Happy in Purgatory

By Don Dale
Superintendent Magazine March, 2006
Superintendent James Brown flies around Purgatory Golf Club in Noblesville, Ind., at about 30 miles per hour in a golf cart, hunched over the wheel like a man on a mission. From the way he jets from hole to hole, you would think he was maintaining the course all by himself.

On a course that claims to be “the longest non-mountain par-72 in the world,” with more design features than a computer motherboard, Brown gets by with just 12 full-time staff. A high-end resort course in California couldn’t get the clubhouse lawns mowed with that crew.

Its 18 holes cover 218 acres, with 110 acres of playable area and 40 acres of fairways. It tees up at 7,754 yards from the red tees, but some holes have up to eight tees-there are six acres of them. There are four lakes and five kinds of turf. One hole, the diabolical 12th, is a par-three of 235 yards from the back tee, and several holes have six or eight bunkers.

“We’ve got 133 bunkers,” Brown adds. One might imagine him cackling and rubbing his hands in glee as golfers confront this elaborate course north of Indianapolis. The 17th hole, which can be played as short as 65 yards, is surrounded by what the course’s Web site describes as “a sea of bunkers” and is nicknamed Hell’s Half Acre.

Yet, he maintains that Purgatory is actually designed to not drive customers crazy. Its many tees give every golfer a fair shot at having a successful outing, only two holes require a golfer to carry water and the bunkers are designed to provide playable lies. When played from the front tees, it’s the shortest course in Indiana, at 4,400 yards. When played from the back tees, it’s the longest. The course’s name is not meant to be literal.

“They wanted a course that was challenging,” Brown says of owner Mike Merchant and architect Ron Kern, “a high-end course that was like nothing else that was out there.”

With that comes a great deal of management complexity, and Brown and his crew have to hustle to maintain the entire facility, including its extensive teaching area with practice tees and greens. They do so through a blend of hard work and loose camaraderie, which might sound contradictory-but Brown manages to pull it off.

“I have an excellent crew,” he points out, and he is a hands-on super, often seen on a mower of digging up an irrigation pipe.

Brown has had a lot of golf course experience, having been a construction superintendent on several courses in Indianapolis for Wadsworth Construction. His first career was in advertising until he saw how much fun it was to be outdoors on a golf course, whereupon he went back to school at Purdue and got a degree in agronomy.

A business background might not seem to fit a guy whose unshaven mug and windblown hair are his trademarks, but Brown is an astute and down-to-earth crew manager. He likes the blue-collar approach. He says he respects other superintendents who get the job done with clean shirts and pressed slacks, but he likes to dive in and get his hands dirty.

“Most of my job is getting the right guy to do the right job at the right time,” Brown says, and he’s found that the crew will do anything if they see him working, too. His approach is all carrot and no stick. “I never raise my voice,” he says. “We’re laughing all day. If I have to raise my voice, I’m dead in the water.”

Part of his success is in picking the right people for the crew, then giving them a few days of working with him or his capable assistant, Larry Wilk, as well as a foreman. Then, he leaves them to their work, allowing them the initiative to figure out better ways of doing their jobs. He gets a lot of innovative ideas this way.

With this kind of attitude from the boss, many of his staff been here since Brown supervised the construction of the course; it opened five years ago. Some of his crew followed him here from other Indianapolis courses.
It’s odd that Brown seems so easy-going, because what he trains his crews to do is achieve perfection on what has been called by various golfing and business magazines “one of the 50 best courses for women,” “one of the best values under $70” and “one of the top 25 golf courses in the Midwest.”

That calls for a sense of pride in a crew. One of Brown’s tricks is to find out what every worker does best and have him specialize in that, yet also make sure that everybody is able to do every job. Furthermore, he instills in them the initiative to be self-motivated around the course.

“Sometimes I’ll say, ‘What do we need to do?” Instead of starting off the day by ordering experienced crews, he will ask what task remains to be done or even what job does each man want to do that day.

Brown figures that repetition leads to skills, but it can also lead to boredom. So, he varies jobs and allows people to select jobs that are different from their usual. The feedback he gets is that this makes work more enjoyable and gives the course a crew of workers that can do a wide variety of jobs.

