Meet the grounds crew, people with dreams and passions as big as yours

Meet the grounds crew, people with dreams and passions as big as yours

TRIM AND BEAR IT: The team of 23 and its 10 mowers must hit the course by 5 a.m. if they are to finish the job before early-bird golfers.
Todd Bigelow/Aurora

Miguel Ramirez is not a golf course laborer. He’s a soldier. It’s 8 a.m. at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. The desert sun has chased away the morning chill that greeted the yawning members of the grounds crew three hours earlier. Today’s forecast calls for a high of 100°, but Ramirez, a burly 29-year-old Mexican immigrant, is dressed for cooler weather, wearing gray work pants and a long-sleeve crew shirt. He stands atop the flatbed of a John Deere utility vehicle and shovels sand that will be used to smooth out bumps and ball marks on the greens. Wiping beads of sweat from his brow, Ramirez lowers the red bandana shielding his mouth from clouds of fertilizer dust and unveils a wide white grin.

The golfers don’t look as chipper as the sweat-soaked grunt making $7.35 an hour. So what’s with the Pepsodent smile?

“I’m not a worker,” Ramirez says, his Spanish accent softened by 13 years in the U.S. “I’m a soldier.” As in, We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day. “It feels good to work hard. I do a good job. I do it fast. It keeps me in shape. It’s so beautiful here. And the work is fun.” His idea of fun is a nine-hour shift shoveling sand, mowing greens, raking bunkers and digging trenches on the Raptor course, one of Grayhawk’s two 18-hole tracks — all beneath a blistering sun.

Ramirez is one of tens of thousands of grounds crew workers who help make golf possible in America, the unsung artisans who groom courses into things of beauty. And they do it for little money. In Arizona, greenkeeping jobs are done mostly by Mexican immigrants happy to earn the $7.35 — minimum wage. (Grayhawk, which pays up to $12 an hour for experienced workers, requires all applicants to produce proof of legal residency.)

The work can be backbreaking, which is fitting, because Ramirez once broke his back. Several years ago he ran a red light, struck another vehicle and flipped his car five times. “It’s O.K.,” he says of the occasional pain. “It only acts up when I lie down.”

There’s never time to lie down at Grayhawk, but there is time to sit and watch golf. “We have to stop when [the players] are hitting,” Ramirez says. “I don’t like playing, but I like watching. It’s a good game. Funny too.” When he sees angry players flinging clubs, he’ll chuckle. “It makes me laugh. Why are they mad? There’s no bad day out here. I saw one guy lose his club that he threw into a grassy area. Golf should be fun.” Ramirez appreciates the strategy the game demands. “You need to know where you’re hitting, where you’re going. You need a plan.”

Ramirez could be talking about himself. At age 16, his plan was simple. “Come to America for a more better future,” he says in his imperfect English. He and several relatives left Mexico’s punishing socioeconomic climate — minimum wage there is about 65 cents an hour — for opportunity north of the border. After stints as a landscaper and a cook, Ramirez joined Grayhawk two years ago.

The manual labor is preparing him for his dream job: personal trainer. “I want to go to school and become a trainer and work in a gym, and this keeps me in shape,” says Ramirez, who runs a mile or two after work. He pulls up a sleeve and flexes his right biceps, as if showing his résumé, and reveals another reason he rises every day at 4 a.m.: The name of his young daughter, Sandra, is tattooed on his right elbow.

He smiles bigger than ever. “I work hard for me and for her.”

Ed Juba is not an assistant superintendent. He’s a symphony orchestra conductor.

“The average golfer has no clue about all the different things going on at 5 a.m.,” says Juba, 37, a Pennsylvania native. On a typical morning at the Raptor, an ensemble of 23 workers, 10 mowers, 12 utility vehicles, a leaf blower and a hole cutter descend on the course. As with an orchestra, Juba says, “all these various parts have to work together. If one thing goes wrong — if a belt snaps or there’s an oil leak — it affects the entire operation.”

