The sun has not even broken the horizon yet and already the whir of mowers and leaf blowers pierces the silence.
Miniature headlights illuminate the otherwise pitch-black on the North Course at Crestview Country Club at 5 a.m. Wednesday before the Air Capital Classic’s pro-am.
“When the schedule says 5, they’re usually here and gone by 4:45,” said greenskeeper Jacob Herrman, who was out changing pin locations Wednesday morning. “They’re out and going.”
Crestview’s greenskeepers have been busily preparing the course for play in the Air Capital Classic this week, but for greens superintendent Chad Stearns, it’s business as usual, he said.
“It takes a lot of work and hours to get it ready,” Stearns said. “Until you see it in person you won’t really understand. Even our membership doesn’t know what all we go through.”
While someone who is green to the greens might find it difficult even to locate the next tee box in the near-darkness, Crestview’s greenskeepers deftly maneuver the course. And they typically work in groups – it’s not uncommon to see a phalanx of headlights converging on an untrimmed green.
Greens mowers cut the grass down to 0.00001 of an inch, which is of “No. 1 importance,” Stearns said. No more and no less. They use hand mowers equipped with headlights to do the job, as opposed to the riding mowers typically used for other trim jobs.
“I like to put my headphones in and zone out, make it a masterpiece,” said greens mower Mike Allred, who was out of action Wednesday morning because of a swollen hand caused by a bug bite. “Making sure there are no abrasions on the green, no skips. It’s about taking pride in your work.”
Birds begin to chirp, and a few early-risers make their way to the driving range as dawn approaches, right when most of the Crestview greenskeepers are finishing their work.
When the tournament comes to town every summer, the 27 greenskeepers on staff work split shifts – from about 5 to 9 a.m., and then from 5 to 9 p.m. or so, Stearns said. Greenskeepers said they feel the added stress of the Air Capital Classic, part of the Web.com Tour.
“What we do normally, we’ve got to do better,” Herrman said. “You’ve just got to be on the ball. All the guys here are pretty good at what they do.”
The man who ensures the greens are cut precisely every morning is 25-year veteran mechanic Matt Everett. He sharpens the blades every morning on a “couple of high-dollar machines” in the back of his shop, he said.
If the greens are not properly maintained, he said “it causes all kinds of problems other than just being ugly.” Greens can become diseased if not cut and watered regularly, he said.
For him, the tournament – which begins Thursday and runs through Sunday – means slightly earlier mornings than usual, though he said he’s used to it by now.
“On a day like today, there’s no chance I’ll be able to get it all done in time,” Everett said. “But I’ll find a way.”
In addition to the greens, crews have to maintain the course’s rough. Crews stop cutting the rough on the Friday before the tournament starts, which makes for “some pretty gnarly rough out there for them,” Stearns said.
In 2008, Crestview crews switched grass types on the North Course greens, which at the time cost about $100,000, Stearns said. Crews fumigated the old Poa annua turfgrass greens and planted A1/A4 bentgrass greens. The benefit of the new grass: It fares much better in warm weather, he said.
“When we used to have the tournament in August, we would really struggle,” Stearns said.
“As far as temperatures go, it (the new tournament date) really couldn’t be a better month for us.”
Stearns said the club does not staff any new workers specifically for the Web.com Tour. The 26 workers he supervises are sufficient to get the job done, he said.
“If you’ve got guys coming in that aren’t familiar with your equipment and the golf course, it can make it a struggle,” Stearns said. “Probably at least half this staff has been here since at least the first tournament with me. There are a lot of veterans on this golf course.”
In addition to maintaining the North Course for the tournament, greenskeepers also have to make sure Crestview’s South Course is ready for daily play by members.
“It takes 27 of us to get it done,” Stearns said.
Tournament director Roy Turner has had a little bit of greenskeeping to do himself since last year’s tournament concluded. In the winter, Crestview constructed a new 18th-hole tee box for use specifically at the tournament, he said. The hole has been altered from an “easier par 5” to a “very hard par 4,” Turner said.
“It needed to be a more competitive hole,” Turner said. “It was a two-pronged thing. It also gave me more room to expand 17.”
Stearns said after hosting the tournament for 14 years, Crestview knows what the PGA wants and is prepared to deliver – even if that means blowing leaves and sticks at 5 a.m.
“There’s always something that comes up but the majority of it we’ve got under wraps,” Stearns said.