This sense of pride is what gives Brown an edge. He knows that nobody on his crew is going to continue running a machine that has lost a hose and is spewing hydraulic fluid. He knows that a piece of trash will get swept if it gets dirty and he won’t have to say a thing.

“It’s a lot of fun teaching somebody how to do something right,” he says. His other emphasis is safety, because he doesn’t want anybody injured on his course.

Brown also takes a personal approach to each employee. Getting to know each man personally enables him to discover how to get the best out of him, and he thinks that’s the way to create good morale in a crew.

“Who do you work harder for: somebody who’s your boss or somebody you like?” he asks. At work, he will buy lunch or a little present. Outside of work, he often will help them buy a car (he’s even cosigned loans) or find weekend jobs that help them make up their incomes.

He also likes to take members of his crew to play golf on other courses. By trading favors with other superintendents, Brown can get his staff onto other courses they might not be able to afford otherwise, often by taking a Friday afternoon off. This helps boost morale, but it also allows them to see how other top courses are run and gives them ideas they can use on the job.

“It’s all about respect,” he notes. Cultivating camaraderie is important, but it’s also important that it be genuine. Most of his workers are Mexican, and he goes out of his way to learn Spanish and their values. He can communicate almost all golf course needs in Spanish, and he’s even gone to Mexico in the winter to visit them in their hometowns.

As a result, Brown says, his golf course runs like clockwork. “They’re happy to be here,” he says, and he gets a great return from the mutual respect. An example is weekend work, necessitated by the huge course and small staff. Anybody asked to work a few hours on Saturday or Sunday will do so more willingly if the rest of the workweek is happier (they also get Friday afternoon off).

On the other hand, he acknowledges that he will also be quick to let a crewmember know if something hasn’t been done properly. That’s part of the training process. He’s always striving for perfection.
Good morale or not, Brown’s crew still has to handle the workload. They do it through efficiency and organization. Take the mowing load, for example-and it is a load, with Pro Cup bentgrass fairways. Kentucky bluegrass on the primary cut around the fairways. Pennlinks greens and Penncross tees, as well as a wild blend of three tall fescues in the rough.

First, everybody knows the schedule-greens are mowed every day and fairways every other day, for example-and everybody knows his job and cooperates. They start at 4:30 a.m., in the dark, so they will be gone by the first tee time. They only pick up clippings if they have the time and manpower.

Those six acres of tees (over 100 of them require everybody’s best effort). One man precedes the mowing crew, pulling tee markers and fills divots with a sand/seed/organic fertilizer mixture. Three men can mow all tees in a morning-and, of course, Brown will help out.

Those 133 bunkers are a similar maintenance tasks. Brown has two part-time workers in the summer, and one of them is assigned to keep them raked with a Toro Sand Pro and a hand rake. He’s selected because he has the patience to do that job and no other. He loves his bunkers.

Edging bunkers is the real challenge. Brown assigns eight men to do his job on occasion, and they will work on it off and on over a period of weeks-then, start over. This is facilitated by not having to mow the tall fescue that overhangs them after Memorial Day.

“We’re invested in the bunkers, and that’s part of the deal,” Brown says simply. When you have a signature part of your course that requires extra work, you just do the work. It is lessened by the fact that the crushed limestone drains will and is underlain by drainage pipe that averts any standing water.

The jobs are endless on a course like this-treating dollar spot on the fairways with fugicides is a big challenge in itself for about five months of the year, and irrigation control requires constant monitoring. However, his crew always gets the job done.

All of this is greatly facilitated by his assistant. Wilk, a former superintendent, is just as qualified as Brown to make decisions. He also handles the chemical treatments and can do any job on the course.
“It’s more of a collaborative effort” than a superintendent/assistant relationship, Brown says. Wilk also did most of the seeding of the course during grown-in.

In short, Purgatory is long. Selecting, training and carefully earning the respect of his small crew allows Brown to make it a top-end course, with an appropriate reputation around the nation. The superintendent is content that he has done the right thing by his crew at the time.

“Other guys have problems at work,” he summarizes. “I don’t have problems at work.”