Among the many things he did, Anthony Bourdain illuminated the lives of dishwashers, line cooks and fishmongers. Reading and watching his tributes made me realize what a lousy job I have done writing about golf’s below-the-line workforce. I’m fixing to change that. Like all golfers, I like flat tee boxes and shapely bunkers, but how often do I show my apreciación?
Rafael Barajas is the next president of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, and the first Hispanic to fill that role. I mentioned to him that, in my experience, if you see a course worker with a shovel, machete or hose in hand, chances are close to 100 percent that that person’s first language is Spanish.
“Mmm, not that high,” the mustachioed president-elect said. “Maybe more like 80 percent.” Barajas was born in Mexico, left school (in Los Angeles) at 16 and began working full-time in golf. “I chose survival,” he said. He is now the superintendent of the Boca Grove Golf and Tennis Club in South Florida. His four educated and productive American children — one of whom is a Marine — are making America greater yet.
If you play golf with Donald Trump, you might see him offer a mid-round thank-you to a random course worker, Trump-style. He’ll approach a crewman — who, at Trump’s courses, is often from Mexico or Guatemala or Honduras — heap praise on the course condition, slip the man a crisp Franklin, return to his cart and exclaim, “They love me!”
Mmm — hard to know. What’s certain is that they are grateful for the opportunity to make $13 or $14 an hour. Plus, the promise of time and a half.
The official minimum wage in Mexico is about $2.50 an hour. Millions work for far less. The job-listing website indeed.com shows hundreds of openings for course workers across the United States, typically for $10 or $11 an hour. Several supers told me that health benefits are offered at some courses but not often accepted, even though the work often involves exposure to pesticides, lifting heavy objects and operating loud machines with sharp blades. And of course, the start whistle often blows at sunrise. “You don’t find too many suburban kids who are going to last more than three days,” one former Trump employee told me. “They like free golf, but they want Saturday off.”
It’s no wonder there are so many course workers with Jorge or Miguel in script on their heavy work shirts, so many middle-aged men in bandanas who wire home money on flip phones during their coffee breaks. There are at least 125,000 course workers in the United States tilling the soil on more than 14,000 18-hole courses. Green fees and club dues would be only more expensive without golf’s immigrant workforce. I spoke to about a dozen people working in course maintenance and construction on my way here and found nobody who thinks that the current U.S. government clampdown on immigration will be good for American golf.
Nobody knows the number of course workers who are here illegally, including employees who have presented enough passable paperwork to get a stamp of approval from E-Verify.gov. Many of the immigrant workers, of course, are legal, but a good number are in the United States on H-2B visas, and those visas have a maximum shelf life of three years. Not a recipe for stability on either side of the management line.
All the supers I spoke to have employees attempting to become naturalized Americans. But when you’re living close to the poverty line, speak halting English and have a meager (or nonexistent) savings account, the shoulder on the road to citizenship is a minefield. Out of necessity, the supers become experts on the fine points of American immigration law.
What they really want is what we want: early-morning greens with the dew swept right off them, plus all the other niceties that add immeasurably to our pleasure. The long poles that make those dew-free greens possible are called dew whips, and the men and women swinging them might have the Sweden-South Korea match in their ears, or another futbol contest worthy of their divided attention. But if Mexico is playing the United States, management knows better and schedules are rearranged.
I’m just starting out here, and I welcome your story ideas. I have learned that at some East Coast clubs, you might see a Kia Sedona minivan arrive in employee parking at daybreak with five Guatemalan workers in it. But what you don’t see is the driver getting $5 a head for his transit services and the driver’s wife selling the fellas $5 brown-bag lunches. At a Texas club under renovation, you might see a threesome of Salvadorans building a new back tee, but you don’t see them staying in a single room at the nearby Extended Stay America. At a California club under water restriction, you might see a Mexican course worker hand-watering a green in the midday sun, but you don’t see that same man delivering Domino’s pies at night.
Maybe you do what I do: Wave and play on. Talk about dumb luck.