Publish date:

Ground Force Short on workers, the Florida project taps into an unlimited resource--college interns

It was no longer raining; it was pouring. Curtains of water fell
on the University of Florida Golf Course, and sensible souls sat
in the comfy clubhouse, watching nature's performance through
plateglass. The crazy ones--the Mexican workers and the college
interns--were still out there, laying sod on the banks of the
1st tee. Two shirtless young men took slabs of turf off a
forklift and flung them toward the tee. Other young men picked
up the slabs and placed them on the slopes in staggered rows,
followed by Mexicans with machetes, who hacked off overlapping
pieces. Tom Weber, the project manager, was out there, too,
grinning and shouting orders as water streamed off his nose. It
was the sandbag scene from any flood report on CNN, but the
buoyant energy of these workers suggested that they were
motivated by novelty, not desperation. They were singin' and
dancin' in the rain.

"That was dramatic," Weber says. It's the following morning, and
we're standing outside the construction trailer under a cloudless
sky. Black irrigation pipe is stacked everywhere, and piles of
gravel and bunker sand form an Alpine profile. "I didn't ask them
to work in the rain," he continues, "but they pulled together as
a team. I liked that."

Unity is a concern to Weber because one third of the workers on
this job are summer interns--college students with little or no
experience in course construction. "Normally most of my employees
are Latinos, hard workers who know what they're doing. But this
year I've had to look outside."

To find laborers, Weber spread the word among his friends in the
golf construction industry and asked for help from university
officials. He wound up with 16 young men who said they were
willing to work 12 hours a day in tropical heat, in choking dust,
in ankle-deep mud--and if they didn't actually say that, Weber was
sure they'd like the work once they got a taste of it. For their
sweat and toil, the interns are getting $8 an hour and three
months of free housing in a nearby apartment complex.

They're also getting a quick and dirty education in course
design. Right now, for instance, some of them are prepping the
number 2 tee box for sod while others are wielding shovels to
help shape bunkers on the 18th hole. The work is unlike any
college course they've taken. Only Weber or one of his crew
chiefs gives instructions to the interns. "We live in
Vagueville," says Ken Gibson, a landscape architecture major at
Kansas State. "They want us to work things out on our own."

Around noon the interns begin to arrive at the trailer, which
doubles as their lunchroom. Tracking mud and chunks of clay on
the linoleum floor, they sit at tables and unwrap sandwiches
they've bought across the street at the deli in the Publix
supermarket. Everything is tranquilo--the buzzword they've picked
up from their Spanish-speaking coworkers. "Tranquilo, relax,"
they tell one of their mates, who for the second time in as many
days has lifted his soft drink by the lid and spilled most of it
on the floor. When I ask what they've learned from two months in
the Florida sun, one says, "How to run machinery." Another says,
"I never realized how much thought goes into the smallest
detail." A third says, "Drainage. I've almost got this gravity
business figured out."

"What some of us have not learned," says Ben Taylor, who
graduated from Florida in 1997 with a degree in accounting, "is
how to tell a man from a woman." This remark draws sharp laughter
and a few "oooohs." Everyone glances at a blushing intern, who
pretends to be preoccupied with his sandwich. "Bad night in New
Orleans," he mutters, drawing more hoots.

Eight hours later--and strictly in the interests of full
reportage--I join the interns at the Salty Dog Saloon, a campus
hangout. The Salty Dog is long, narrow and filled with young
people having a good time. A coin-operated pool table commands
one area of the saloon, like a baptismal font in the nave of a

The first thing I notice about the interns, who have gathered
along the bar in back, is that they all have scrubbed faces and
wet shower hair, evidence that they stopped at their apartments
only long enough to clean up and change. The second thing I
notice is that they're already nostalgic about previous visits to
the Salty Dog, their favorite watering hole. "We're like a bunch
of sailors in port," says Kevin Wachter, who studies crop and
soil science at Michigan State.

Weber, who is having a drink at the bar with his
corporate-chemist wife, Julie, is indulgent when it comes to the
interns' free time, as long as they perform on the job. "Work is
work and play is play," he says. "If they don't know the
difference, they have a little growing up to do." It's clear,
though, that he admires the kids who can both work and
play--someone like Australia's Steve Lalor. "Steve's an amazing
worker," says Weber. "He gives it his all every day." Weber
laughs. "He gives it his all every night, too."

From the stories they tell at the Salty Dog, it's apparent that
the interns have learned as much from their blunders as they have
from their elders. One intern set the parking brake before
hopping off a tractor on the 9th fairway--or thought he had until
he turned and saw the tractor rolling down the hill. "I chased
it," he says, "but it rolled off the course and stopped in
somebody's garden, crushing flowers. Tom made me go knock on the
door and confess." Another intern, told that a Sand Pro grader
had run out of gas under Bobby Weed, raced to the architect's
rescue and poured petrol into the oil reservoir instead of the
fuel tank. "I felt like a total idiot!" he yells over the noise
of the bar.

Most of their memories, however, are good ones--laying sod in the
rain, learning Spanish from the "amigos," watching a golf course
spring to life under their very feet. "I've had a great summer,"
says Gibson, waiting his turn at the pool table. "These guys are
fun to work with, and Tom has been a great friend and teacher."

It's not so bad in Vagueville.

In the next installment we'll check calendars and timetables as
Weber's six-month-long construction train keeps chugging across
This Old Course.

For previous installments of This Old Course go to

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES The task of fitting sod is left to the crew's more experienced workers.



"Ditch digging is my life," says Mike Hill (above), owner and
president of International Irrigation, Inc., of Jupiter, Fla. As
irrigation subcontractor on the Florida renovation, Hill and his
five-man crew have been digging trenches and laying approximately
a half-million feet of PVC pipe from the Flowtronex pump station
to the extremities of the course. "In recent years golf course
irrigation has gone from a pretty simple operation to very
sophisticated systems," Hill says. "You used to have a single row
of quick couplers, no sprinkler heads, and someone had to go out
and turn them on by hand every time you watered. Now the
superintendent can call the computer from his home and turn on
the system."

Similar improvements have been made in pipe fittings and
sprinkler-head deployment. The fittings at This Old Course are
made of either PVC or ductile iron. The sprinkler heads are set
80 feet apart and arranged in three parallel rows on each hole,
with the middle row throwing water in all directions and the
outer rows spraying only toward the fairway, preventing
overwatering of trees and rough. "We call it a wall-to-wall
system," Hill says. "Those old oaks don't need all that water."