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"Caribbean Golf"

Golf Superintendent News

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Out on an island, literally, but not alone. That’s the nature of the job for GCSAA superintendents Peter Stormes, Keith Stein, and Alan Bakos as they find new challenges and new opportunities at their various golf courses in the Caribbean.

While the Four Seasons Nevis, Royal St. Kitts Golf Club and White Witch in Jamaica may all be competitors in some sense for sun-seeking Caribbean golfing visitors, the superintendents know they must all work together at their ocean paradise courses to make sure the region keeps up its reputation as a golfing haven.

“If something breaks on the tractor or we need something for the fertilizer, I can’t just run down to the store and get it. It may take a month to get it shipped here, so I always have to plan in advance,” said Stormes, the head superintendent at the St. Kitts Golf Club operated by Marriott Golf at the small, but very sunny island which is just across the waters from Nevis.

“I’ll help out another course if they need something, just like they will help me. We have to plan and work together.”

In fact, Stormes worked with Stein, both Canadians, at the White Witch in Jamaica. They learned the ways of the Caribbean golf scene where the idyllic island conditions can be interrupted by dozens of inches of rain in one day or one period or a hurricane which can shut down the island and the course for a week or more.

“I’ve worked at other courses in the states, but once I came here and saw the beauty and saw the lifestyle, my family and I were hooked,” said Bakos, who works at the Four Seasons Nevis.

“It’s a lot different than being a superintendent in the states where everything is just a phone call away at the store, but it’s one my family and I certainly enjoy. We are living an adventure and experiencing a different culture first hand,” Bakos added.

All three men, Stein, Stormes and Bakos said organization and communication was the key to their job in the sun-splashed paradise which can turn rough at any minute.

“I have to be 3-4 months ahead of my maintenance, watering and feeding schedule,” said Stein, whose title of Superintendent of Golf Grounds at the Ritz Carlton, another Marriott golf operated property, can take on several dozen acres of the lush Jamaican landscape.

“If I run out of something or need something, then it’s a long process to get it shipped here. I can get it Fed-exed, but it’s very expensive, so we all have to work together,”

That’s why Stein is just a phone call away from Stormes, who is actually a few hundred miles of ocean away on the map. Bakos is just a 30-minute boat ride from the small island of St. Kitts to the even smaller and exclusive enclave of Nevis.

Each superintendent faces unique and shared challenges in their island climate. Of the three, the Royal St. Kitts has the most direct access to the ocean. Holes 15-16-17 of the par 71 course, which was totally renovated by Canadian architect Thomas McBroom in 2004, lie directly along the Atlantic Ocean and Half Moon Bay. The green of the par 4 third hole is directly facing the Caribbean Sea.

“In any coastal region, salt spray from the ocean can turn the Bermuda grass brown in a hurry,” Stormes said.

That’s why the introduction of the salt tolerate grass paspalum has been such a lifesaver for Royal St. Kitts and other island courses.

“It makes life a lot easier for us now,” Stormes admits. “We could actually water with salt water now, even thought we don’t and we also have a desaltation plant.”

With the course at sea level at many places, he also faces many other challenges due to the ever changing weather.

“When you have a storm surge with a hurricane, there’s not much you can do,” Stormes said.

“You spend a lot of time watching the Weather Channel. Anything that is loose you batten down and prepare the best you can.”

When hurricanes decide to play through their area, the trio of superintendents counts it as just one more obstacle they have to face in their island adventure.

“Our course is higher up in the mountains, so we don’t get the water right off the ocean, but it can rain 14 inches in a 24-hour period,” Stein said. “That’s a lot of water to drain off your course in a short period of time.”

All three men have had hurricane experience of some kind while they’ve been in the Carrribean, but said that isn’t the main thing which can make their job challenging.

For Bakos, a GCSAA superintendent who moved from a job in Naples, Florida to Nevis, the greatest challenge can come with four legs.

“Animals roam freely on our island, so I’ve learned how to gently coax cows off a green, so they’ll gently walk off instead of run which would cause even more damage,” he said.

Like the par 71 White Witch course overseen by Stein, Bakos’ par 70 Four Seasons Nevis course is mainly set in the mountains overlooking the islands. The Robert Trent Jones, Jr designed course offers drop-dead beautiful views, but plenty of superintendent related challenges.

“Even though I came from Southwest Florida, which is a great place to grow warm season grass, the grass and the weeds grow even better here,” Bakos said. “That means even more weed control, more aeration, more dethatching and more topdressing.”

Because the conditions are always changing in the Caribbean depending on the weather or the unique seasons of the year, Stormes has to adjust his greens keeping game plan accordingly.

“We often use a lot less fertilizer here; it takes less nitrogen and we use a lot more liquids. It’s not always the same amount all the time, you just to adjust to the conditions.

“You have to be pro-active not reactive in the islands, but after a while you learn what’s going on and focus on the rhythms of the seasons,” he said.

Royal St. Kitts like Four Seasons Nevis and White Witch, a par 71 von Hagge, Smelek, Baril design, has a small number of local  members with the vast majority of its play coming from American tourists making a visit, eager to escape their U.S. surroundings for a highly scenic and well manicured piece of paradise.

“I don’t like hearing, it’s a good course for the Caribbean,” Stormes said. “I don’t want people to see any difference between Florida and the Caribbean for any of our courses.”

Another part of the island challenge is the often inexperienced group of workers the superintendents must put together.

At Royal St. Kitts, Stormes has a crew of 24 people along with two mechanics plus assistant superintendent Steve Williams. Many of the people on the St. Kitts crew knew little or nothing about golf when they first started.

“They had to learn the standards we need and learn how to operate the machinery,” Stormes said. “The concept of golf didn’t exist with them. They started from scratch which can be a good thing because they didn’t have any preconceived ideas.

“Part of what makes it rewarding is to see young guys take over and be successful. We try to improve every day.”

Bakos, who manages a similar sized crew, said mastering the tricks of the Caribbean Superintendent trade is critical to overall success.

“It’s important to keep the irrigation tanks full of water when it is not raining. We can irrigate faster than the water comes into the tanks. A couple of hours of lost pumping can mean thousands of gallons of critical water lost.

“Weed management is an ongoing challenge and it’s important to have an aggressive renovation program.”

In this idyllic paradise these three superintendants have amassed a wealth of knowledge about their unique Caribbean course needs which they share and use to help each other.

Out on an island, but not alone indeed, for the dedicated Caribbean course maintenance trio.

Art Stricklin is a Plano, Texas based golf writer and a regular contributor to the magazine.