ASHEVILLE, N.C. – The pressure of preparing for a national championship under trying weather conditions can test any course maintenance staff. At Biltmore Forest Country Club, host site for the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship, they just stick with the system that they have employed for two decades.
Bill Samuels has been the superintendent at Biltmore Forest for 22 years, and for most of that time he has employed a section system for course maintenance. Seven full-time members of his staff each take complete responsibility for one segment of the golf course, with a few other staffers assigned to general property-wide tasks. Samuels believes that the system, which is employed by just a handful of courses in the Southeast, has allowed Biltmore Forest to trim maintenance costs by up to 30 percent and also do a better job of retaining employees.
“One guy has the first, ninth and 12th holes,” said Samuels. “Another one takes the driving range, the practice putting green and one hole on the course. Another handles 2, 15 and 18. Especially with the first few holes, you want different people responsible because the golfers come out quickly in the morning. We also tried to make it so each one had an equal number of bunkers.
“Here is what I found out; if you send two people out to rake the bunkers in the morning, and you find that a bunker’s not raked, they would each blame the other one,” said Samuels. “Here, each individual has his own cart, his own tee mower, green mower, blower, trimmers, etc. No one else uses it, so there’s responsibility and accountability.”
Samuels, who came to Biltmore Forest from Champions Golf Club in Lexington, Ky., began working on ways to improve maintenance efficiency in 1993, and he found that staff morale improved and maintenance costs could be reined in.
“Let’s say you have two guys, and all they’re doing is weeding creek banks,” said Samuels. “Well, a month later, they’re going to quit. These guys have tasks to do, but they also have a little flexibility in how they do them. They don’t get burned out.”
Samuels estimated that most of his staff of 14 full-time employees has been there for at least 15 years.
“After a short amount of time here, I could see the organization and the pride of ownership the guys take in it,” said Mike Sprouse, who has been Samuels’ assistant for six years, having come to Biltmore Forest from the Cliffs Communities. “And they have to take responsibility, because there’s nowhere to hide.”
“They’re never looking for me,” said Samuels. “There’s never anybody sitting in the shop waiting for me to ask what they should do next. I see other courses with 25 employees, and I believe we get the same amount of work done with 14.
“We’re a country club, not a golf club,” added Samuels. “We put a lot of resources here into tennis, the pool and this beautiful clubhouse. We have a tighter budget than some, but we think our product is as good as anyone’s.”
The course was hit with 2 inches of rain Sunday night into Monday morning, but play was delayed for just a short time.
“We’ve had a lot of practice with that,” said Sprouse. “This year, Asheville is going to set an all-time record for rainfall.” The record is 64 inches, set in the 1940s, and the 2013 total is already more than 60 inches with 2½ months remaining.
Samuels said that the run-up to the Women’s Mid-Amateur was not unusually stressful for his staff. Biltmore Forest hosts the prestigious Jess Sweetser Memorial in late May every year, and other than being prepared to work in non-daylight hours, the routine has been pretty comparable.
“It’s like company coming to your house,” said Samuels. “We take a lot of pride in our course. I think the players have enjoyed the challenge.”
Volunteer Finds A Summer Gig
Tipton “Tip” Ray of nearby Fairview, N.C., joined the volunteer crew for this week’s championship and found it similar in some ways to his other volunteer role, for biathlon championships in Maine, in the dead of winter.
Biathlon is a winter sport that combines cross-country skiing with rifle shooting, and Ray’s son, Evan, was at one time skilled enough that he made the U.S. Junior Team.
“He competed in his high school years and did well in the Scandinavian Games over in Sweden,” said Ray. “He competed for the U.S. in Italy in 2002. But as he was preparing for college, he decided he didn’t want to have to focus on training for 10 or 11 months a year; he wanted a traditional college experience.”
Ray, 61, became involved in the sport when his son competed, and is an official for the International Biathlon Union, which organizes competitions around the world. There are two sites in Utah (one in Heber, and one at Soldier Hollow, site of the 2002 Winter Olympics biathlon event and the 2012 U.S. Public Links Championship) and two in Maine (Fort Kent and Presque Isle) that host competitions.
“Just like here at Biltmore Forest, the communities that host the events have associations that come together and perform volunteer work when they host national and world competitions,” said Ray. “Because of my background and experience with the Olympics and various World Cups, I am able to travel up to Maine and help out and apply my skills. They’re happy to import people because they can’t do it all on their own.”
Ray will be in Presque Isle, Me., next February for the world junior championships.
“Just like the rough here needs to be set up a certain way, they have to groom the race course to specific standards,” said Ray. “They have guidelines to make sure the course is comparable, whether it’s in Austria, Norway or Salt Lake City.”
Ray’s son was thrilled to be selected to help groom the course at Soldier Hollow before the competition in the 2002 Winter Games, while Ray worked the Games as an official.
“I have played just about every role – during the Olympics I was in pre-timing,” he said. “The competitors will wear a chip on their ankles so they can be clocked at various checkpoints, but you need backup timers in case there is an issue. Or perhaps I’ll work at the finish to make sure that their rifles are cleared of any live cartridges.”
This week at Biltmore Forest, Ray is helping with crowd control – no ski parka or ammunition checks required.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.