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Weather woes: superintendents share how quickly things can change

By |  November 4, 2021 0 Comments

In the business of maintaining golf courses, like all businesses, some days are better than others. And then some days are so disastrous that they’ll always be remembered by the people who endured them.

A devastating derecho

On Aug. 10, 2020, 140 golfers were enjoying a beautiful day at Cedar Rapids Country Club in Iowa. Tom Feller, CGCS, serving as both the general manager and superintendent, started getting text messages from his fellow superintendents in Des Moines and Ames — clear the golf course immediately, they warned.

“I follow the weather pretty closely, so I pulled it up on radar,” Feller recalls. “You could see what was coming. Between me and the golf pro, we were able to get everyone off the golf course. I went and got the beverage service people off the course, then got stuck in my truck in the parking lot for the next 45 minutes.”

What had been a beautiful day suddenly turned very dark. Feller was about to experience a violent storm known as a derecho.

“It was like something you’ve never seen before. It got real eerie,” Feller says. “Typically, as a storm comes through Iowa, it lasts 10 minutes. This one kept going and going for 45 minutes, with winds up to 145 miles per hour.”

Feller stayed in the clubhouse parking lot for the entirety of the storm, dodging trees and branches as they swooped by. He wanted to check on the people inside the clubhouse once the storm subsided. When the storm finally finished, every building at Cedar Rapids CC was damaged, some a total loss. More than 700 trees were knocked down. Thankfully, everyone was safe.

During the derecho, Tommy Feller, Tom’s son, was in Des Moines, working as an assistant superintendent at Wakonda Club. He had just accepted the superintendent position of Cedar Rapids CC the previous Friday.

“I was going to have a smooth transition over the winter,” Tommy Feller says. “(The derecho) made an interesting turn on the whole experience.”

The derecho hit in Des Moines, but not nearly as hard. Wakonda lost about 70 mature oaks. Tommy and his wife drove to Cedar Rapids over the weekend to survey the damage.

“My jaw just dropped when I drove on to the property,” Tommy Feller says. “I grew up on this course and saw the changes over the years. The place was right where it needed to be before the storm. That was hard to take in. It was devastating.”

Keeping it together

John Temme, the superintendent at Wakonda, was understanding of the situation and allowed Tommy Feller to start his new job sooner than previously planned. Tom and Tommy Feller and the crew put a plan together and went to work.

Tom Feller, CGCS, made a call he never thought he would: to a logging company to help with tree removal. (Photo: Tom Feller)

Tom Feller, CGCS, made a call he never thought he would: to a logging company to help with tree removal. (Photo: Tom Feller)

“We looked at clearing your bentgrass areas first, your primary turf areas where you want to mow and make applications,” Tommy Feller says. “That was our primary focus. From there, get the course playable. Focus down the middle of each hole, moving debris to the sides and taking care of any safety hazards.”

A logging company was hired to help with tree removal — a phone call Tom Feller never imagined having to make. Other area courses also sent crews to come in and lend a hand. Tom Feller says they had to take it one day at a time. He was relieved he had the help of his new superintendent, his son.

“I was happy (Tommy) was able to come on board. I didn’t know if I’d be able to hire a superintendent because they knew what kind of job they’d have coming in,” Tom Feller says. “(Tommy) stepped up. The staff stepped up. We had the pro shop out helping us hand water greens. All the departments pulled together.”

Tommy Feller says he’s never seen storm damage like what the derecho brought to Cedar Rapids CC. He hopes to never see it again. The course reopened after a month.

“You have to keep your head together. It’s a long process. Nothing gets fixed in a week,” Tommy Feller says. “Take your time and do it right. And communicate to your membership and facility, how the process is moving. We still have scars a year later — that’s very defeating, especially after the drought we’ve gone through this year. It turns into a long process, mentally and physically, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

A hurricane after a hurricane

Saul Maldonado has been at El Conquistador Golf Club in northeast Puerto Rico since 1993, when it opened. Originally the mechanic, over the years, the superintendents there would take the time to train him on the finer details of maintaining the turf on the course.

El Conquistador, or “El Con,” as it is affectionately known, is a popular Arthur Hills design in Puerto Rico, known for its hilly terrain. (Photo: Saul Maldondo)

El Conquistador, or “El Con,” as it is affectionately known, is a popular Arthur Hills design in Puerto Rico, known for its hilly terrain. (Photo: Saul Maldonado)

Members of the crew would come and go, but Maldonado was the constant. As his knowledge and experience grew, so did his responsibilities. Eventually, he would find himself as the superintendent of a course he cared for deeply.

