What is it that keeps golf course superintendents returning to the golf course every day? Is it the love of the outdoors? Or perhaps the fact that no two days are alike? Or for those individuals who are addicted to the constant pursuit of perfection, is it knowing that there is always something that could be better? For me, it is all of these. I also happen to have a dedicated staff that helps make my job even more enjoyable, as well as a club that values and respects the role of the golf course superintendent.
Elcona Country Club, the club I have the privilege of serving, is a welcome respite in one of the country’s hardest hit areas (Elkhart County Indiana) during this economic crisis. The 300+ acres of wooded property and designated Audubon Sanctuary areas create a natural park-like setting for the course that was originally designed by William Diddle in 1956 and renovated by Arthur Hills in the 1990’s. The club consists of the typical blend of long time members as well as younger members and their families. As the golf course superintendent, the country club has become a second home and family for not only me, but my wife, two young sons, and Black Lab. Just one more reason for me to enjoy what I do. Yes, I take my dog to work.
It’s almost as if owning a dog is becoming a perquisite to obtain the title of golf course superintendent– Birdie the Lab, Bogey the Beagle or Divot the Collie–It’s not uncommon to see a dog riding shotgun on a golf cart these days, and perhaps you are even one of the individuals, like me, fortunate enough to bring your dog to work with you. My family and I are the proud owners of Mulligan, a Black Lab that has been my sidekick on the golf course for the past 10 years. From my first inspection before play begins in the morning, through my final rounds in the afternoon, Mulligan rides beside me on the cart. He watches me take stimp readings, serves as an ambassador as we meet players, and serves as a highly effective wildlife management officer.
You may think Mulligan is not a very original name for a golf course dog, and you would be correct. But, in my case, there is a story that goes with the name. About 10 years ago, I was working for Sean McCue as an assistant superintendent at The Country Club at Castle Pines in Castle Rock, Colorado. My wife and I had just married and moved to Castle Rock so that I could have the opportunity to live and work in the Rocky Mountain State. After adjusting to married life, we decided that we would try dog ownership as a way to add responsibility to our lives and, if we could handle that, maybe we could handle kids at some point in the future. That decision turned out to be a good one.
My wife and I both grew up with dogs, so it was a natural fit for us. We had just built a brand new home and weren’t interested in facing all of the challenges that come with a puppy, especially since we were both working full time. After doing some research, I found out that there was a Labrador Retriever Rescue group that was based in Denver and began to inquire about the adoption process. Shortly after our adoption paperwork was reviewed and approved, we were contacted about a Black Lab that needed a home. My wife and I knew that we were physically prepared to adopt a dog, but were a little apprehensive about what to expect when we actually met this dog. Despite our concerns, we went to meet him.
When we first walked in to the foster home, we were shocked at his malnourished appearance. He was so thin; we could count every one of his ribs. While we sat and talked to his foster parent, he jumped around acting like a two year old child that demanded everyone’s attention. His behavior reminded me of the character Donkey in the movie Shrek, jumping around and shouting “Pick me! Pick me!” He was very happy to see us and almost seemed to recognize the potential for adoption in our visit.
His known history dated back to the day when someone found him wandering around the plains of northeastern Colorado without a collar. To the best of anyone’s guess he was about one year old at the time. He was placed in the rescue program and bounced around several kennels and rescue homes in a very short period of time. His frequent house-hopping ended when we saw him. It didn’t take us long to decide that he was going to be our dog. We were going to give this dog a second chance at life, a “do over” so to speak. In keeping with his second chance, we decided to name him Mulligan.
It took a little while for me to feel comfortable bringing Mulligan to work every day, despite Sean’s encouragement to do so, but eventually he began making the daily trip. As many of you know, or have even experienced firsthand, there is a learning curve for dogs that have the privilege to work on a golf course. Golf courses are a dog’s paradise with wide open spaces, woods, and ponds. Even though Mulligan came to us understanding the basic commands of sit, stay, come, quiet etc. it took a few months for him to learn the rules of being on the golf course and the guidelines for interacting with players. One of his first learning moments came during a weekly Ladies Day at Castle Pines. Many of the members were aware that I had begun to bring Mulligan to the course everyday and were eager to meet him since it was a new situation for them as well. Mulligan and I had come up to a green where a group of ladies were putting and had noticed that Mulligan was with me. One of them had motioned for me to let Mulligan come down to see them, which I happily obliged. Just as I had released him to go visit with them, one of the ladies began to putt her ball. Mulligan, still being very young and not exposed to golf course etiquette, decided to change direction, pick up the ball, prance around and wait for someone to play with him. Mulligan has since learned over the years that there are certain rules that apply in certain situations. With that being said, he is never allowed to play with golf balls.
Mulligan is now 11 years old and is becoming more selective about his physical activity during the day. I’m sure that with all of his experiences, he is now more adept at determining the value of his expended energy. When we first adopted him, it was all I could do to get him to ride in the cart. There were too many places to explore, animals to chase and energy to burn. Now, he has become very good at keeping the seat on my cart warm on cold mornings. He still likes to partake in a good chase with deer, squirrels, geese, raccoons and even turkeys that reside on his course. Even after a rather unfortunate event with a skunk, he is still dedicated enough to go after them. Now, instead of chasing wildlife throughout the entire day, he burns his energy first thing in the morning and then retreats to my office to recuperate with a much deserved nap.
There is no shortage of stories to pass along or memories to recall about his life thus far, and I’m sure there are many more to come. Over the last 10 years, many stories have accumulated as I have made moves from Castle Pines to Highlands Ranch Golf Club and on to Elcona Country Club. He has survived an attack by coyotes, fallen through ice, had his ear cut with scissors held by an unassuming child and even ventured into the member’s dining room looking for a free bite to eat.
As Mulligan continues to age, I can see him slowing down a little more each year, but have yet to see any signs of him wanting to enjoy a life of retirement. He still meets me at the door every morning to go to work and immediately becomes incorrigible if he has to stay at home. His role as a golf course dog has begun to change, as he trades his animal patrol duties for public relations responsibilities. He enjoys meeting players as they come and go from the golf shop, and they look forward to seeing him as well. So, who is to say that role isn’t just as important as chasing geese from the golf course?
The American Medical Association has documented the therapeutic effects of petting an animal. Those of us superintendents that have dogs with us at work every day would probably find it hard to dispute this fact. I know I agree with it 100%. Even golfers as they finish their round could probably benefit from lower blood pressure, a decreased heart rate and a reduced stress level. Perhaps, Mulligan could be put on our medical insurance plans’ preferred providers list. He is available without an appointment and could care less how good or bad their round was.
Until that time, several years down the road, when he can no longer jump in the truck to go to work, he will continue to teach me about living life to the fullest. It is funny to think the only thing we expected from him was a quick course in parenting skills. Oh, how we underestimated what he could teach us.
Greg Shaffer is a Class A superintendent at Elcona Country Club in Bristol, Indiana and eagerly awaits the day when his dog will bring home a paycheck. He has recently published a book with several anecdotes about his life with Mulligan. Anyone interested in purchasing his book “A view from the Cart: The Life of a Golf Course Dog” please visit his blog at www.viewfromthecart.blogspot.com.