It’s an early weekday morning, and Paul Carter, the greens superintendent at the Bear Trace at Harrison Bay, is at the wheel of a golf cart, chauffeuring a visitor around the course that, on this day, seems to be doubling as a wildlife preserve.
On display as Carter winds the cart through front nine and then back are dozens of Canadian geese, three wild turkeys, a deer and several squirrels. The journey includes a stop near the now-famous bald eagle nest atop a tree overlooking the 10th green. The residents aren’t home, but they can often be seen observing the action below.
It’s little wonder Carter loves his job.
“There’s nothing better, from an occupation standpoint, to take that morning ride, the sun coming up, to see the wildlife out here,” Carter said. “You realize you’re doing more than just mowing grass. You’re affecting the habitat of these animals.
“We go home at night. They stay here. You could easily affect their habitat in a bad way, with fertilizers, chemicals, mowing certain areas too much. We have to make sure that golfers and wildlife can co-exist.”
Carter, like many greens superintendents in the Chattanooga area, is a steward of the environment in which he works. And he’s also one of the best around at growing, maintaining, beautifying and protecting. For that reason and many others, he recently received the 2011 TurfNet superintendent of the year award, given annually to a superintendent who makes significant contributions to the industry. The criteria, according to a release on TurfNet.com, include “labor-management skills, ability to educate and advance the careers of colleagues and assistants, negotiating with government agencies, maximizing budget limitations, preparing for tournaments under unusual circumstances, service to golf clientele, upgrading or restoring the course and dealing with extreme or emergency conditions.”
Carter. who has earned the designation Certified Golf Course Superintendent, has done all that and more since taking over in 2001. Sometimes, those job descriptions have crossed paths. Take for example “upgrading or restoring the course and dealing with extreme or emergency conditions.”
When Carter reported for duty 11 years ago, he was well aware that Bear Trace’s greens had been poorly constructed, making it impossible to maintain healthy bent grass in the heat of summer. But he jumped into the job with both feet anyway.
“I was all gung ho and I knew what I was going to do,” Carter said. “I was going to be the one to save the bent grass. And then we went 91 days without measurable rain that summer. The greens were cooked. We were basically watering dirt.”
There were two options to fix the problem, and one of them wasn’t realistic. At a cost of more than $1 million, the greens could have been rebuilt to USGA specifications.
The second option, suggested and implemented by Carter and his staff, was to spend less than $100,000 to sprig Bermuda grass greens. At that time, Bermuda greens still had a bit of a stigma to them. They were the greens you played on at mom and pop courses that couldn’t afford better.
Today, that stigma has vanished, gone the way of metal golf spikes. As Carter proudly showed his visitor, Bermuda greens are more than just a viable option to bent grass. They’re the wave of the future in Southern golf.
Carter and Bear Trace weren’t exactly pioneers in proving the new strains of Bermuda made excellent putting surfaces that were simple to maintain, especially during the summer. But the rousing success of Bermuda at the Bear Trace has helped the cause along.
The greens aren’t the only improvements that Carter, who’s unique in that he owns two degrees — in horticulture and agronomy — has implemented during his 11 years at the Bear Trace. He’s undertaken many projects that course architects would normally do, like rebuilding bunkers. His knowledge of plants and landscaping has led to an ongoing effort to improve and beautify the course.
Carter’s quiet efficiency and versatility led Robin Boyer, the long-time head professional at Bear Trace, to nominate Carter for the TurfNet award.
“The award means more to me than I could say,” Carter said. “Robin’s one of the great guys in the business. We have a great relationship. I can’t do my job without him. And he would have a more difficult time doing his job without me.
“That’s not always the case at golf courses, where conflict can be the standard. I’ve had several superintendents congratulate me [for the Turfnet award]. But I’ve gotten more congratulations because it was our pro who nominated me.”
Boyer is always willing to brag on Carter. Not long ago he went to Nashville to meet with Mike Nixon, who oversees the Tennessee State Park golf system.
“I told him Paul was the hardest worker on this property,” Boyer said.
Those words helped earn Carter a battlefield promotion. He’s now the director of agronomy for all nine Tennessee state park courses.
“Paul has shown the fortitude and willingness to be a leader and has had the determination to make Harrison Bay a special place for all of our visitors,” Nixon told Turfnet.com. “It would take too long to list the things he has done, with little or no dollars, to make our golf course one of the very best in the region.”
"He's always working," Boyer said. "This guy, he doesn't rest on his laurels. He's constantly at work trying to improve our golf course."
Carter doesn’t look at his job as “work.” All of us should be so lucky.
“The best thing about my job is that I don’t dread getting up in the morning,” Carter said. “I’ve got somewhere I love to come to. It’s not always been that way. When I started in the business and when I started here, it wasn’t the best working environment, the course wasn’t where it needed to be, and there was a lot of work.
“To be able to get to this point, it’s taken a lot of blood sweat and tears on a lot of people’s parts. I’ve got a great crew, so I don’t have to worry about the golf course. With the people we have in the pro shop — Robin and Keith [Burdette] and everybody else, I don’t know if you could ask for more.
“It’s a joy to come to work.”