[Ed. I once learned at an AP seminar that anyone, in the right hands, could be the subject of a prize-winning profile. This one may or may not qualify, but it’s pretty darned good and has been widely shared in golf circles these past few months. See here the published version in Golf Course Management magazine. See the slightly longer and more casually profane original draft below.]
By HAL PHILLIPS
I received the following email from Roger Goettsch, CGCS, in the spring of 2018: I recently designed and built two different wetting forks for applying wetting agents to the soil in our LDS (localized dry-spot areas). We have had issues getting wetting agents into the soil due to the thatch layer and this seems to have helped… He attached pictures of the wetting forks in action, along with shots of the “Plug Pushers” he also designed and built, to remove cores following aeration.
Goettsch is the head superintendent at Shanqin Bay Golf Club in the small town of Longgun, on the island of Hainan, in the People’s Republic of China. Like many American-trained supers working overseas, Goettsch can’t get his hands on every last piece of equipment his little heart desires. So he just builds what he can, himself, putting to work his AutoCAD skills, his welding and fabrication expertise, and a mechanical imagination born deep in the American heartland. Goettsch has worked all over North America, and now Asia, leaving behind him a trail of custom-designed and custom-built equipment — like breadcrumbs in the woods.
“You have no idea all the shit that I’ve built,” he says, upon compiling for GCM a list of Top 10 Greatest Hits. “Literally, what you’re seeing there are just the big items from the last decade or so. There’s at least another 20 big-ticket items I’ve leaving out and several hundred more I’ve just sort of forgotten.”
Like those sprig planters you built for all those contractors? Or the fairway aerifier you whipped up that one night?
“Well, not one night. We were growing in a Palmer course in Ft. Worth, Texas, working with Arnold’s project architect, Bob Walker. He’ll confirm this story. The soil was horrible there, dark heavy clay. We just had to aerify it. So I decided to build an aerifying machine with my head mechanic, Bill Hess. We had to get this done because I promised Bob Walker I’d have it ready for his next site visit. So me and Bill had been working on it several days, but we worked till 4 a.m. that last night and Bill — I had trained him how to weld — all of a sudden hollers over at me: Roger we gotta quit… I fell asleep welding.”
When pressed for why exactly he’s compelled to build so many things — while simultaneously working full time, taking care of first-class courses from the Gulf to the South China Sea — Goettsch chalks it up to self-reliance, a quality his dad embodied and passed along to young Roger in the farmlands of western Iowa.
“That’s the through line for all this stuff, based on my upbringing — being self-sufficient. You know what they say: The DNA precedes you.”
Goettsch was born on a small farm in Holstein, Iowa, a burg of 500 souls of German descent where his parents grew corn, soybean, alfalfa, oats, and clover. “The clover and alfalfa mainly served as feed for livestock,” Goettsch explains. “We sold the other crops locally. We raised cattle, pigs and chickens routinely and had a couple horses on the farmstead.”
Roger, his two brothers and three sisters were involved in all the works. The girls de-tasseled corn in the summer time.
“We grew everything: all the garden vegetables; we had an orchard with peaches, cherries, plums and apples. Our freezer was always full of meat and my mother was always canning something. From the time I was a 5-year-old kid, I was also working on the farm. But my father’s workshop was the most interesting part of that operation. He built everything for us: wagons, cattle chutes, a bail elevator. He also built a riding lawn mower! I have two older sisters who swear that he was the first person to ever manufacturer a riding lawn mower. I have a picture of that I need to dig up. He built so many things.
“In my spare time I used to hang out in his shop. I was more of a pest to be honest. Very curious, always wanting to tear something apart and see how it worked. Typically, I didn’t put things back together, which sorta pissed my dad off. Compared to modern shop, dad’s was so small. He made his own cut-off saw, to saw metal. He didn’t have an acetylene torch like I do today.
“Not only did he build a lawn mower, he took old bicycle frames and built motor scooters for us. He took the bicycle wheels off, then modified the frames, welded a plate on there to mount an engine, and new tires. I could draw you a detailed picture of those things; I’ll never forget riding them around. You put your foot down, it tightened up a belt and you just went down the road! My dad bought my mother a Honda Dream 150cc motorcycle back in 1965. They knew it meant a lot to me, so they willed it to me when they died. My dad also had an Indian motorcycle that he totally refurbished — one of his pride and joys.