And timing is everything, he says, a hint of tension in his voice. “The hardest part of my job is staying ahead of the golfers, who start teeing off at 6:30. They’re on your butt fast! It’s stressful because you’re trying to work and someone’s on top of you. How would you like it if someone came into your office and started rustling papers around while you were working?”

For Juba, stress beats boredom. A Class A PGA pro, he came to Grayhawk nine years ago and managed the golf shop. Two years later, selling socks and polos had grown tedious. “The grind was getting to me,” he says. He transferred to the grounds crew because he loves “the faster pace.” A former scratch golfer, Juba now plays sporadically and doesn’t much miss it. “Priorities change. I have a daughter. You have to like what you do, and now every day’s different, exciting. With this job I’m always learning.”

Rafael Ruiz does not mow lawns. He creates works of art.

Between cutting the holes on the Raptor’s greens, Ruiz recalls the surge of excitement he felt as a boy when a teacher or parent praised his latest drawing or finger painting. The 29-year-old father of four experiences a similar rush from a seemingly mundane chore: mowing the lawn.

For him, mowing is a form of self-expression. Of his many daily duties, Ruiz counts “striping” the Raptor fairways in a crisscross pattern his favorite part of the job. When he intertwines the ribbons of grass, he says, “I am mowing, but in my mind, I am not mowing. It’s as if I am making art. I look and say, ‘I like that. It’s mine. It’s my art.’ ” And what’s an artist without a few admirers. “The golfers come and say, ‘You did that very well. Great job.’ That makes me feel proud.”

Ruiz has worked at courses in the Southwest for 12 years, since leaving a job on a farm in central Mexico. “We don’t have nothing in Mexico,” he says. “If I was there, I would be taking care of cows.” He signals toward the lush course and the burnt-orange McDowell Mountains in the distance. “But I get to work here.”

A gig at Grayhawk comes with a perk: free golf. Ruiz sneaks in an after-work round now and then, walking the same fairways he sculpts. His favorite club? “The driver,” he says. Whether at work or play, Ruiz loves striping it.

Gonzalo Pacheco is not a ditch digger. He’s an investigator.

Beneath the Raptor’s surface, one million feet of electrical wires thread their way to more than 2,000 remote-controlled sprinkler heads, which every night spray the course with 600,000 gallons of water — enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. On this day, at number 17, the search is on for a malfunctioning wire. Pacheco is on the case, first helping to unearth the plastic tube containing a cluster of multicolored wires, then testing for the dead piece of equipment.

“I enjoy solving problems, getting to the bottom of things,” says the 45-year-old father of six. “For me, this is never boring. This is better than a factory [job] or a restaurant. And it lets me care for my family. The best thing you can do is take care of your family. U.S. citizens think we come here to get government money or welfare. It’s not like that. I get [assistance] for doctor’s bills for my kid — he has asthma — but my rent, my food, I pay with my paycheck. I work hard.” He laughs. “I have six kids, so I’m really tired, man.”

Pacheco, who moved here from Mexico in 1995, finds a way to make ends meet while taking home about $50 a day. “The pay is steady. And here, my kids can get [into] good schools. This is the opportunity country.”

Miguel Ramirez is not only a soldier. He’s a philosopher.

Shovel in hand again, he and several coworkers are removing piles of dirt from the 17th fairway. They stop when two tee shots land nearby, in the fairway of the par-4 17th. Two lanky twentysomethings in white belts motor up to their balls, hit their approaches and drive away. One of them makes a crack about “an immigration situation.”

Ramirez laughs it off. “The people who play here, most are very nice,” he says.

Now past noon, the mercury inches closer to 100, yet Ramirez still has a spring in his step. He shares his philosophy on enjoying work, which goes something like this: You think if you have a good job, you’ll enjoy what you do. But if you first enjoy what you do, you’ll have a good job.

Call it Zen and the art of golf course maintenance.

“My father taught me that attitude is everything,” Ramirez says. “If you wake up and think, I want to be somewhere else, then your day will suck. I wake up, prepare my mind and enjoy what I do. Enjoy big things. Enjoy little things. Enjoy the people. Work hard. If you like what you do, your job is easy. I think nothing is hard in this life. People make things more hard.”