Grass is Always Greener

With new Stone Ridge course superintendent, the ...
Course superintendent Steve Gregory waters around the seventh green at Stone Ridge Golf Club in Eagle Point on Friday. Mail Tribune / Julia MooreJulia Moore

The question did not catch Steve Gregory by surprise.

The new course superintendent at Stone Ridge Golf Club came to the Rogue Valley at the first of May from the Southern California desert.

Two vastly disparate climates, two wildly different challenges.

How would he manage?

His answer was quite simple.

"Well," says Gregory, "it's grass. That's what I do."

And by all accounts, he does it well.

Gregory had been at a facility once deemed as something of a golfing Shangri-La, Montesoro Golf Club in Borrego Springs, Calif. But the remote community projected as a second-home destination for the wealthy crashed with the housing market, and funds for development were continually scaled back.

When the maintenance budget fell from $2.4 million to less than a million and the crew was trimmed to four, Gregory says, "the handwriting was on the wall."

Several Medford-area residents wintered at Borrego Springs, and one of them served as a go-between for Gregory and Stone Ridge owner Jim Cochran. Cochran needed a superintendent, and Gregory needed a stable work environment.

Gregory, 49, was raised in the Kansas City area and worked most of his life in the Midwest before moving to the desert. He didn't think that change of terrain and climate was a big deal. Likewise, coming to the Northwest gave him little pause, outside the concerns one would expect over relocating to an unfamiliar place.

But there were obstacles.

"When I interviewed for the job, we were coming off the wettest winter on record," says Gregory, whose eight-man crew at Stone Ridge includes his son, Spencer, a recent high school graduate. "There were huge wet areas in the fairways, and I'm like, 'Oh boy, let's see how this goes.'"

Cochran, to his credit, says Gregory, left the new super to his own devices and "let me do what I needed to do to get this place in playable condition. I guess in the past, a lot of the regular players here felt like the course, at times, wasn't very playable."

A single-digit handicapper since his high school playing days, Gregory recalls his introduction to the soggy, spongy greens during the spring saturation. A croquet mallet wouldn't be enough to get the ball to the hole, he mused.

The first thing Gregory did was stop the rain.

OK, he had little to do with that. But he did shut down the sprinklers for close to a month.

"We got these areas dried up and started playing around with some of the mowing heights and putting some fertilizer down," says Gregory. "The next thing you know, it starts coming around."

Cochran runs a tight ship, and for good reason. He designed and built the course, which opened in 1995.

"Jim knows more than any owner I've ever worked with about building and maintaining a golf course," says Gregory. "He's pretty much done this thing on his own. He was looking for somebody he can trust."

In fact, for the past year or so, Stone Ridge was without a superintendent. Mike Cook acted as foreman of the crew but Cochran called many of the shots.

Then came Gregory.

"We hit it off pretty well," says Cochran. "It just worked out right for both of us. He happened to come in and we were really thrilled to get him. That's always a good situation. Nobody had to talk anybody into doing what we needed to do."

"He's doing a great job. The course is looking really, really good," says Cochran, adding that he's pleased with his entire crew. "They help Steve out a lot. One guy can't do it alone. It takes a good bunch of guys to make it work."

Gregory began working on the maintenance crew of a private club when he was 19. The superintendent and some of the members, including then-Kansas City Royals owner Ewing Kauffman, says Gregory, gathered funds to send him to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, one of the nation's top turf-management schools.

After two years, he returned to Kansas City and landed the first of a couple of assistant jobs. His big break came in 1988, when he was hired at Shadow Glen Golf Club. He helped build the course with the design team of Tom Watson, Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish.

Watson was born in Kansas City and owns a farm on the outskirts.

"It was a lot of fun," says Gregory. "As a kid growing up in Kansas City, if you liked golf ... Tom Watson was my idol. So it was kind of neat getting a chance to work with him."

After six years at Shadow Glen, including two as superintendent, Gregory built a course in Springfield, Mo., then moved on to another of Kansas City's finest courses, Hallbrook Country Club. After 10 years, it was time for another challenge, and he headed for California's desert.

Montesoro was to sprout out of an existing golf course, Rams Hill, at a cost of $36 million, says Gregory. Three new Fazio holes were in place when construction was suspended for a year and the budget cut cleaved in half. During the lull, Gregory and his crew maintained the old course and the three new holes.

When Montesoro was finally finished and operational, "It was phenomenal," says Gregory.

Indeed, it was No. 5 on Golf Digest's list of best remodels in 2008.

When he moved here, Gregory was confident in his ability.

"I've been doing this all my life, all my adult life," he says. "I feel like I can pretty much go anywhere and do whatever it is I have to do. I have a really good, strong, fundamental educational background, and I think I can go to any climate and adapt and take care of a golf course."

That he's doing it alongside his son makes it more special.

The two were apart for a half-dozen "important" years, says Gregory, who is divorced from Spencer's mom. Father and son have reconnected and share the same passion for manicuring golf courses.

Spencer will probably take the same route as his father, with a couple years of hands-on experience before schooling.

"You can learn quite a bit out of the books," says Gregory, "but nothing can replace being out in the field. That's where it's at. If you have that combination, you can do pretty well."

After all, it's grass. It's what they do.

Have a local golf story idea? Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com


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