Course Superintendent Billy Weeks has a problem. An asbestos-filled pipe circa 1957 has “blown out” around the Duke Golf Club’s No. 4 tee box, and the irrigation system for the hole won’t work now. The area around the pipe has also been flooded. There’s big heaping mounds of dirt where grass should be, and two veterans of the staff stand in muck and mud, trying to fix the problem.
Billy and his boss, General Manager Ed Ibarguen, deal with this a lot now—the pipes underneath the course are temperamental, and in desperate need of an overhaul. Mini Mount Vesuviuses sit under fairways.
But despite the water problems, the course has never looked better. I noticed the improvements during a picture-perfect weekday round with my dad in early June: The grass appeared greener. The fairways and greens were more manicured than I had ever seen. I wondered instantly how the place could have improved so much in such a short amount of time. I got my answer by spending a day with Ed and Billy, to whom Ed attributes many of the small improvements.
And with a major renovation on the way, Robert Trent Jones’ design is about to become even better.
Billy, at 32, is a child in his field—still mistaken by outsiders as a regular employee of the club. A Mississippi State grad, who grew up obsessed with baseball and didn’t take up golf until his freshman year of college, Billy had a strange start to his career at Duke. After beating out over 100 résumés, he was welcomed to North Carolina in early April by the state’s worst tornadoes in 50 years. Then, in his first week, he was almost nailed twice by errant shots. In his previous 14 years on the job, he’d never come close to being hit.
Even with a tumultuous first few days, Billy made his mark. “In less than two months of work, he’s done an unbelievable job,” Ed said.
In charge of a crew of 21, which includes several members of the “wrassling” team (he says with a unique self-conscious Southern accent), Billy is a perfectionist. While watching him, I’m struck by his constant evaluations of the course. He waves his hand over what looks like a perfectly manicured hole No. 9, and directs my attention to a dead spot of grass on the top of a fairway bunker. He points to the dead grass beside the cart path of No. 14: “We need to cut these limbs.” He even notices the cart has slowed down at one point. “Can we send messages on these things?” he asks me, pointing at the GPS. “This car isn’t right.”
“When I try to play here, I’m thinking of things to fix. I can’t enjoy it,” he said at one point.
Despite his meticulous nature, Billy can appreciate the overall beauty of the place. We stop and take in the view on a hilltop on No. 1 toward the end of our day. “This is a gorgeous place, man,” he says. “I think this renovation will take it to another level.”
Ed started working at the Duke Golf Club in 1988. Hired away from University of North Carolina’s Finley Golf Course by Duke Athletic Director Tom Butters, Ed was greeted by a poorly managed course with almost unplayable conditions, a major thorn in the side of the golf-crazy athletic director. In between making cosmetic improvements to the course, Ed set forth a five-year plan that would include a major course redesign and overhaul.
He first asked Robert Trent Jones, Sr., the legendary course architect and original designer of the Duke Golf Club, if he would update the course. Senior quickly turned down the job. Ed then asked Jones’ son, Rees, at an event in Pinehurst Resort if he would do the job. Rees, who was sitting beside his wife, a UNC alum, said succinctly, “We have no interest in Duke.”
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“I was like a dog that had been beaten,” Ed said.
A year later, though, Rees’ daughter applied for admission to Duke University. Rees made it clear he would take the job if his daughter got in. “Luckily, [she] was a brilliant student,” Ed said with a laugh.
Rees changed a lot of small things about the course during his redesign, bringing in fairway bunkers and lengthening the holes. He did not, however, alter his father’s timeless design. While touring the course, Rees looked over the fairway and said, “The tailor cut a good suit,” Ed recalled.
Ed stuck with the course after the renovation and oversaw a successful NCAA Championship in 2001. But while the Club remained a top-tier course as the first decade of the 21st century drew to a close, its conditions did begin to falter.
It’s back on track now, though—and Billy and Ed have big plans for the future.
The Duke Golf Club is set to undergo another facelift in the next three to five years, at a pricetag of $3 to $3.5 million tocome from a fundraising campaign. The irrigation system will be replaced by a computerized model and it will be designed, according to Ed, by the same man who did the world-renowned system at Augusta National. The bent grass greens will also be swapped for Bermuda grass— a change executed by many golf courses in the area. A rise in overall temperature over the past decades has made North Carolina more balmy, and the greens at the Duke Golf Club can no longer handle the heat.
Billy and Ed are both energized by the possibilities the renovation will bring. Ed wants to host another NCAA Championship. Last time, the NCAA, after a first day of high scores, had to tell Ed to tone down the conditions of the course to make it more fair, asking him to put pins in the middle of the greens and make the play easier overall. “We won’t do that next time,” he says.
For now, though, the next renovation is a distant apparition. Billy and I drive back to the No. 4 tee box—the irrigation system now appears to be working. Good news. Then Billy notices that Chester has his hands on his hips. “When he does that, that’s not good,” Billy says with a note of understatement.
We drive up and Chester and Eddy inform their boss that the pipe is leaking. The problem has not been solved, and their work is far from over.
A golf course is never complete.