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Phil Owen: Home-Grown and Talented Super

by John Bebow

As the man responsible for keeping Warwick Hills Country Club in perfect shape, Phil Owen never quite knows what Buick Open week will bring.

One year, an urgent radio call dispatched him to the 18th tee. A squirrel, clearly needing tutelage on the finer points of gallery etiquette, was dropping acorns on players' heads as they teed off. Owen chased off the critter.

Another year, the greenskeeping staff worked overtime to repair storm damage. Just when Owen thought he'd pumped all the water out of the last bunker, a PGA Tour official walked up with a dixie cup and asked the exhausted Owen to bail out a final soup-bowl-sized puddle.

"We go through this two-week period of sleep deprivation for the tournament," says Owen, who's served as Warwick Hills' superintendent since 1991. "By the end, you're almost too tired to enjoy it."

In a high-tech age when superintendents at top clubs are recruited nationally, Owen is a refreshing, home-grown product of Genesee County. He grew up just down the road from Warwick Hills in the tiny vil-lage of Goodrich, taught school for a couple years after college, and then learned the golf business on modest clubs like Atlas Valley and Goodrich Country Club.

"I feel very fortunate to be where I am," Owen says. "But to be perfectly honest with you, it wouldn't matter what course I'm on because I just love what I do."

And what he does this time of year is think night and day about the Buick Open.

"Everything we do from the start of the year is aimed at getting the course in tournament shape for both the pros and our members," Owen says. Fortunately, he says, that doesn't yet mean tricking up the track for Tiger Woods and golf's other huge-hitting young stars. Players and fans will likely see a layout very similar to what they're used to.

"Why make it Tiger-proof?" asks Owen, a 43-year-old who leans on his main strength -- "persistency" -- to keep a nine handicap while only playing once or twice a month.

"I just want to make it fair for everybody," he says. "Hopefully, the guy who's on his game for four days wins. "That's what kind of condition we try to put the course in. What difference does it make if a guy shoots 25 under or 10 under? I think the galleries want to see a lot of birdies."

Still, Owen says, PGA Tour officials could one day call for a longer, tighter, Warwick Hills, though "that's still a ways away." "You start tucking pins behind the bunkers and soften up the sand in the bunkers a little bit and this course gets a whole lot tougher," Owen says. "But weather is what really affects scores. If it gets windy they're going to score a lot higher."

Regardless of weather, the pros are likely to score better at Warwick Hills than some other PGA Tour stops because of the sprawling, undulating, nearly perfect greens. They roll at 10.5 on the stimpmeter during the tournament, compared to 9.5 for members.

"Rarely have we ever had a poor comment about our greens," Owen says. "We don't have the ultimate fastest greens in the area, but they probably are the smoothest."

How do they do it? The greens are top-dressed four to six times a year. A team of a half-dozen workers hand-mow the greens each morning. And, during evenings of tournament week, the greens are rolled for added consistency.

Another reason for the pristine greens is the relatively light amount of play Warwick Hills gets. The club does about 20,000-25,000 rounds a year. That's only a third as much annual traffic as Owen remembers getting at nearby Southmoor Country Club in Burton, one of the places he worked before joining the Warwick Hills staff as an assistant superintendent in 1988.

Instead, the only traffic problem Warwick Hills faces is giant spectator crowds. Woods' appearance last year pushed tournament attendance to record levels.

"Thursday was as big as a normal weekend day," Owen says. "It was a dry year so the gallery wasn't bad on the course. The only damage we ever see is if it gets muddy."

So Owen is hoping, as he does every year, for dry weather, with temperatures in the mid-70s during tournament week. If all goes well, he might even have a few spare minutes to watch the action at the par five thirteenth, where he likes to see players try to get home in two, or the boisterous 17th, where he really appreciates players who can make birdie against his tough, front-left pin position.

Who's he rooting for?

"Well, I really like to watch my niece, (LPGA star and Michigan native) Kelly Robbins," Owen says. Since she won't be there, he'll root for veterans like Tom Watson and Fuzzy Zoeller.

"I always like watching the old guys," he says. "Because I'm getting kind of old myself."

John Bebow is managing editor of Michigan Live, a statewide Online news and information service. He can be reached via e-mail at bebow@ic.net.

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