“You name it, he could build it. Every time I tell my sister that I’ve built something, she says, You are so much like your dad it is not even funny.”
The young Goettsch took every metal working class he could in high school. He became so good at welding that he was chosen to help construct a metal school bus barn for the local district. “That was the first project that got me thinking this was something I could really do. A career maybe.”
The golf business just sorta happened to Roger Goettsch, the way it does for kids sometimes. In fact, if it weren’t for Dennis Wiebe, Goettsch might be somewhere in America, welding and/or fabricating something right now.
As the story goes, “My friend Dennis dragged me to go golfing one day, even though I didn’t want to go. I might have been around 12 or 13. I fell completely in love with the game. That was all it took. During my junior high school days, folks started to build a 9-hole golf course in town. Cow pasture pool, that’s what my mother always called it.
“I could not wait to be on the golf team when I became a high school freshman. Even though we didn’t have a course in Holstein before that. My friend Dennis — his family had built a house that backed up to this new golf course they were going to build. By then I’m playing regularly with him and I’m not too bad. From then on, I couldn’t play enough. My entire four years of high school, all I wanted was to be a pro golfer.
“I gained another friend, Steve Kofmehl, who lived just three houses away from Dennis. His dad was the key guy who put the whole golf course construction deal together, Charles Kofmehl… So my friend Steve and I would wander over there and walk the [course] site when it was under construction. We were there often and began to volunteer, helping to build the course when we had time. When the course opened for play, we continued to hang around with the new greenkeeper there, a guy named Tim Hupke.”
Hupke was the next key player in this budding golf industry drama. He was one of the best young golfers around and soon was hired to run the shop and take care of all 9 holes — by himself. He was just out of high school when he landed this job. Goettsch recalls that while Charles Kofmehl and the Board of Directors had pulled together the money to buy Hupke the equipment he needed, “Tim didn’t take care of the golf course that well his first year…
“So the summer after my sophomore year, Tim decides to go off and get married. Because Steve and I were hanging out there all the time, and because his father was involved in building the club, they came to us and said, Would you boys like to take care of this place for 2 weeks while Tim is on his honeymoon? You can work as many hours as you want — and we’ll pay you. Well, we went crazy down there, working sun-up to sundown and they paid us a gold mine.
“That winter, at school, Steve comes running down the hall: Dean Vollmer wanted to talk to us. He was chairman of the green committee. He and his brother Don owned the Chevy dealership in town. So we go down to the dealership after school and Dean says, Boys, I want you to know that the golf course was in so much better shape the 2 weeks you worked there. We want you guys to take care of the golf course this coming season. You want the job as a twosome? You can work all you want, we’ll pay you… and you can play the course all you want.
“Believe it or not, what was rolling through my mind: Would we be able to golf for free? We didn’t wind up playing golf so much — but I used that money to buy my first car, a 2-door hardtop Chevy Impala. Dean sold it to me for $700 and I paid it off in two years. To this day, I have never had so much fun working on a golf course in my entire life. That’s where I decided I wanted this to be my career.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Goettsch went to Iowa State University and studied turf management, interning all four years at Des Moines Golf & Country Club under the legendary Bill Byers (though he also took as many metal-working classes as he could). After graduating (1978) and serving time as an assistant at several courses, he left the golf business altogether to pursue a welding career in the oil fields of west Texas. “I made a lot more money there than I ever made in the golf business,” he recalls. But golf work is steady; the oil business is not. In fact, when it collapsed in 1983, Goettsch went back to growing grass, his welding equipment in tow.
He landed his first head superintendent’s job at Squaw Creek GC near Ft. Worth. Eventually, he would come to specialize in the construction and grow-in of new courses, something he did all over North Texas before landing his first high-profile head super’s gig at the Arnold Palmer Golf Club at Fossil Creek. He moved from there to a regional director’s position with the management company RSL (now Arcis Golf) before going overseas (Thailand and Indonesia) in the early ‘90s for two more construction/grow-ins. He returned home to do the same at The Bandit in New Braunfels, Texas, Blackhorse GC down the road in Cypress, and Redstone Golf Club (now the GC of Houston) in nearby Humble. He was Director of Agronomy at Barton Creek’s 72 holes when he was lured back to Asia in 2014 — first to India, then to China.
But that thumbnail sketch, diverse though it is, leaves out nearly all of his creative, metalworking history.
