Grass is greener on this side

Superintendent, staff make sure golf course is ready

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— A small group of golfers will stroll down the fairway of the No. 1 hole at the Steamboat Golf Club on Friday, marking the start of a new season here in the Rockies.

They will give little thought to the details that went into making sure there was green grass growing beneath their spiked shoes, or smooth greens to the target of their approach shots.

They simply will be filled with the joy that comes from playing the game.

"There are a few, but most golfers probably don't understand what goes into getting the golf course open," said Chuck Baker, a member of the board at the Steamboat Golf Club and avid golfer.

"They think the snow melts away, so lets go play golf."

For the past 17 years, the job of thinking -- and often worrying -- about the details of opening has fallen on the shoulders of the course superintendent, Tom Houk.

"I plow snow for three months in the winter to make money, but I'm always thinking about this place," Houk said. "I just can't help myself."

This year, he arrived at the course during the first week of March. The lush green fairways, perfectly trimmed greens and inviting tee boxes laid hidden under 40 inches of snow.

It took a snowplow to clear a path to the maintenance building so that Houk and mechanic Carl Bolton could begin the long and challenging process of bringing the course back to life.

"The first few weeks, we spend a lot of time getting the equipment ready to go," Houk said. "It's a pretty major job since we are not staffed on a year-round basis."

Houk said that during those early days, when he arrived at the course to change oil in machines or sharpen mowing reels, he might bump into a few people at the course -- but they normally were wearing cross county skis instead of carrying golf bags.

Over the past seven weeks, however, things have changed.

The skiers are gone, the staff has increased in size and the course has slowly come to life.

An experienced staff used years of experience, a wealth of knowledge and a little extra elbow grease to gently pull the Steamboat Golf Club out of hibernation and usher in a new season.

Houk said the huge job, which included blowing snow off the greens and tee boxes in an effort to eliminate snow mold, raking the dead grass away from the fairways to allow new growth, and sweeping the greens to reduce the impact of earthworms and voles, has shrunk. In past weeks the course's irrigation system was brought online, the last piles of snow were shoveled from shaded areas to melt, and the long list of other details were completed in an effort to open the season as soon as possible.

That season is expected (baring any major weather event) to begin Friday when the first foursome begins its trek around the course's nine holes.

Houk said it really doesn't matter if the golfer realizes all the work that has been done.

He said it is easy to see the golfers appreciation plastered across their faces -- at least when they tee off for the first time.

"They are always smiling when they leave because they are so excited to get out there," Houk said. "They may not have that same happy face when they get done, but most of them are thrilled to be playing."

Despite last year's dry summer stretch, Houk said the course came through the winter in pretty good shape. Opening day is always a big one for Steamboat's oldest golf club and he likes to make sure everything looks as good as possible.

"It's a big day for us," Baker said. "Everybody has been sitting all winter long and they are antsy to get going."

Baker said for the past several weeks, local golfers have been traveling to places such as Rifle, Meeker and Craig just to play. Most of those golfers are tired of the drive and just want to pick up the driver here in Steamboat, Baker said.

The 55-acre, nine-hole course was first opened in 1964 by a group of local investors who wanted to see golf in the valley. The semi-private club grew to nearly 200 members, before the city of Steamboat Springs opened Haymaker a few years back.

Houk said the club lost some of its membership to the new 18-hole public course on the other side of town, but the number of golfers who use the course west of town has stabilized since.

Now he believes the addition of Haymaker actually has benefited the Steamboat Golf Club by drawing more golfers to the valley who are looking for more than just one course to play.

More than 60 percent of the golfers who play the Steamboat Golf Club during the summer are from out-of-town.

The Steamboat Golf Club opens for the 2003 season at 11 a.m. Friday.

-- To reach John F. Russell call 871-4209

or e-mail jrussell@steamboatpilot.com

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