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Turf work

homas Eschete looks content. A broad smile spreads often and easily across his face as he describes the duties, pitfalls and rewards of running The Bridges golf course at Hollywood Casino Resort in Bay St. Louis.

Eschete says he loves the outdoors, and that's a key requirement for success in his job as golf course supervisor, a job he's held at The Bridges for about nine years. He calls the sights and sounds of the course breathtaking and beams when he mentions that the course, the only one on the Coast that's on casino property, was the first resort course in the world to attain Audubon International Silver Signature status. Attaining that status requires working on initial property design with Audubon International, a Selkirk, N.Y. -based company that educates developers about supporting the environment and requires that property managers maintain long-term sustainable resource management practices. At The Bridges, for instance, drainage from greens, buffers and vegetative swales goes into sumps before being discharged into water.

Also, the course is sensitive to wildlife. It provides houses for Eastern bluebirds. The houses are numbered, so Eschete's crew can do a nesting count and an egg count to see how many fledglings are produced each year. The course also contains miles of natural corridors so the wildlife can freely traverse the acreage.

Most courses have about 150 acres of turf to maintain. The Bridges has about 80, but, says Eschete: “It's a very intense 80 acres.” About 14 acres of the property are wetlands, which must be monitored and kept clean of non-native plants.

The property is so heavily wooded that once an employee got lost. He had set out to mow and noticed a golf ball on the edge of the woods. When he went to retrieve it, he noticed another a little deeper into the woods. He saw more and more, and before he knew it, he'd walked so far into the growth he couldn't see how to get out and didn't know from which direction he'd come. It took him about two hours of walking to find his way back to the main road and the clubhouse.

Eschete and his crew start work before daybreak seven days a week and are on call 24 hours a day. They mow every day and must start early to finish before golfers arrive. There are 10 mowers at The Bridges, and they do a handful of different jobs: some cut greens (cut to 1/8 inch); some cut fairways (cut to ½ inch); others are for tee boxes, inner roughs and outer roughs; and a hand mower is used to cut steep embankments.The crew has other daily tasks, like raking the bunkers — there are 55 of them. The course has to hit a hole in one on both function and form. Golfers want their courses to look like the ones they see on TV, Eschete says.

The mowing machines must be constantly maintained, the irrigation continually tended to. The trickiest aspects? The unpredictability of Mother Nature, Eschete says. During a drought, the grass must not be overwatered. During last summer's drought, Eschete and crew conserved water for irrigation, and when they did water, they averaged using about 400,000 gallons, enough to fill almost 19 standard 16-foot by 32-foot backyard pools.

With too much rain, the grass can become susceptible to disease — which brings up a tip Eschete shares for taking care of home lawns. “During drought conditions grasses go into a dormancy condition. Overwatering can cause leaf and root diseases and leach essential nutrients from the soil. I know that this sounds silly, but stick your finger into the soil. If it is wet, reduce water. If it is getting dry, increase water. Monitoring is the key. Also, remember to turn off the sprinkler system during rainy times.” Eschete is happy to share his knowledge and expertise and often volunteers his time to help the local high school and soccer teams maintain their fields.

Eschete and crew have to stay on the lookout for damage done by wildlife. Wild pigs are like tillers, he says, and can destroy a lot of turf overnight. When they present an problem, they are captured by the U.S.D.A. There's also the dreaded army worm, which eats grass night and day and can eat about 2,000 square feet of turf overnight. But Eschete says it's a misconception to think that combating these assaults means having to use pesticides over the course's entire acreage. “We treat only the smallest area we need to,” he says. “We are not huge users of pesticides, and we get a bad rap for that.”

The diligence and hard work do pay off, though. Just a couple of accolades among many: Golf Digest rated The Bridges among the top 40 courses in the country in 2008-2009 and one of the best courses in the state fir 1999-2000, 2003-2004, and 2005-2007; a Zagat travel magazine survey named the course among America's top courses in 2003, 2007 and 2008, and gives it “must-play” status.