“Bill Byers had so much faith in my ability, he bought an entire pump station and I did all the fabrication and helped [pump engineer] John Tucker install it at Des Moines Golf & Country Club,” Goettsch recalls. “At some point, after I’d become a super, I went out and bought all my own welding and fabrication equipment — and I brought it all with me from job to job. I do think that was a consistent benefit to my employers. These skills have honestly never got in the way of my relationship with the mechanic. Quite the opposite. I always had a great relationship with the mechanic, because he could see that I could help him and my passion for his work was real.
“At Squaw Creek we hired a mechanic who was a real machine shop guy —he could work a metal-turning lathe. Between him and me, we made things like a mechanical edger for the greens. Built the whole damned thing, because he could do all the shafting. We built some unbelievable stuff at that time… I don’t believe there’s single mechanic I’ve had the pleasure of working with in the golf business who doesn’t absolutely love me. We would collaborate. I built things they would never think of themselves: roll-around benches, shelving, custom things for their shops. You can buy that stuff, sure. But if you got a shop with small rooms, we made it all fit. I built a boat trailer out of aluminum one time — for a pontoon boat. I repaired things out of steel, stainless steel, cast iron. Back in the day cast iron was difficult to weld. You really had to know how to do it. I had one Toro representative who used to yell at me: Goettsch, put that welder away so we can sell you more iron!
“One more thing mechanics loved me for: When you brake or sheer off a bolt flush with the top, there’s a special welding rod that I could use to remove it 9.5 times out of 10 times — saved the company a ton of money each time. Most of my mechanics were pretty amazed at that.”
These skills tend to get the attention of various engineering types, too, whom Goettsch greatly admires. Squaw Creek was where he met P.C. Schedule, who ran a pump station business. Goettsch would end up doing all manner of jobs with/for Schedule and John Tucker, on the side, though he gathered as much as he contributed.
“They’re so smart, those engineers; they’ve got the math. John Tucker has stood by me forever and taught me so much, as did P.C, who has sadly passed away. Lee Niles at Southern Irrigation Consultants was another extremely intelligent guy. Lee hired me at one point and I went to work for him doing GPS and irrigation work. I would help him draw as-builts — and that’s where I learned AutoCAD. After that, I did all my own drawings for all my own stuff. That has really helped me do things quicker, more efficiently. I used to do stuff from memory and just wing it.”
This sort of efficiency should have given a Goettsch a bit more time for himself, for his family. But only recently has he achieved that sort of balance in his life.
“I was a workaholic. It’s probably why I’m single now,” he says. “A lot of golf course supers send everyone home when it rains. I couldn’t wait for it to rain! I would go into the shop and weld, train my guys. Early on Saturday mornings, I’d be there in the shop… That was the old Roger. I was very career driven and it did cost me some things, in my personal life. It did. I’ve always loved what I do and still love it to this day. I just know how to balance it a bit better.”
The past few years, Goettsch takes digital images of all his projects. Pre-digital, it was all old-fashioned photography. Those snap shots — documenting his many, many creations through the years — can today be found in a storage unit outside Dripping Springs, Texas, near Austin. That’s also where you’ll find Goettsch’s enduring pride and joy, a 1949 Chevy pick-up that he helped refurbish (a classic restoration that took 16 years). In Goettsch’s absence, his car buddies still display it at various shows around the American Southwest.
When one looks closely at Goettsch’s lengthy resume and building history, it seems clear this native Iowan’s admiration for self-reliance isn’t the only thing that drives him. That turf roller he built for Daniel McCann at Oak Hill CC in San Antonio… that pontoon boat trailer… those two special Hydro Cyclone Water Separators he and Tucker installed at Lochinvar Country Club in Houston, to clean the drinking water… a BBQ for his GM in China… 90 percent of the hand-made things he has lavished on his mechanic, his maintenance staff, his various employers…
These acts of creation are a form of friendship and intimacy — the same things his dad provided to him, for the same reasons.
“I think there’s some truth to that,” he says. “While I’m building things for the golf course, I’m usually building other stuff for other people. It gives me a real good feeling, building relationships in the process.
“When I did spend a lot of time doing that sort of thing — projects outside the golf course —I guess there might have been a perception that maybe the club wasn’t always getting my full attention, their full money’s worth. But I don’t think the owners ever felt that way. The mechanic definitely never felt that way. And believe me, wherever I’ve been, we’ve had the best greens around.”