CRESSON - This year marks John Merlini's 43rd year as Summit Country Club's greens superintendent.
As the person responsible for the condition of the entire course, Merlini's experience and knowledge are reflected in the beauty and playability of the Cresson area course.
Merlini, 64, grew up in nearby Tunnel Hill and started working at the club in 1962.
"At that time the greens crew consisted of three guys," Merlini said. "We had one push mower for greens and a tractor with no brakes."
At that time, Summit was just a nine-hole course. After working on the grounds crew for a couple of years, Merlini was named superintendent.
"Back then a lot more things were done manually," he said. "During the middle of summer we would work 120 hours a week. I would start work at 7 in the morning, go home for dinner and return. We would finish around midnight if we were lucky. Watering the course back then was very labor intense. We had to hand-screw every sprinkler head we used and several greens could only be watered using a hose."
Later in the 1960s, nine new holes were added. Although construction of the new holes was done by outside contractors, Merlini's crew had a tremendous amount of work to do to get the course into playing condition.
"We worked for weeks mowing and trimming until it was ready," he said. "The community even got involved. We would have rock-picking parties where groups of people would come out and pick rocks from the new fairways. We needed to remove thousands of rocks so one night would be 'Portage Night,' the next two would be 'Cresson Nights.' The local people really came through and helped us out."
Merlini credits long-time club member Jack Calandra with a lot of his success as a superintendent.
"Before I was hired, I had never stepped onto a golf course," Merlini said. "Shortly after I started, Jack sort of took me under his wing and coached me on everything. He would bring a backhoe to the club and let me learn how to use it. Then he brought a bulldozer and I would do the same. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be where I am today."
In addition to the daily duties of mowing, watering and fertilizing, Merlini and his crew took on other major projects over the years. In the early 1980s many of the greens were expanded.
"We had never built a green before, so we figured it out as we went along," he said. "We laid them out with a piece of string and dug them out by hand. That summer we had a group of coal miners from Mine 33 that helped us. They were laid off at the time and they worked on digging and sifting the dirt we used for the new greens."
Merlini believes the biggest change in the industry has been in the chemicals being used on the course.
"Early on, we used insecticides and fungicides, but not in the precise way we do today," he said. "The chemicals today are much more sophisticated and have more specific uses. They are also much safer.Years ago, anyone could purchase chemicals, but today you have to be licensed and must attend seminars every year to learn all the technical and safety issues involved."
As the person responsible for the daily condition of the course, Merlini relishes his role.
"This isn't just a job to me, I love this place," he said. "Every morning, the first thing I do is ride around and inspect the greens. I can tell by the look of the dew on the grass if anything is wrong - a small indentation, webbing on the green. There are a lot of little signs that you learn over the years that point to bigger problems. We've never lost a green here, and I'm very proud of that. I liken greens to children. I have 18 children here that I have gotten to know and get to take care of each day."
After his morning inspections, Merlini and his crew complete the normal daily tasks of mowing greens, cutting cups and watering fairways using equipment today he would not have dreamed about 40 years ago.
"Today we have 10 times the equipment we had back then," he said.
As is the case at most public courses, Merlini takes his direction from a board of directors.
''We're fortunate to have someone with such vast knowledge and experience," current club president Ralph Lewis said.
Merlini knows just about every member he meets will have some comment or suggestion about course condition.
''It's hard to walk through the parking lot or clubhouse without some comment," he said. ''Right now, most comments are about green speed. I would really like the greens to be a little firmer and faster, but the weather hasn't cooperated yet."
With all the changes he's seen over the years, including a new computerized watering system, Merlini does not miss the days of 120-hour work weeks.
''I do miss the sound of the old sprinklers, though,'' he said. ''Early in the morning, when no one was around, there was nothing like the sound they made."