BY MIKE FIELDS
Carl Gray says he’s sleeping just fine, at least for now.
As the golf course superintendent at Champions at Keene Trace, he and his crew are working hard getting the place in prime condition for the Barbasol Championship this summer.
But Gray confesses that as the PGA TOUR event draws nearer – it’s set for July 16-22 – the more tossing, turning and worrying he’ll do come bedtime.
“I’d say in another two months it’ll probably be a lot of sleepless nights from then on out,” he said with a laugh.
Gray admits he “absolutely feels pressure” knowing Champions at Keene Trace must be in the best shape in its 30-year history when the PGA TOUR comes calling. Not only for the pros to play, but also for the Golf Channel’s world-wide TV audience to see.
“This isn’t just national television,” Gray said. “This is global television.”
But Gray welcomes the opportunity to show off the golf course he considers 220 acres of paradise.
The Corbin native first worked at Champions when he was attending EKU, soon after the Arthur Hills-designed course opened in the late 1980s.
“This place kind of got in my blood,” he said.
He went on to work at Victoria National in Evansville, Ind., and the Players Club in Henderson for a few years before moving back to Central Kentucky. He was at Cherry Blossom in Georgetown for 10 years, then at Andover in Lexington.
When the superintendent position opened up at Champions seven years ago, Gray jumped at the opportunity.
“When I interviewed for the job I told them, ‘This is my Augusta. This is my Valhalla.’ My whole career I wanted to get back here. This is where I always wanted to be.
“Now that I’m here, and now that we’re having the Barbasol (Championship), it’s gone from a dream-come-true to a fairy tale.”
To be sure, there’s plenty of work to be done over the next few months.
The biggest task, taken on at the behest of the PGA TOUR, is the removal of about 300 trees. Some are being taken down to make room for new tees that will lengthen a few holes, but most of the trees are being removed to maximize airflow and sunshine for the greens.
It is a testament to the Champions’ original design that it won’t need a major makeover to host the Barbasol Championship.
The course now plays 7,117 yards from the tips, and Gray estimates that new tees on a few holes, including Nos. 4, 7 and 11, may add only about 100 yards to the length.
In 2015, new owners B Frye and Evan Mossbarger invested in new greens, replacing Poa annua with a super bent grass, and expanding some bail-out areas.
Gray said if that upgrade hadn’t been done, Champions at Keene Trace would have never gotten a PGA TOUR event.
The most noticeable change for the Barbasol Championship will be that the nines will be flipped. The pros will play the back nine as the front nine, and vice versa. That layout will better accommodate spectators and corporate tents.
That also means the tournament will finish up with a testy par-3 over water.
“I’m anxious to see how that does as the final hole,” Gray said, “especially if there are a lot of people down there and it gets a little rowdy and gets people going.”
Mike Crawford, Director of Golf Course Maintenance Operations for the PGA TOUR, has been consulting with Gray about how best to get Champions at Keene Trace ready for its showcase in July.
Crawford also invited Gray to Florida a few weeks ago to observe the behind-the-scenes operations at the Honda Classic at PGA National.
Gray said it was an eye-opening experience.
“The main thing that impressed me was how they did moisture meter readings on each green each day,” he said. “It’s more of a science now.”
But even science can be upstaged by the weather. “We’re always under Mother Nature’s hand,” Gray said.
His ideal forecast for tournament week this July? “Mid-80’s, no humidity and no rain,” he said wistfully. “But I think we’ll be fine unless we get a huge rain event.”
In the meantime, Gray and his 10-man crew – “I couldn’t do this by myself. I’ve got a really good group of guys,” he said — are doing everything they can to get the golf course in immaculate condition for the first regular PGA TOUR stop in Kentucky in 60 years.
“Getting this tournament is just crazy,” he said. “Who would’ve ever thought it? It’s an exciting time.
“I just hope the community realizes what we’ve got, rallies behind it and keeps supporting it.”
One thing’s for sure: Once the last putt drops on July 22, Carl Gray will get a good night’s sleep.