"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” is a line you likely recall from the first scary movie you saw as a kid. OK, it’s not technically in the horror genre, but “The Wizard of Oz” is strange enough to be thought of that way; just think of the wicked witch. That’s enough — now focus on the wizard himself, not as ruler of the Emerald City, but as this mysterious fellow, mostly unseen, pulling levers, making Oz run.
The man behind the curtain turned out to be the title character, of course. In golf terms, the course superintendent is a wizard of sorts. You rarely see him, and you surely don’t give him much of a thought.
When you check in for a round in the clubhouse, your local golf professional is the face of golf to you. But, the guy — and, it’s almost always a male — in charge of bringing you the verdant panoramas of tightly mowed fairways and well-manicured greens is arguably the most important person in the game.
The superintendent is king of providing golfers with the scenery they seek when they come to the golf course. All those mental pictures that carry you through winter are made up of your glory days of golf shots on a lush, green palate. Without your golf course superintendent tending to the details, your dreams would come to you in black and white, not in living color.
These behind-the-scenes workhorses bring us the best of summer. In fact, that should be their credo: “Summer — brought to you by your Golf Course Superintendent.”
Mark Scherer is superintendent for the Springfield Park District. He’s been on the job here for a couple of decades having grown up around the game with a father who was a golf professional. Taking care of a golf course is more than a paycheck to him.
“It’s not work; it’s play,” he says. “I just love it. I come in on my days off. It gets in your blood. What else are you going to do?”
The passion is obviously still there for him, and his knowledge and experience make him a walking greenskeeper’s encyclopedia. And, he doesn’t mind that his profession is largely low profile.
“The pros get all the glory, and they get all the complaints, too,” he says. “I tell players, ‘If you’ve got a complaint, tell the pro, and if you’ve got a compliment, tell me.’ ”
With all the advances in technology that he’s seen, one of his most favored practices is low tech; scouting the course in the gray light of dawn on foot. It’s a tool he was taught way back in his first job at Country Club of Decatur.
“The dew tells you the whole story,” he says.
And, the color of the dew will tell you even more. For instance, on hot summer days, “those 90-90 days,” he calls them, referring to the temperature and humidity, if the dew is a certain shade of color, you’ve got serious trouble.
“Purple or gray dew on hot mornings is a bad sign that the grass is suffering, and you could lose it in a day,” Scherer says.
And, what if there’s no dew at all? Is that bad? Not necessarily: “An all-night breeze will take away the dew,” he says pragmatically.
Scherer also looks to the birds and animals for signs that the course is under duress. If he sees birds pecking around for cutworms or grub worms, he knows he’s got a bug problem to look into. Same thing if raccoons and skunks start working an area in the fall.
“You’re looking for different signs for what might be a problem in the next day or two,” he says.
This attitude of dedication and caring makes it no surprise that the Golf Course Superintendent’s Association of America describes its members, Scherer and his brothers and sisters, as key components “to the enjoyment of the game.”
The association also honors its members for their “persistent pursuit of excellence … (as they meet) the continual challenges posed by nature, economics and the game of golf.”
Technology has seen staffs get smaller over the years, too. For instance, aerification of the greens used to take 10-12 guys a full day to do nine holes. With the new equipment, the same job is done by three or four crew members in about five hours.
As for pet peeves, he wishes for better etiquette, specifically with golf carts.
“The biggest thing is not using the cart path properly — going into areas where they aren’t supposed to be and getting too close to the greens and tees,” he says. “They don’t play enough and don’t know. The early groups know. They’re here every day; they take care of the course.”
But, how often do you give a thought to your superintendent when you’re playing golf? Almost never is the answer. Maybe once a season, you’ll hear a player, impressed with speedy greens say how good the superintendent must be.
How about divots, pitch marks and bunkers, do you tend to them dutifully with the fervor of a golf zealot? It should be an act akin to religion. The superintendent who caught you doing such good deeds might stop and bow in respect.
They do know more than just mowing and growing grass, but that’s job-1. Imagine your own yard being a couple of hundred acres to tend with critics of your work coming and going all day.
Scherer’s favorite parts of the job remain the simple ones, like hanging with Buster the dog in those wee hours on the dew-swept fairways. Buster, part Aussie and part German shepherd, was found after the 2006 tornadoes; they are constant companions.
“Buster has never missed a day of work; he’s a park district employee, too,” Scherer says. “His job is to keep the geese in the water and off the greens.”
That’s not the whole of it: Scherer still loves being up before the sun comes up and then watching it rise and “walking the course and checking the dew.”
Not a bad gig — getting paid to watch grass grow.
Story published Friday, May 7, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 3 )