Archive for Thursday, July 19, 2007

Dream job

July 19, 2007

The Kill Creek plows into the Kansas River just east of De Soto, the water having collected from the hills southeast of town and having traveled as far as 15 overland miles, but meandering slowly through enough bends and turns in the creek to make that distance twice as long. It rolls past new homes, flows through patches of farm ground and drifts by one still-radiantly green golf course.

The creek's to thank for that, Greg DeBauche, said -- the creek and the pumps that supply the Oak Country Golf Cours he owns with Tom Anderson.

The creek's to thank for all of that.

Meet Anderson and DeBauche separately and it may be hard to guess they've been friends since they were kids. At first glance, they're not just different -- they're opposite.

They're more than friends, though -- they're business partners, and they've been making De Soto's only 18-hole golf course run for more than a decade.

"I love it and Greg does, too," Anderson said. "I take care of the business side of things, the clubhouse and everything like the taxes. He's the superintendent, so he does most of the course work. We work well in partnership because we each have our area.

"Running a golf course, I love it."

The pair grew up together in Concordia, about an hour north of Salina. Appropriately they grew up loving golf, playing in high school and on the local courses whenever time would allow. Now they make a dream team of sorts -- each one takes a radically different role in owning the course, each one loves his own place, and neither one could imagine the course working without the other.

Anderson's the talkative one. The pair went to Kansas State where Anderson learned the restaurant and hotel business and DeBauche learned the finer points of taking care of a golf course. After graduating Anderson spent 12 years working in management for a restaurant chain, perfect experience for his dream job, he said.

He takes care of the business details, from the budget to the advertising, the tournament scheduling to the pro shop sales.

DeBauche's the quiet one, stressing that he'd always trade a day standing behind the counter in the clubhouse for a day roaming his 18 holes of paradise, constantly on the lookout for his next repair job, big or small.

Following K-State, he first took care of the course at the Parsons Country Club for six years, then moved on to Echo Hills in Wichita for six more years.

"I've loved to golf since I was six years old, so I figured if I ran a golf course, I could play whenever I want," DeBauche said with a laugh. "I never liked being up in the club house, so this works well.

"It's a dream job."

It was in Wichita that the childhood plans of Anderson and DeBauche turned from fuzzy memories to real opportunities. Anderson had grown tired of the restaurant business's relentless hours -- though he's quick to remind that his current hours are different, not shorter. DeBauche, meanwhile, was eager to manage his own course his own way.

Next came an exhaustive search throughout the Midwest. The pair visited courses in Oklahoma and Texas, but it was the wandering Kill Creek that finally made them abandon their search.

"It was just the course. It was 90 percent the course, and maybe 10 percent that we both lived close, down in Wichita," Anderson said of the selection process. "We had friends here, so that helped, but it was mainly the course."

The pair came prepared, but there were still plenty of surprises in the early days. Oak Country was originally built by Jim Carpenter in 1988. Carpenter owned it for nearly four years, then sold it, but took possession back over four years later as its condition worsened and it slid toward dilapidation.

"Carpenter had the course for eight or nine months before we came in and bought it, and he had done a lot to come in and clean it back up," Anderson said. "Still, there were a lot of things to improve upon. The tee boxes were too small so they'd get beat up. We improved the irrigation on the course and we actually put a cutline between the fairway and the rough, and did a lot to the greens."

Some of the surprises were bad. Even stocked full of golf course and business experience, the duo were shocked by their first bills. They had to rent extra carts and still frustratingly marvel that people are irresponsible enough to park the carts in lakes and tear up the property.

They weren't all negative, though. On April 13, 2007, about a year after Anderson and DeBauche invested their lives in golf, a 21-year-old shocked the world and won the Masters golf tournament by 12 strokes. The resulting surge -- the Tiger Woods effect -- changed everything, Anderson said.

That tidal wave has only just now worn off, and with that comes even more challenges. Oak Country hosts more than 100 tournaments every year, accommodating the civil to the rowdy, and employs all sorts of deals and specials to entice players to come, come back and come back again.

"Our motto is 'Always the lowest green fees -- always a great value,'" Anderson said.

That's what they promise, and what they have to deliver to keep sufficient traffic making the trip from the more eastern sections of Johnson County.

"It's been a challenge," Anderson said of the post-Tiger boom letdown and this spring's rainy weather. "We have to work on a tighter budget and we have to find a way to advertise to the Johnson County area in an effective and less expensive way."

The challenges continue for DeBauche, as well. He wakes up every morning at 5:15, and often is still watering the course into the next morning, until 2 or 3 a.m. The wet spring and early summer cut Oak Country deep in two ways. Not only did it keep golfers away, it combined with this month's warmer weather to make grass disease's wonderland.

Last week, he was hunkered over an electrical box with a friend, trying to solve two problems. First, he needed to turn a pump back on to resume the flow of life from Kill Creek. Second, he needed to get the power working so he could plug in a giant fan he had placed near the 12th green. The fan was the only way to cool the finicky, tree-cloaked grass and hopefully stave off the ugly brown stains of late summer a little longer.

The pump finally popped on, but the fan remained a problem, possibly shorting out the system after having been rained on.

It would have to be fixed, DeBauche said as he rode back toward the clubhouse, his mind already moving on to what he said is his favorite part of owning the course.

It only happens two, maybe three times a week, and with the early afternoon rush already on the course and golfing, this would be one of those days.

"Now we're going to tee it up," he said.

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