Rogers
Americans at Work

It’s not yet 9 a.m. and already sweat dapples David L’Italien’s shirt as the golf course superintendent studies the verdant 17th fairway of the North Course at Forest Creek Golf Club in Pinehurst, N.C.

The immaculate par four slopes gracefully toward a water hazard.  On the far side, attractive grasses collar a shallow sand trap that, so far this morning, is unblemished by footfalls or errant balls.

The setting, or “canvas” as L’Italien calls it, is pristine, natural and in harmony with the surrounding pine barren.  It’s relaxing to gaze upon — unless your job is to keep it that way.

L’Italien knows every bush, flower and expanse of grass on the 7,300-yard, Tom Fazio-designed course and he knows their needs.  He tends them carefully with a crew of seven fulltime workers and half a dozen part-timers.

That bunker over there?  The sand is fluffy now but it washes out freely in a bad storm.  The ornamental grasses around the bunkers are weeping lovegrass, brought to America a century ago from East Africa, and  native wiregrass.  Both need regular pruning.

On the all-important green is bentgrass, which wasn’t meant to survive North Carolina summers.  The green can be lost in an hour on a hot summer afternoon if not kept sufficiently moist.  Or it might fall victim to Pythium, a type of root rot.

L’Italien oversees everything needed to keep the course in shape.

“Most of our job is dictated from Mother Nature so it’s very unpredictable,” he explained.

Besides flora and fauna, there are discriminating club members to consider in this gated community set amid 1,265 acres of pine forest.  Let fairways grow too long and drives lose yardage.  Cut them too short and hooks run unexpectedly roll into woods or water.  He’ll hear about that, too.

L’Italien grew up on a golf course.  After a hitch in the Navy and stints managing hotels, he embraced the profession he now loves.  He began at a Virginia Beach golf course where he cut grass and raked bunkers.

In 1995 he visited Pinehurst, the buckle of the U.S. Golf Belt, and decided to stay.  Since 1996 he has been working at Forest Creek under his mentor, Bill Patton, general manager of Forest Creek, the club and its two prestigious courses.

L’Italien has been North Course superintendent for three years.  His work schedule varies by season.  Spring and summer he works 12 days on, two days off, and roams the course from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Though circumspect about his salary, he said top-end pay for a superintendent can exceed $100,000.  The average, however, is $50,000 to $60,000.   It was higher a few years back but golf, said L’Italien, is a luxury sport.  It draws fewer players when the economy sours.

Still, perks are good. He gets three weeks vacation, health insurance and a 401K plan with employer matching.  Also, L’Italien cannot remember the last time he had to pay for a round of golf anywhere in the area, given the professional courtesy that superintendents share.

“I love the game,” said L’Italien, who has a 10 handicap.

The days when a lawnmower operator, on hard work alone, could work his way up to greens keeper have gone the way of persimmon drivers.  L’Italien graduated from Sand Hills Community College with a two-year degree in horticulture and turf management.

L’Italien quips that he’s just a “glorified grass farmer.”  In truth the 44-year-old is both manager and botanist for the course and part public relations man and part educator for its members.  He always takes time to explain what’s being done to, and for, their beloved course.

A good superintendent, L’Italien said, is attentive to the weather and to changes on the course.  He treats his crew well.  And he doesn’t “shoot himself in the foot” by taking some action, like applying an unfamiliar fertilizer or a new herbicide, that can’t be corrected.

L’Italien recalls being shown Forest Creek’s South Course years ago and finding every hole beautifully tended, landscaped and inviting to his golfer’s eye.  “That’s what we strive for,” he said.  That’s his canvas.

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