Manicuring From Tee to Green : Ron Armstrong Putters Around in His Torrey Pines Garden

Times Staff Writer

Sunrise, and the first tee time of the day is 1 1/2 hours away as Ron Armstrong drives his pickup truck around the North and South courses at Torrey Pines.

It's 5:30 a.m., and the course manager is ready to work 18. Actually, 36.

Armstrong wants to impress players and fans who will swarm over Torrey Pines at the Shearson Lehman Brothers Andy Williams Open that begins Thursday.

He doesn't have a yard to tend at his rented San Diego home, but Armstrong has 357 acres to care for at Torrey Pines.

Golfers speak of birdies and bogeys, but Armstrong curses frost and divots.

On the greens, golfers worry about inches and feet, but Armstrong fidgets until the grass is exactly 5/32 of an inch high.

Armstrong equips himself for the task with items such as a stimpmeter, to measure the speed of the greens, and a soil probe, to test the moisture in the greens.

"It's a science," said Armstrong, who attended Colorado State to study horticulture and turf management with an emphasis on golf course management.

The sky is dark, there is dew on the course and a morning chill is in the air when Armstrong starts up his pickup.

"It's a dandy atmosphere to be working in," Armstrong said. "Sun up is one of the most rewarding parts of the whole job. People downtown tease me about having the best job in the city." When he gets on the course each morning, Armstrong searches for people who may have jumped the fence during the night. He looks for any vandalism. He checks the irrigation systems.

Armstrong also looks for insects and gophers, who often damage the greens.

And, occasionally, Armstrong finds golf carts in the lakes.

In the morning, Torrey Pines has the look of a tractor-pull exhibition. Armstrong's mechanical arsenal consists of six greens mowers, four tee mowers, two fairway mowers, one seven-gang tractor rough mower, sweepers, cutting equipment and fertilizer spreaders.

A crew of 21 takes to the courses at 5:30 on weekdays and 4:30 on weekends. "I'm part soil chemist, psychologist, mechanic and sometimes a mother," said Armstrong, who estimates that 80% of his job is personnel management.

"It gets lonely out there," said Bon Salazar, who mows the greens. "I do some singing on the way from one green to the next. Traveling from green to green, I think of the sun coming out. I daydream from green to green. "But I can't think of anything but mowing when I'm on the greens. I have to really pay attention to cut straight. You have to notice the weeds, the lumps on the greens. I have to report if there is anything wrong with them."

Armstrong and his crew do have some company.

"There is a nice variety of wildlife--deer, bobcats, coyotes and there are more than enough rabbits," he said.

As the sun rises, Armstrong, 49, enjoys his beautiful surroundings.

Torrey Pines overlooks the Pacific Ocean and is filled with scenic bluffs.

Is it any wonder that Armstrong eagerly answered an advertisement in a golf course management magazine for the Torrey Pines job?

But it's a job that often goes unappreciated.

"Not enough people know what we do, but that's not necessarily their fault," Armstrong said. "I try to explain any situation if persons come to me with a complaint or a problem. But usually when someone comes in irate about something, it's because they haven't had a good round."

Armstrong has a gardener's skills but a golfer's heart.

"I enjoy the game, but I'm not a good golfer," he said. "I seem to spend more time looking after the golf course."

And Torrey Pines needs a lot of care. It is a municipal course that daily serves about 400 golfers on each of the two courses during the peak summer months.

After years of being around golf courses, Armstrong still is amazed at how far golfers will go to play.

There are regulars at Torrey Pines who nearly beat him to the course in the morning.

Last Thursday, the first day the course was closed to the public to prepare for the tournament, there were two cars in the parking lot at 5:45. A man jumped out of his car when he saw a third car drive up. Disappointed, he said: "Can you believe the course is closed? I thought I'd have the course all to myself today."

Armstrong vividly remembers the final day of last year's tournament.

