July 2nd, 2019 04:26PM
INDIAN RIVER – Superintendent Pat Whitman is in his 48th year of making Indian River Golf Club green and ready for the busy golf season.
Located 25 miles north of Gaylord, Indian River was where his family moved to from Detroit in 1968 and they lived less than two blocks from the golf course. Pat was 15 then. He’s 67 now.
“The golf course will be 100 years old in 2022 and I started working here as a summer job in ’72. So that puts me here 48 years, which at this point in 2019 the course is 96 years old, and half of 96 is 48,” he said. “I’ve been here half the existence of this place, and when you think about it that way, it seems like a long time.”
Whitman doesn’t think about it that way often, though. This is a guy, a family man with two adult children, whose hobby was Runabout boat racing against people a third of his age or younger until last spring when he sold his rig.
He likes to go fast, and he said the years of taking care of Indian River’s fairways, greens and bunkers has gone by fast, too.
“You get so busy the years go quick,” he said. “It is non-stop in the spring. I can’t golf until halfway through June or even into July. Everything seems to need to be done all at one time, and you can only have so big of a crew. You never get to put it on cruise control. Something is going wrong all the time. You battle Mother Nature all the time and roll with the punches on that. You have golf a few months, and then fall cleanup, then shut her down when the snow flies, then do maintenance, and I take a month off and we go right back to it.”
He lives five miles south of Indian River, a five-minute drive, and most days in the summer rises early, works all day, goes home and returns again just to check on irrigation or other things that can and will go wrong.
“This time of year it’s almost 24-7,” he said. “When you go like that, all of a sudden it’s July, then September and then spring again.”
Growing up in Detroit, Whitman had been exposed to golf and played it a few times. His parents bought summer memberships at Indian River while he was in his teens and he would play some then.
He said at age 16 he and some friends used to sneak on to the course in late summer evenings, take off their shoes and play football on the third fairway close to the main road that runs through the heart of Indian River.
“One night the general manager at the time comes over the hill in his Impala and we all scatter,” he said. “Well, he gathered up all the shoes, so to get our shoes back we had to go to him. We didn’t do any damage running around barefoot, and nowadays kids couldn’t get away with it. That road out there is too busy all summer.”
After he graduated from high school Whitman went about the business of furthering his education. He
went to Northwestern in Traverse City to study Parks and Recreation Management for a year but found no summer job available in the busy industry the following summer. He went to Indian River Golf Club and was added to the grounds crew.
“I liked it so much, I went to Michigan State for Turfgrass Management after that, worked here in the summers and I’ve just never left,” he said. “I thought about it a few times, but you know, they must like what I’ve done here all these years. They keep having me come back.”
It was a nine-hole course that had been revamped a few times from its original 1922 start and design by the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame designer/golfer Wilfrid Reid when Whitman started working at Indian River. In 1984, architect Warner Bowen did a major addition of essentially 11 holes, which included completely removing two of the original holes. Since then, Whitman has been involved in changes made to almost all of the holes.
He calls maintaining a golf course a constant work in progress.
“You don’t really finish ever,” he said.
He’s not finished either. He figures he will make it to 50 years for him and 100 years for the course as long as his health is good. He’s tall, rangy and has the look of a man who has spent most of his days outdoors.
“I hurt a little more at the end of long days, but as long as I feel good and I can do the work, I figure to be here,” he said. “I know I’m unusual. I know in the industry superintendents last at places maybe five or 10 years and then owners and members start thinking they can get it done better or cheaper. I’ve been fortunate. It’s year-to-year for me now, and as long as they want me around, I’ll be here. I did think I would retire from here before I gave up boat racing, but even that hasn’t happened.”
Slowly, as in a few holes each year, always in budget and within the wishes of management, Whitman has brought the course to a solid-state computerized double-row irrigation system. He is a longstanding member of the Michigan Golf Course Superintendents Association and keeps up with trends and networks with other members to deal with the problems of maintaining golf courses.
“I think we have a pretty nice golf condition here most of the time,” he said. “I have a good crew. They work hard. This is a passion in a way. I guess boat racing was my other passion.”
Corey Crowell, the general manager, said he thinks the world of Pat Whitman, as do the club members and regulars who play Indian River, which is open to the public and just a few minutes off I-75. Pat directed the building of a new putting green last year, and the club decided to name it in his honor for his dedicated service. There’s a plaque next to the green that declares the site is “Pat’s Putting Green.”
“Pat and his crew keep us going,” he said. “We have a short season so we need the course to be ready and stay ready for play, and he pulls it off. And he’s a great guy. He’s another reason we call ourselves the friendliest club in the north.”
Whitman said golfers are missing a nice place if they flash on by in either direction on I-75.
“It’s a good course, a fun course and the restaurant (The Greenside Grille) is great, too,” he said.
Visit indianrivergolfclub.com for more information and come play Pat’s course or visit gaylordgolfmecca.com and book a trip to the Mecca that includes Indian River. Warning: On the third fairway you might have to fight off the impulse of taking off your shoes.