2002: Superintendent News - Night watermen were easily spooked, except for one who wasn’t

By Randy Wilson

Griffin, Ga.

In the old days of golf, before automated irrigation systems, there existed a special niche in the maintenance crew – the night waterman. His role consisted of watering greens and fairways, using big impact heads on quick-couplers, usually starting before dark and finishing at daylight. He had loads of freedom, working alone in the isolation of darkness while traversing the grounds as the world around him rested.

In a way, he was to a golf course what a lighthouse keeper was to helmsman on a storm-tossed ship nearing the shoals: a sign of reassurance, that one man left to his own devices will not abandon his watch and those who depend on him.

Except, in my dad’s case, that wasn’t really true. The night watermen abandoned Dad, a lifelong superintendent, with alarming regularity, inexplicably running off into the night and never returning. Very unprofessional to leave without notice, if you ask me.

What Dad didn’t know is there were dark forces conspiring against his night watermen. They were tortured souls, the men Dad hired for this nocturnal job, and I was their tormentor.

Only now can the story be told.

In the summer of 1970, at a small country club in Tennessee, my buddy, Mohon, and I were adding sand to the bunkers in the company of Buster, our night waterman, and his hippie entourage. Buster was about 25 years old, drove a Volkswagen bus, played bass in a rock band and dabbled in cannabis futures.

As Mohon and I shoveled, Buster explained to his associates that he intended to ingest a powerful hallucinogenic while watering the night before a member-guest tournament.

Being a thoughtful sort, Mohon suggested Buster’s cosmic trip be closely monitored.

We taped together two military L-angle flashlights, installed red filters masked like cat-eyes and attached them to a telescopic ball retriever. The first night before the member-guest, we borrowed the portable public-address system and laid in ambush overlooking the second tee, where the beer coolers were positioned. Seemed like a logical spot.

Just before midnight, Buster drove up to the coolers, turned off the Cushman, popped a beer and fired up a cigarette.

Cupping my hands over the microphone, I did my best impression of a Hollywood tyrannosaurus rex, a long howling roar that tapered off at the end. The effect caught us off guard; the eerie sound carried over the hills and valleys, echoing far away.

Buster stood frozen, looking in our direction. Remembering his role, Mohon slowly revealed the glowing red cat eyes, manipulating the pole as if a 12-foot beast were peering around a tree.

Buster’s cigarette and beer hit the ground at the same time.

I tried a low growl into the microphone and Mohon walked the eyes closer.

Buster released a long, trembling, mournful wail just before he cranked up the truckster. Knowing that the only way out of that valley was past the fourth tee, we anticipated his next move and set up a hasty ambush. Golfzilla bellowed again and the glowing eyes leaned down directly in Buster’s path. Both the truckster and Buster screamed, while executing a surprisingly skillful U-turn in a dark forest. As we raced our golf car to the next contact point, we learned the vehicle could not be safely operated while laughing hysterically. Unable to open our eyes, we hit a stump, fell out of the golf car and damaged our equipment, just as Buster went tearing by, blubbering and weeping like a jilted bride.

We also learned that it’s best to wait until the night waterman has nearly completed his job before freaking him out, because we became instant replacements for Buster as he sped away at 70 miles per hour in his microbus.

Golfzilla reappeared in 1973 when Dad took over Mystery Valley, a big municipal outside Atlanta. Odell, the night waterman, and his grown son, Nando, lived on the course in an old house. I became frustrated with Odell because he would not react as expected. After a close encounter, Odell would drive away slowly, looking over his shoulder. Rarely did he mention the sightings to the crew, except for muttering, “There’s something out there on the back side.”

Not exactly the mythical proportions I was seeking.

The morning following a Golfzilla event, I was around the crew, listening for the usual exaggerated details, when I heard something that changed my tactics forever. Roy, a crew elder, explained that country boys, when fortified with bourbon, feared nothing except “haints.” Although puzzled at first, I soon learned that “haint” translated to “haunt” and was defined as a country ghost.

I obtained a rubber mask of an old, severely wrinkled man with a long nose and flowing white hair. I stuffed it with a flashlight wrapped in rags, then suspended the mask with fishing line attached to a short pole to create a “floating head.”

Behind the 14th green was a cemetery, circa 1800, favorably situated in the darkest, most isolated part of the course. Dressed in black, I waited in the cemetery on a moonless night. While Odell wrestled a sprinkler, I slipped behind him and turned off his truckster and headlight. As he moved toward the vehicle to restart it, I moaned quietly and eased the softly glowing head into a hover. Odell loosed a high-pitched shriek and ran straight for his house. In making his escape, Odell’s forehead struck a low-hanging dogwood branch, and he landed flat on his back and slid several yards down a hill.

Fearing I had killed Odell, I ran over to where he lay and used the only light I had, the floating head, to inspect the damage. My heart was pounding at the thought of a murder trial as I discovered I hadn’t spooked Odell but his hulking 30-year-old son, Nando.

When Nando opened his eyes and saw the floating head just inches from his face, he let out a primal scream that brought back memories of the shower scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Now we were both in a full panic, and Nando took off downhill as I high-tailed it in the opposite direction, quickly forgetting my concerns for his health.

Odell and Nando quit and moved away, as did their successors. Dad was beginning to form a low opinion of night watermen.

In 1977 I tangled with a new night waterman who has unlike any before him. He apparently possessed special powers, preferring to work without the aid of lights as he moved silently across the grounds. As I crept into position to “haint” him, he moved parallel to me. He stopped when I stopped, he moved when I moved. It was as if he were locked on to me, and my efforts to evade him were futile. Outmaneuvered and feeling a sense of dread, I fled into the woods with the unlit “floating head” in my grasp.

At dinner the next evening, Dad mentioned his new waterman. “His name is Jim, and he said to tell you hello, that he saw you last night on the course.”

Stunned, I managed a feeble “Who is he?”

“Ex-Army Ranger,” Dad replied. “Couple tours in ’Nam, long-rang patrol. You know, creeping around in the jungle at night, behind the lines.”

I packed away my “haint” and went off to find an Army recruiter, intent on acquiring magic powers of my own. When I returned to golf course work, automated sprinkler systems had brought an end to the night waterman. What was I to do now, drive the irrigation tech mad by reprogramming start and stop times?

Damned technology.

Randy Wilson is a former superintendent living in the Atlanta area. He last wrote for Superintendent News in the May 3 issue.

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