"Several thousand people were here waiting to play before sundown Sunday," Armstrong said. "They stayed. We left the course set up the way the pros played it. I guess it's a fun thing to play a course the way the pros did. To want to play any sport that bad is amazing."

Once the tournament ends, Armstrong and his crew take a deep sigh of relief. For the week preceding the tournament and during its play, they work long hours.

Armstrong's crew double cuts the greens in two directions and mows both courses each day. Ordinarily, the fairways are mowed twice a week, the greens five times a week, the tee areas twice and the rough once.

Because Armstrong has performed all these tasks at one time or another, he can appreciate the value of mowing a strand of grass.

"I firmly believe that anyone in this job should come up through the ranks," said Armstrong, who started as a mower at Denver Golf Course.

When not supervising, Armstrong pays close attention to the details that course managers thrive on and are driven crazy by--such as ball marks and divots.

"You have to accommodate the public until the last minute here and that represents unique challenges," he said. "It would be nice to give the greens a rest well in advance of the tournament, but we can't do that.

"The course takes a beating. A lot of these people don't take care of the course like they should. The course actually gets a rest during the tournament. From now until the 15th, it will take a deep breath and feel like it's getting a break."

Torrey Pines closed earlier than usual this year because of the frost that has forced play to be delayed six times.

The Kikuyu grass (an African grass) that covers 60% to 70% of the course has turned yellowish because of frost.

The grass has been Armstrong's toughest challenge since he took over at Torrey Pines two years ago.

He is in the middle of a five-year program, replacing the wire or "smut" grass with what he considers a better variety. Chemicals are used to kill he old grass before the re-seeding process can begin.

Armstrong said the South Course is almost completed, and the North Course will be worked on this year.

"It's a slow, expensive process," Armstrong said. "But we had no choice. It's (Kikuyu grass) there. It's not going to go away on its own."

Though the grass is Armstrong's biggest concern, the greens are his top priority. And Armstrong wants to make one thing clear: He does not use paint to brighten Torrey Pines' greens for television. The greens look just fine the way they are, he says.

On a recent morning tour of the South course, Armstrong took out his stimpmeter and soil probe as he approached the green at 18--the infamous "Devlin's Billabong."

The hole is named Devlin's Billabong (a billabong is a pond in Australia) in honor of Australia's Bruce Devlin, who took six shots from the edge of the lake and took a 10 on the hole in the final round of the 1975 San Diego Open.

On the green, Armstrong used a three-foot stimpmeter--whereby he drops a ball down a sloping device--to measure the speed of the green.

Armstrong said it is equally important that balls hit to the green "bite" on the surface. So he takes out a soil probe to measure the greens' moisture

"A green is a flower pot," Armstrong said. "It's a very controlled atmosphere."

The green's base is a finished crate topped with drain tile to carry off water. A gravel layer is on top of that, and then the top layer of grass. Greens are 80% sand and 20% organic matter. Armstrong thinks greens should be rebuilt every 25 years, but says that will vary depending on how well they are managed. Most greens cost between $30,000 and $40,000.

If those figures are shocking, consider these: Each 18-hole course at Torrey Pines uses an average of 1 million gallons of water per irrigation cycle and there are an average of three such cycles per week.

"We're a little above average because our irrigated areas are wider," Armstrong said. "And the eucalyptus trees seep in a lot of water."

Armstrong thinks that water conservation will be the biggest trend in the building and maintaining of golf courses. And that the older, country-club style of golf course will be a thing of the past.

"I feel everybody ought to be aware of water conservation," Armstrong said. "Courses will continue to be pretty, but the types of turf and plants used will make a difference."

But that's the future. This week, Armstrong is most concerned about avoiding rain and frost, patching ball marks on the greens and divots on the fairways and making a good impression on the touring pros.

"They play some beautiful courses on the tour, but they're intelligent enough not to compare them," Armstrong said. "I think they'll have comments about our taller rough and better quality of turf. I hope they're all aware we're out here trying to correct the situation and make improvements. That's important to me."

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