If you’re like me, you’ve probably never thought much about how those stunning beds are crafted or how much time it takes to make the oldest course on the PGA TOUR look like a masterpiece. But after meeting Assistant Golf Course Superintendent John Burns on May 25 and learning a little more about the process, I’ll probably pause a little longer the next time I’m snapping photos of my family in front of the steps leading up to the No. 1 tee. I’ll appreciate the manpower and the planning that went into providing that backdrop that can’t be found in a photography studio.
Burns and his three-man crew begins the process of preparing the flower beds throughout The Old White TPC for the first week in July around May 1. Putting nearly 25,000 plants into the ground one plant at a time can’t be done overnight, and it’s critical that the crew leave itself a few extra days to account for circumstances that could go wrong – long stretches of bad weather, delivery trucks that don’t show up on time, workers who are out sick or simply a little unfortunate luck.
The start date, though, isn’t necessarily up to Burns’ crew. The work can’t begin until the plants are delivered, and that’s the job of Bob’s Market and Greenhouses in Mason, W.Va. They grow and ship every plant you’ll find on the grounds of America’s Resort, including those spread throughout The Old White TPC.
Once the plants show up on property, though, it’s in the hands of Burns and his crew.
The Greenbrier staff starts with a plan. Proven Winners has maps of The Greenbrier’s beds in a computer system, and its designers plan out every bed, selecting the plants and colors that they believe will look perfect in each spot.
“We might have to change it a little bit, but we try to stick to the design as much as possible,” said Burns. “They know a lot more than we do. We just plant them.”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a science to his job, though. The computers may be responsible for the design, but it’s up to Burns and his crew to get the plants in the ground, keep them alive and make any necessary adjustments.
“We like to say that they’re all just fuzzy lines,” said Burns of the layout provided from Proven Winners. “You’ve got to have an eye for it. You can see if something doesn’t look good or is out of place.
“You have to kind of improvise. The map may be a few years old and show a tree in one spot, but the tree is not there anymore. So, you have to come up with a plan of what to do to make it look good.”
At the time of the interview, 36 days before the first tee shot of a practice round for A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier, Burns and his team had put around 7,000 plants in the ground. On certain days, the trio did get a little help from other members of the grounds crew at The Greenbrier – Burns lit up with excitement talking about the one Saturday when he had seven people working on the flowers – but the bulk of the work was done by Burns, Mike Carrington and Eli Loudermilk – the Three Amigos.
“You can’t look at it as 25,000,” he said of the mental approach to completing such an overwhelming assignment. “You have to look at it a bed at a time. You think the more flowers you get in the ground, the easier it gets. But it actually gets harder, because that’s more flowers you have to take care of while you’re still trying to get them in.”
That’s why Burns whole heartedly believes the words of the popular Luke Bryan song, “Rain is a Good Thing.”
“I pray for the rain,” he said with a smile. “That means I won’t have to water. That’s the most time-consuming thing. The drier it is, the less time I have to do anything but water.
“I don’t mind working in mud. I can do my job in mud. But it takes away from my job when I’m just sitting here watering these.”
Burns’ job isn’t exactly a 9 to 5 arrangement, either. He said he averages 11 hours days – sometimes 14, sometimes 9 or 10 – and his team is no different.
“A day when we leave early means we worked 8 hours,” said Burns. “And we feel bad about it.”
The hottest part of the day is the worst – plants don’t handle water well in the heat of the day, and the sun can exhaust the workers – which means early mornings and late nights are all part of the gig.
“I warned my wife, she’s not going to see me home until late until after July,” Burns laughed.
The man in charge
Although Burns certainly misses his family during the three months he’s focused almost entirely on planting flowers, pulling weeds and watering plants, the project is unquestionably a labor of love.
The 28-year-old who grew up in the shadow of The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., has been involved with landscaping in some capacity since he was 14 years old. He owned his own landscaping business – which became so popular with members of The Greenbrier Sporting Club that he couldn’t hire enough workers to keep up with the demand.
“It’s all I’ve ever done,” said Burns. “My dad always said, ‘Stick with what you know.’ I’m not good at much of anything else.”
He began working at The Greenbrier as part of the golf grounds crew in May of 2017.
One of the first projects Burns witnessed was the installation of the flowers on The Old White TPC, at that time handled by a major private landscaping company RGS. Once the plants were in the ground, Burns went behind the RGS crew and did the watering, weeding, and other upkeep.
That experience proved to be valuable when RGS phoned The Greenbrier in February, informing the resort that it couldn’t handle the project this year. The job was quickly handed to Burns, and his schedule suddenly changed drastically.
“I had been working all winter preparing the beds for RGS,” he explained. “I had no idea I was preparing them for myself.
“This is a whole different ball game. But I’m loving it.”
And although his crew is small, he said he couldn’t ask for better workers.
“These guys know what they’re doing, and that helps a lot,” said Burns. “They’ve been here longer than me, and they know what the expectations are.”
Though the task is daunting, the reward when the project is complete is satisfying. Burns said he loves taking a step back and looking at a bed once it’s complete.
On the hill below the No. 1 tee there are close to 1,200 flowers, and the spot is one of the most photographed during tournament week. The Greenbrier sign in front of the No. 18 tee, Howard’s Creek Lodge and Patriot's Village are other popular spots filled with flowers, and it makes Burns’ day to see tournament-goers lined up to take pictures in front of those spots.
“I didn’t design them, but I am the caretaker,” he said. “If you don’t plant them right, they’re not going to grow right. So, at the end of the day, I do take a lot of pride in it. If the bed looks great, it makes me look good. If it doesn’t, guess who looks bad.
“It’s cool to gradually see the progress. At the end of it, you can stand back and see that you’re getting something accomplished.”