It was September of 2017 that Maldonado and his crew would be put to the ultimate test: not just a hurricane, but two hurricanes. Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 hurricane, hit on Sept. 6. Two weeks later, Hurricane Maria, another Category 5 hurricane, arrived.

“It was definitely different, not just because of Maria but more importantly because we were just hit two weeks before by Hurricane Irma. The little corner of the island — the northeast corner — had taken damage from both,” recalls Seth Henrich, who was director of golf of the course at the time. “What I remember the most is getting our power back on after Irma for about three days only to learn we were going to get hit again. We had heard rumors.”

For Maldonado and his team, it was like a slap in the face from Mother Nature for their hard work picking up from Irma.

Despite back-to-back hurricanes in 2017, today the course is back to normal and thriving among locals and resort vacationers. (Photo: Saul Maldondo)

Despite back-to-back hurricanes in 2017, today the course is back to normal and thriving among locals and resort vacationers. (Photo: Saul Maldonado)

“When Maria came, we had already picked up all those trees (from Irma),” Maldonado says. “When the second one came, it was like everything that was loose went away with it. Maria took it. Whatever was left … Maria took it down. It was hard. All the bunkers, almost all the trees were down.”

A good team

When Maldonado found out that round two was coming, he applied a plant growth regulator and then secured the course’s equipment as best he could. Then he went home and secured his own home, then his neighbors’ homes.

Thankfully, the damage at his home was minimal — some flooding but not as much wind damage. When he returned to “El Con,” he was dismayed to see the light poles and power lines all knocked down in the road leading into the resort, making for a dangerous trek.
“But I made it!” Maldonado says. “We started pushing trees aside so we could move around. It was a lot of tractor work, but we started the process, sunup to sundown.”

Henrich, an Iowa native who has spent his entire professional career in the islands, says that both Irma and Maria were powerful hurricanes, but with different personalities.

“In a strange way, Irma did more damage to the trees and the landscape, and we had to get all that cleaned up,” he says. “When Maria came in, it damaged the resort more, and then the long duration of going without power and gas made Maria more difficult.”

Maldonado says the entire crew, including the clubhouse staff, pitched in to get the golf course open for play again.

“Saul has been there since day 1, so there’s always been consistency,” says Seth Henrich, former El Conquistador director of golf. “It all goes back to what Saul did on a daily basis for years ... that’s what allowed us to overcome so quickly.” (Photo: Saul Maldondo)

“Saul has been there since day 1, so there’s always been consistency,” says Seth Henrich, former El Conquistador director of golf. “It all goes back to what Saul did on a daily basis for years … that’s what allowed us to overcome so quickly.” (Photo: Saul Maldonado)

“Employees came back, not all, but we started working right after (Maria),” Maldonado says. “It was hard. We had no water, no power, and we had workers working. It was brutal. They stayed and they worked through some tough times.”

It took a month, but the course reopened. Maldonado says the course didn’t look its best, but it gave people something to do to take their minds off the back-to-back hurricanes and the vast death and destruction they caused.

Henrich has since moved on to become director of golf at Wyndham Grand Puerto Rico Golf and Beach Resort. Even though there were a lot of difficult days, Henrich says his years working alongside Maldonado are still some of his favorite in golf.

“I loved working with Saul because he takes such pride in the facility,” Henrich says. “To be a truly great golf course superintendent, you need heart, and he has that. We were a good team. We went through a lot of adversity together. He is such a super human to start with, couple that with his work ethic and his heart and desire? It was a great pleasure to work with him.”
As Maldonado nears the 30-year mark at El Conquistador, he’s looking forward to putting those bad days behind him and focusing on the many good days.

“I love my job,” he says. “Not many people have a job they like … I have one that I love.”

About the Author:

Seth Jones, a 18-year veteran of the golf industry media, is Editor-in-Chief of Golfdom magazine and Athletic Turf. A graduate of the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Jones began working for Golf Course Management in 1999 as an intern. In his professional career he has won numerous awards, including a Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA) first place general feature writing award for his profile of World Golf Hall of Famer Greg Norman and a TOCA first place photography award for his work covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In his career, Jones has accumulated an impressive list of interviews, including such names as George H.W. Bush, Samuel L. Jackson, Lance Armstrong and Charles Barkley. Jones has also done in-depth interviews with such golfing luminaries as Norman, Gary Player, Nick Price and Lorena Ochoa, to name only a few. Jones is a member of both the Golf Writers Association of America and the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association. Jones can be reached at sjones@northcoastmedia.net.


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