(06-17) 04:00 PDT Pebble Beach – —
It is 4 a.m. inside the groundskeeper tent at the 10th hole. Time for golf course superintendent Chris Dalhamer to unleash his forces into the marine-layered darkness of night.
“We’re almost like an army,” Dalhamer said. “Going in waves.”
More than 100 groundskeepers – 36 employees, the rest volunteers – swarm the 100 hallowed acres of Pebble Beach Golf Links in a predawn raid, getting the course ready for play in the U.S. Open.
They come armed with rakes and leaf blowers, rotors and dew whips, and water hoses to spare. They’re flanked by a rolling line of motorized lawn mowers and equipment carts with just enough headlight voltage to keep everyone from driving off a cliff.
Their daily mission: cut down every blade of overgrown grass, rake every grain of sand into place, scoop up every divot and water every spot just so, all to the exacting standards of the United States Golf Association.
Fans don’t know these workers in blue, but they are why this 18-hole lawn is deemed the most magnificently horticultured piece of beachfront property in all of golf.
Hector Mejia is a full-time greenskeeper. He gets paid year-round to work the Pebble Beach course.
OK, maybe work is too strong a verb, as Mejia was told on Take Your Family to Work Day.
“My daughter and wife came here and wanted to see what I do,” Mejia said. “My wife got all mad. ‘This is what you do? You don’t do nothing!’ ”
What is his wife, Yolanda, calling nothing? Those holes don’t dig themselves, you know.
That job belongs to her husband, who admits it is more labor of love than hard labor – and he would know the difference.
His family moved from Michoacan, Mexico, to Salinas when he was 4 years old. Mejia worked the fields of Salinas Valley, loading celery boxes and plucking strawberries, broccoli and cauliflower from the soil.
Mejia was working the late-night counter at a Cork ‘N Bottle liquor store in Salinas when a friend told him about a maintenance opening here 15 years ago.
“I never thought I would work at a golf course like this,” Mejia said. “I used to help my nephew with his landscaping business, but I didn’t really like it. I tell my wife, ‘Look at where I end up – doing the same thing, something that I didn’t like.’
“This is totally different, though.”
Mejia puts his back into it a tad as he takes a pogo-stick-looking apparatus to an X-marked spot on the 3rd green. He twists his shoulders some and gives the cup a little stomp into the ground.
Indeed, there’s nothing back-breaking about his role on a permanent crew of 30-plus groundskeepers. His parents couldn’t have hoped for anything more, even if they don’t quite understand what he does for a living to this day.
“In Mexico, it’s soccer, no golf,” Mejia said. “My parents never golfed. They don’t really know about all this.”
The cross-country temp
Carmel Beach is somewhere out there, Robert Jones just knows it. He smells the salt water. He hears the crashing waves.
Visual confirmation would have to wait another half-hour. Right now, it’s shortly before 5 a.m. and Jones can hardly see the sand bunker he’s grooming, much less the sand shores down below the back of the 10th hole.
“Crazy, huh?” Jones said.
Jones is a volunteer working the U.S. Open for free this week. He came from Rochester, N.Y., to work his first major golf tournament in 20 years of groundskeeping.
“My wife keeps saying this is vacation,” Jones said. “I tell her, ‘Honey, I don’t get up at 4 in the morning on vacation raking bunkers in the dark.’ If I’m in the sand on vacation, it’s in a lounge chair.”
Soon enough, he would see what makes Pebble Beach such a postcard. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but just enough light broke through to reveal an ocean view just a fairway away.
“I’m looking around thinking, ‘Man, how do you guys not get distracted looking at the ocean and stuff?’ ” Jones said as he raked a bunker on the 14th hole, a flashlight no longer needed by 5:10 a.m. “I’ve been to a lot of great courses, and there’s something to be said about palm trees, but here with the shadows and the oaks, the ocean. …
Jones’ duty is to make sure the bunkers look just as pretty.
Don’t put pressure on the rake, he says. Keep it straight like you’re mowing a fairway. And whatever you do, don’t stutter step in the sand.
As for those golfers who can’t stand all these bunkers in the way of their birdies, don’t blame Jones. He just rakes where he’s told.
“Some of this stuff, it’s like, that’s what they want?” Jones said. “It’s crazy to look at.”
The comeback kid
Steadman Nall knows that left-side bunker Jones is raking on the 14th hole. He reshaped that dirt bowl with his own hands when he worked here from 2006-07.
“I just wanted to come back and see the fruits of the labor, so to speak,” Nall said in a drawl that confirms his Alabama residency. “I’ve got to see how it all turns out.”
Nall, 29, now a hip-hop manager, is back as a volunteer, watering down a dew-covered “hot spot” on the 4th fairway that tends to dry too fast.
“I had a 2:45 (a.m. wake-up) this morning,” Nall said. “I’ve done midnight patrol. When I worked here, I (had to be) out here on 18 when a storm was coming in to water the greens and fairways in the middle of the night.
“It’s nice when it’s beautiful weather here, but it’d be awesome if it was just gnarly and wind blowing and rain.”
Rain isn’t in this weekend’s forecast, but Nall will be here just in case. These guys will hardly get outside the golf course’s guarded gates between now and Sunday.
Remember how the work shifts start at 4 a.m.? Work goes until about 9 p.m. this week, and everyone is on call after hours. Some, like Mejia, figure on spending the night because the commute eats up what little time off they have overnight.
They get some downtime at midday because the golfers are golfing. No one wants to turn on a leaf blower during Tiger Woods’ backswing. Instead, they watch World Cup soccer or play foosball in the lounge, or just sit and stare into the deep blue anywhere beyond holes 3 through 10.
“We can’t really leave,” Nall said. “We all find some time to take a nap here or there, but we just can’t up and leave.”
Not until course superintendent Dalhamer says so, they can’t. The way he sees it, until grass takes a day off from growing, they’ll not take a day off from mowing.
“You can’t get things too perfect,” Dalhamer said.