From Iraq to Pinehurst: How USGA greenskeeper program is helping Army veteran fulfill a dream

John Hurtado of the Greenskeeper Apprentice Program rolls a green ahead of the 2024 U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort & C.C. (Course No. 2) in Village of Pinehurst, N.C. on Tuesday, June 11, 2024. (Photo: Kathryn Riley/USGA)

PINEHURST, N.C. – During four tours of duty in Iraq as an operations officer for a logistics battalion, John Hurtado saw things he’ll never be able to unsee. He had days that weren’t easy and plenty of obstacles to overcome.

As the U.S. Open rolled into Pinehurst No. 2, Hurtado sat in the back of the media center — a large tent with massive scoreboards and screens — and marveled at how far he’s come.

“The last time I was in a tent like this, it was a map up there and I was in Iraq. It had secret stuff,” Hurtado said. “Really secret. UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and all this stuff, all these computers. Each one was a different battlefield operating system. You had the Air Force, you had the Navy, you had media, you had well … you name it. It looks just like this in a divisional operation. Just like this.”

His new workplace is also part of a strategic maneuver, one that often leaves participants ranting and raving. But now, Hurtado, who moved to this golf haven in 2020, offers a little perspective to those who have let a simple sand hazard ruin a pristine backdrop.

Hurtado’s first job at Pinehurst Resort was working at the Cradle, a nine-hole test of par-3 skills located near the main clubhouse, and he instantly took to the position.

“I’d be raking a bunker, smoothing it nice and perfect, and some guy would come up and he’d be irritated,” he explained. “He just put one in the bunker and he’s angry because he doesn’t want to be there. And I look over with a rake in my hand and say, ‘Hey good morning, how are you?’ I’ve got a big smile on my face and I say, ‘How do you like my office?’

“They get the biggest charge out of it. This is where it’s at, you know?”

Indeed, Hurtado’s new gig is a sweet one, complete with all the fresh air one can breathe and gorgeous views one can soak in, but life as a greenskeeper isn’t easy as the hourly job has forced plenty of willing laborers into other lines of work.

With that in mind, the USGA created the Greenskeeper Apprentice Program (GAP), which provides tuition-free education to those who qualify for the program, all with the intent of promoting hourly employees into more lucrative careers. This year marks the second class of the program, which according to the USGA, “pairs each student with an on-course mentor, intended to advance their professional development. As part of their classwork, apprentices learn valuable technical skills, while also gaining insight into why agronomic decisions are made.”

When participants finish the program, which is based at nearby Sandhills Community College, they get some college credentials, a bump in pay and a Journeyworker card through the United States Department of Labor. During the first year of the program, 18 of the graduates saw an increase in leadership responsibilities, not to mention a chance to help work with Pinehurst’s agronomy staff in preparing No. 2 for the 2024 U.S. Open.

The participants range in age, but Hurtado, who spent 35 years in the Army, said getting the opportunity to move into a second career as rewarding as working on a golf course has been the chance of a lifetime.

It hasn’t been without plenty of hard work, including classwork time and on-the-job training, but Hurtado said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I think we have 200 hours of in-classroom time and then I want to say two thousand hours of actual apprenticeship stuff,” he said. “From identifying problems with grass disease or drought or whatever. From top dressing to Stimpmeter. I just learned how to do that the other day. I mean top to bottom, we learn everything.”

Carson Letot is the man responsible for putting the program in motion. A former high school science teacher who was looking to expand his horizons, Letot moved from Michigan to Pinehurst last Augusta to oversee and teach the GAP program.

“I think this is truly the nexus of recruitment and retention in the industry,” he said. “We’re at a position where golf is booming but the maintenance industry has been having a really hard time keeping up with that demand for a long period of time. There have been some issues. I don’t necessarily want to be negative about it, but oftentimes a lot of these individuals are working long, hard hours and not necessarily being compensated, right? And so, when we look at recruitment and retention intervention, we say, okay, well, how can we draw people in the industry and then how can we keep them? One of those ways is to provide some education and opportunity.”

Letot knows he’s working with students from various backgrounds in the GAP, so his teaching style has to be a little more hands-on than it was when he was dealing with teens. But the reward is a class that knows good things can come to those who stick it out.

“So let’s say I’m working this job. I rake bunkers every day. Maybe if somebody actually supports me and teaches me the science behind all this, I might take a little more ownership over it and then, from there, I might take on a leadership position,” Letot said. “So our goal is to have every one of our graduates who leave the program not only becoming a lifelong learner in the industry but at the same time seeking what we hope is going to be the development of a career. Not just a job to pay the bills here and there, but a sustainable career.”

The program is expanding, adding another class in Myrtle Beach this year and the hope is that it will continue to add career employees to the golf workforce.

For those like Hurtado, who continue to learn and grow in the process, the chance was one he’ll always be appreciative of.

“Look, this just kind of happened for me. I moved here from Colorado and was going to work as a handyman when someone said they had the perfect job for me because I love the outdoors, I love golf and I love learning new things,” Hurtado said. “It’s been just perfect for me.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: From Iraq to Pinehurst: Army veteran fulfills dream at Pinehurst No. 2

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