Spencer Roberts is getting a tad obsessed with the tall grass.
He jumps off his golf cart and speed-walks his way through the first fairway at the Omaha Country Club, moving so fast that I have to jog to keep pace.
His walkie-talkie is crackling, his latest Mountain Dew is almost empty, and he's been here at work for 16 straight hours on this Monday of the U.S. Senior Open. He has at least three hours left.
No matter. The 30-year-old speed-walks over to the two men mowing the intermediate cut of rough — Spencer keeps calling it the “3-inch” because it's 3 inches tall. He yells instructions over the roar of the Toro Grandmaster 4500-D mowers they are driving.
He tells them, in a kind but forceful scream, exactly how to turn the mowers around so they don't leave any tire marks in the tall grass.
After we speed-walk back to the cart, I ask him if he's worried about the tire tracks in the rough because Tom Watson or Colin Montgomerie's ball might nestle into a track, giving a golfing legend an unfairly bad lie as he tries to win Omaha's first U.S. Senior Open.
Spencer shakes his head no. It's not that at all.
“It just needs to look clean,” he says.
Let's get something straight at this point. You, kindly reader, do not understand work-related pressure.
Oh sure, you came into work an hour early last Tuesday, or maybe you stayed late on Friday, or maybe (gasp!) you even punched in on a Saturday morning to meet a deadline. And then maybe you had to deliver the presentation to your boss, or maybe a whole room full of bosses, or maybe you had to sit very quietly at a computer inside an air-conditioned office and type something, let's say a column, in the span of an afternoon.
See that black speck on the distant horizon, the thing you have to squint to see? No? Here, use my binoculars.
See it now? That's pressure. That is how far away you are from real pressure. You aren't acquainted. You barely live in the same time zone.
You wanna know pressure?
Pressure is taking a job in June 2011, like Spencer did, and immediately reorienting every working hour, and eventually every waking moment, to a deadline 25 months away: July 11, 2013.
Pressure is knowing, as Spencer does, that he will make a presentation starting Thursday, and he will make it to Tom Watson, Colin Montgomerie and a decent chunk of the country's television viewers.
It is arriving at work at 2:59 a.m. — that's when Spencer arrived on Sunday — and leaving at 10 p.m., and then arriving at 2:59 a.m. again on Monday.
It's working on and worrying about every blade of grass on this 18 holes of real estate like some kind of deranged, slacks-wearing farmer while knowing that this two years of work — this masterpiece of sod — could be wrecked, literally washed away, if it rains buckets overnight or baked if God turns the thermostat up to 107.
It is being the lead assistant superintendent at the course that happens to be hosting the biggest golf tournament that this city has ever seen.
|COURSE GUIDE: U.S. SENIOR OPEN|
|See hole illustrations, insight from course pros, photos and video from every hole and more in our Senior Open course guide.|
“There is no way around it: We're going to play golf on Thursday,” says Spencer, a native of Manhattan, Kan., who came to the Omaha Country Club from Kansas City's Shadow Glen Golf Club. “Our entire goal has been to give every last thing we have. No days off. No wondering. No saying, 'I wish we had one more day.' Like I said, balls in the air on Thursday.”
He has been here for two years, is intimately familiar with every tree and blade of grass on this course, and yet Spencer has not actually played a round of golf at the Omaha Country Club.
He would like to finally tee it up on the masterpiece he helped create.
“Next week, maybe,” he says. “We'll see.”
For now, there's still work to be done. On Monday evening, the only thing in the air is the sound of a small army of paid employees and volunteers touching up the sod masterpiece sculpted for two years by Spencer and his boss, Eric McPherson.
Four men mow the fairways on the front nine, while four more cut the fairways on the back nine. They had already mowed on Monday morning, so the amount trimmed off looks microscopic, and the resulting clippings are so short they look more like green powder than actual grass.
Using hoses large enough to put out a fire, several young men hand-water any patch of brown grass they find in a fairway. They aren't many — the fairways are practically glowing in the soft evening sunlight.
Is this Heaven? No, it's the sixth hole. Here's your wedge.
Several dozen volunteers walk each hole, filling divots the pros left during the Monday practice round.
A dozen more brandish rakes.
“Are they raking the bunkers?” I ask Spencer.
No, he says, and tells me that the rough around the greens has gotten long and thick. It needs to be fluffed up by rakes at night, or else it will get gnarled and unhealthy.
“So those guys are the rough fluffers?” I ask.
“Yes,” Spencer says, and he smiles sheepishly.
No judging. You would employ rough fluffers, too, if you had one shot to put on a championship that has been hosted by a Who's Who of famous American golf courses. Inverness. Whistling Straits. Riviera.
You would employ rough fluffers, too, if you had gone to the lengths that Eric McPherson, Spencer and the rest of the 31 grounds employees have since they started planning for the Senior Open in the summer of 2011.
Eric, the director of green and grounds, hired Spencer in June 2011, and they immediately set to work.
They rebuilt the 10th fairway in a most unusual way — by building a bridge over a creek with concrete, and then covering the concrete bridge with tons of dirt, and then covering the dirt with grass.
There is still a creek gurgling under the 10th fairway. You just can't see it anymore.
Then they took every grain of sand out of the sand traps, replaced the liners underneath the sand traps, dumped the sand back into the traps and mixed it with new and even more pristine sand.
Slowly they grew out the tall outer rough, the kind the U.S. Open and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. Senior Open are known for. Two-and-a-half inches. Then 3 inches. Then 4.
They struggled through summer 2012, which in case you forgot was ultra-hot and ultra-dry and virtually everything that you don't want if you are readying a golf course for a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Then they buzzed the fairways Marine-haircut short, and the greens even shorter, while juggling competing demands that this grass look emerald green — which tends to take a lot of water — and also be firm and fast and not spongy, which is of course more difficult every time you water it.
This is how much they care about the fairways: On Monday evening I ask the height of the fairway grass, which seems an innocent enough question. Spencer tells me the fairways “are a height that we are comfortable with.” In other words, the height of the fairway grass is classified.
This is how much they care about the greens: They set up giant fans on several of them, in order to circulate air, reduce the stickiness and keep them looking postcard perfect.
If this seems a bit obsessive, that's because it is.
But there are the rewards. “I get to watch the sun set over the clubhouse,” Spencer says. “It's beautiful. I feel blessed every time I see it.”
Spencer has been seeing seven sunsets a week since spring. His hours have gradually ratcheted up to 12 a day, then 14, and then 18 or 19, every day, this week. He comes home to a house he and his wife rent right next to the course. He collapses into bed. He sleeps four hours. He gets up and returns.
He is drinking way too many Mountain Dews. “No idea,” when I ask him for a daily estimate. “I should start counting, though.”
We are riding in a cart on Monday morning when he asks me if we can pick the interview back up later. Why?
“Because I haven't seen my daughter in a week, and my wife is bringing her to the course in a minute.”
His daughter, Emma, is 7 months old.
So yeah, you don't know pressure.