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The touring pros arrived on Monday morning, May 1, and started tearing into this pristine sward as if they suspected diamonds were hidden in the topsoil. "The pros know how to take divots," said Owens Sherard, a greenkeeper with 30 years of experience who was looking after the range for course superintendent Jeff Kent. Aaron Baddeley, for instance, has mastered what is known as the Vijay Singh Strip--long, straight paths separated by narrow grass medians. Todd Hamilton, on the other hand, produces short divot plumes that flare in all directions. (He changes targets constantly to avoid locking into a bad alignment.) Jesper Parnevik's divot strip is practically a trench.
No one is prouder of the design of his earthworks than Pernice, who carves rows of perfect dollar-bill-sized rectangles separated by grass margins. "It's my trademark," Pernice says. "The face stays square through the hitting area and the toe of the club doesn't turn over during the shot." He shrugs modestly. "I've spent some hours on this thing."
At the end of the day all those divots have to be filled in. This work is done by elves, who slip onto the range at twilight, after the last player has gone. The divot mix at the Wachovia was a simple 50-50 combination of sand and soil. No seed was necessary, Kent explained, because the players were hitting off a carpet of 80% perennial rye and 20% fine fescue, all of which would soon go dormant. "The bermuda," he said, "is ready to come out."
The biggest logistical challenge on a Tour range--no disrespect to the elves, who have to get up before dawn to mow the grass by headlights--is ball picking, washing and sorting. Five thousand golf balls sounds like a lot, but a Tour pro will hit anywhere from two to 10 bags of balls a day, with each bag holding about 38 balls. ("You do the math," said Baldwin.) In addition, huge buckets of brand-new Titleist NXTs were set out for amateurs playing in the Monday and Wednesday pro-ams. To retrieve and sort all that ordnance, Baldwin and Lawton had recruited a half-dozen volunteers a day, most of them club pros or students from their golf programs.
Ball picking, though not rocket science, is at least mechanized. From 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. someone from the range crew was either driving a utility cart with a gang picker attached or pouring oil into the cart's balky engine. Other volunteers walked the tree lines, tees and greens, the balls disappearing up aluminum tubes into red shag bags. The bunkers, alas, had to be picked by hand, and this was not possible when players were hitting. "Sometimes the pros use the bunkers as targets," Baldwin explained, "so you'll have three or four hundred Callaways and Bridgestones tied up until we can get out there and handpick them."
Tired of standing on the range, I went out a couple of evenings and helped pick the bunkers. All I had to do was scoop up as many balls as I could and hurl them down the hill, where the gang picker could collect them in an efficient sweep or two. "Am I doing it right?" I asked Baldwin. He said, "You're coming over the top."
I could have volunteered to sort balls, as well, but I was content to watch. All day long, range assistants would take one scrubbed ball after another out of a wire bucket and toss it into another wire bucket, according to brand. This reminded me of certain Chinese restaurants, where the staff sits around a table in the afternoon, shelling peas and folding wontons. (When Tiger Woods plays in a tournament, the range workers have to separate his Nikes from all the other Nikes. "They look the same," an assistant told me, "but his balls have a little tw on them.")
On Thursday evening the range crew sorted balls so late that they had to use the light from their cellphones to tell the Pro V1s from the Pro V1xs.
"Was it last year when the dog bit the assistant?" Baldwin asked.
"No," Lawton replied. "Last year was when the trick-shot artist flattened the guy at the end of the range with his drive."