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Miguel Ramirez is not a golf course laborer. He's a soldier. It's 8 a.m. at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. The desert sun has chased away the morning chill that greeted the yawning members of the grounds crew three hours earlier. Today's forecast calls for a high of 100°, but Ramirez, a burly 29-year-old Mexican immigrant, is dressed for cooler weather, wearing gray work pants and a long-sleeve crew shirt. He stands atop the flatbed of a John Deere utility vehicle and shovels sand that will be used to smooth out bumps and ball marks on the greens. Wiping beads of sweat from his brow, Ramirez lowers the red bandana shielding his mouth from clouds of fertilizer dust and unveils a wide white grin.
The golfers don't look as chipper as the sweat-soaked grunt making $7.35 an hour. So what's with the Pepsodent smile?
"I'm not a worker," Ramirez says, his Spanish accent softened by 13 years in the U.S. "I'm a soldier." As in, We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day. "It feels good to work hard. I do a good job. I do it fast. It keeps me in shape. It's so beautiful here. And the work is fun." His idea of fun is a nine-hour shift shoveling sand, mowing greens, raking bunkers and digging trenches on the Raptor course, one of Grayhawk's two 18-hole tracks—all beneath a blistering sun.
Ramirez is one of tens of thousands of grounds crew workers who help make golf possible in America, the unsung artisans who groom courses into things of beauty. And they do it for little money. In Arizona, greenkeeping jobs are done mostly by Mexican immigrants happy to earn the $7.35—minimum wage. (Grayhawk, which pays up to $12 an hour for experienced workers, requires all applicants to produce proof of legal residency.)
The work can be backbreaking, which is fitting, because Ramirez once broke his back. Several years ago he ran a red light, struck another vehicle and flipped his car five times. "It's O.K.," he says of the occasional pain. "It only acts up when I lie down."
There's never time to lie down at Grayhawk, but there is time to sit and watch golf. "We have to stop when [the players] are hitting," Ramirez says. "I don't like playing, but I like watching. It's a good game. Funny too." When he sees angry players flinging clubs, he'll chuckle. "It makes me laugh. Why are they mad? There's no bad day out here. I saw one guy lose his club that he threw into a grassy area. Golf should be fun." Ramirez appreciates the strategy the game demands. "You need to know where you're hitting, where you're going. You need a plan."
Ramirez could be talking about himself. At age 16, his plan was simple. "Come to America for a more better future," he says in his imperfect English. He and several relatives left Mexico's punishing socioeconomic climate—minimum wage there is about 65 cents an hour—for opportunity north of the border. After stints as a landscaper and a cook, Ramirez joined Grayhawk two years ago.
The manual labor is preparing him for his dream job: personal trainer. "I want to go to school and become a trainer and work in a gym, and this keeps me in shape," says Ramirez, who runs a mile or two after work. He pulls up a sleeve and flexes his right biceps, as if showing his résumé, and reveals another reason he rises every day at 4 a.m.: The name of his young daughter, Sandra, is tattooed on his right elbow.
He smiles bigger than ever. "I work hard for me and for her."
Ed Juba is not an assistant superintendent. He's a symphony orchestra conductor.