Black Lake Golf Club: An Appreciation for the Union Greenskeeper

Divots, ball marks, soft fairways, disease, pests, dollar spots, top dressing, aerifcation, irrigation, frost, gophers … and golfers!

While many courses have two or three so-called signature holes that are worthy of brochure status, every hole at Black Lake Golf Club could easily be on the front cover of a magazine promoting the course. That’s one reason it was named Golf Digest’s “100 Greatest Public Courses in America.”

The Black Lake Golf Club is run by 27 employees and eight are part of the union course maintenance staff with this elite title: greenskeeper (or Class 1 Maintenance if you want to get technical). These physically fit caretakers begin their day at 4 a.m. where they work in the dark before dawn, armed with flashlights and headlamps facing the daily task of maintaining the health and beautification of the 360 acres that make up the UAW-owned Black Lake Golf Club.

The classic, Rees Jones-designed course sits outside the union’s Walter and May Reuther UAW Family Education Center in Onaway, Michigan.

UAW Black Lake

All the while, these phantom gladiators battle with time to get their jobs done with lightning speed to ensure they’re out of sight when golfers with visions of acing a hole-in-one arrive for tee times. Indeed, some golfers may think well-kept courses are the result of some magical fairies and elves. But these proud greenskeepers know otherwise.

“Maintaining greens is just a small part of what we do,” said superintendent and mechanic Chris Elwell of Local 324, Region 4, operating engineers.  “[We handle] anything from fertilizer to spraying for disease and pest control, mowing the rough, fairways and greens, to maintaining the bunkers.”

These union greenskeepers do all that and more. Weather plays a fickle role in the daily life of each of these workers. These brave warriors must face sometimes unbearable northern Michigan conditions – whether it’s 35 or 95 degrees outside – while working in harsh elements such as rain, heat and wind.

The job is physical and the hours are long, but the satisfaction of nurturing the land propels these greenskeepers to press on. When the turf is dry and coughing up dust, these doctors of the earth know where and when to bring comfort by running “a golf course IV” (also known as an irrigation system) to quench the soil’s thirst.

With 18 regulation holes, the pitch-and-putt Little Course with nine more holes and a natural driving range to guard and patrol, these folks must primarily walk as they mow around bunkers, blow leaves and grass using space-age backpacks, cut new hole positions on greens and move tees within the boxes.

A club factoid: This platoon’s chemical sprayer walks a whopping 1,835,458 square feet!

So, next time you look beyond that little white ball when you’re putting on a carpet-like green or see a flag waving at the end of a pristine fairway, think about the TLC that goes into maintaining the health, beauty and elegance of a golf course.

You never know. The greenskeepers may be watching.

Denn Pietro

For more information about Black Lake Golf Club, visit