It's 6 a.m. on Friday morning, only days before the Family arrives, and the fairways at Firestone Country Club are already bustling in the darkness. The rumbles from the mowers pierce the pure morning air.
The sun might not be awake yet, but this golf course certainly is.
Two mechanics on staff have already checked the day's equipment. It's time to cut the fairways and soon double cut the greens. The lines must be perfect from now on, because the blimp is coming, and the eye in the sky never lies.
The old girl is almost ready for her big date, and just in time. The majority of the 80 golfers for the PGA Tour's Bridgestone Invitational will arrive on Tuesday and Wednesday.
''It's like family,'' said John DiMascio, supervisor of the prestigious South Course at Firestone. ''It's good when they come and it's good when they go.''
Most of the work has already been completed. What remains is the equivalent to some dusting and mopping. This family reunion is about to begin.
In a previous life, Roger Dukeman was a telecommunications specialist. Now he cuts grass. Five minutes with him, and it's obvious he loves this life much more than the old one.
The 66-year-old is back working because he ''flunked retirement.'' Now he loves what he
''It's a privilege to mow this,'' Dukeman said from the first fairway. ''Look at this course. To be picked to mow this every year is quite a treat and most of the guys feel the same way I do, especially the old retired guys. They have a real pride in the job.''
Dukeman will be on the course all four days this week, but he'll set his DVR to record the tournament so he can check the fairways from the blimp view.
''I know on No. 6, they're going to shoot the camera right on my lines,'' he said.
Turnover on the grounds crew here isn't very high. Most of the workers have been doing this for 20, 30 or even 40 years. That's what sets apart Firestone from the rest of the courses the PGA Tour visits.
''The comments from the players year in and year out is that this is one of the best places to come,'' PGA Tour official John Lillvis said. ''This course, condition-wise, it's almost like having a green in the fairway. They could play an open here, a major, anything. This place has guys who have been here forever. We see the pride in courses everywhere we go, but the longevity? These guys have got it. To have a crew stay as long as these guys have stayed is remarkable.''
A retired attorney is on the grounds crew raking bunkers, a retired bank president cuts grass. Paul McKinney, who cuts almost all of the holes on the greens, is in his 23rd year. Chris Beck, one of three ladies on staff who cut the greens, is in her 34th year.
Beck has been responsible for cutting the even greens on the back nine for the past decade. She mowed the spot just left of the pin that Tiger Woods hit on his memorable ''Shot in the Dark'' in 2000. In fact, she mows all the spots where the champions embrace their caddies after victory. No one else ever dares to mow Nos. 10, 12, 14, 16 or 18.
In fact, the Blonde Squad — as DiMascio playfully calls Beck, her sister Gayle Kiefl and Yvonne Conner — is even territorial over which mowers they use. These women know their greens at Firestone better than Woods or Phil Mickelson.
They know the bumps, where the blade might scalp the green and how to hold on for a straight line. Beck knows the exact spot on the practice green that will make the mower pull left or right.
''If you're prepared for it,'' she said, ''you can keep the mower straight.''
Conner, now in her 18th year, was triple cutting the green on No. 5 back when the tournament was a World Series of Golf event in 1996 or 1997. The mowers weren't cooperating, and she was on her third one when she spotted a pairing finishing up onNo. 4.
''The mower just wasn't cutting properly,'' she said. ''That was sort of frightening.''
McKinney was changing the pins that day. Tour officials had decided on a late change, but he couldn't set the new holes until Conner was done mowing. Tour rules prohibit pins from being set until the green is mowed to prevent damage to the side of the cup.
Typically, a PGA official will walk the course in the mornings to set pin locations for the next day. The late change more than a decade ago, though, left the entire grounds crew scrambling. To his credit, McKinney has never botched cutting a cup hole and has never received any complaints from the pros.
''I do get a little nervous, but that just comes with the fact you've got all these people coming in here that are professionals that are going to play on your work,'' he said. ''But it's kind of exciting, too.''
It wasn't exciting two years ago, when DiMascio got a call from one of his greens mowers early in the morning. A vandal had sneaked into Firestone and spray painted a graphic sexual image on the No. 4 green the morning of one of the tournament rounds. At that point, there was nothing anyone could do to fix it.
''You can't go out there and try to scratch it off because you'll affect the putting surface, and you can't repaint it because players will claim the paint is affecting the putts,'' DiMascio said. ''So you let it be. Thank God the camera doesn't pick up that perspective.''
The camera angles look across the greens rather than down on them, so the image wasn't viewable on television. Hardly anyone outside of those on the course that day ever found out.
''You just sort of giggle about it,'' DiMascio said. ''At least it wasn't the 18th green, because the camera angles are a little bigger down there.''
On this day, DiMascio is constantly on his radio. A tree is blocking the view from the grandstands on No. 16 and one of the sponsor ads on a scoreboard that has been moved to a new position this year. Tour officials want the branches pruned to make the sightlines — and particularly the ad — more visible. DiMascio decides when the tree has been cut enough.
A broken sprinkler head is discovered on No. 2 and likely can't be fixed quickly, so DiMascio decides to just shut it down until after the tournament. He also checks on staff members who are trimming along fences and ponds to ensure Lillvis, the Tour official, can spray paint lines by late morning.
Lillvis and Paul Vermeulen, the PGA's director of agronomy, are already in town. Vermeulen arrived on Tuesday and spent Friday walking the course with Firestone's director of operations, Larry Napora.
An agronomist arrives the week before all PGA events to inspect the course every day and eliminate problems before they arise tournament week. They check the speed of greens daily, and this year, Vermeulen is experimenting with a new tool that reads moisture levels within the first three inches of a green.
He takes multiple measurements from the same spot on every green to chart hydration levels. He can pinpoint which spots on the green need water and how long to water them. The greens at Pebble Beach this year were dry and unappealing. Vermeulen's tool can ensure that doesn't happen again.
''Hopefully by Paul's measurements,'' Napora said, ''we'll never look that way.''
The final tee time before tournament week was 2 p.m. on Friday. Members of Firestone certainly enjoy playing the South Course, but staff members have learned over the years that a number of guests show up shortly before the tournament. That lends to the danger of an inexperienced golfer chunking up the course at the worst possible time.
''It's a balancing act,'' Napora said. ''This is still a business, too. We do the best job we can with the resources given to us.''
Firestone's grounds crew consists of 72 members to care for the South, North and West courses. But all 72 members will have a hand in preparing the South Course next week. Staff members were expected to spend eight hours on both Saturday and today shoveling each bunker until the sand is at the right depth.
''It's 16 hours to make a hazard perfect,'' Napora joked. The bunkers are watered down at night so the morning rake lines glisten on camera.
Beginning Monday, the fairways are mowed every day. Beginning Wednesday, they're mowed twice a day — once in the morning and again in the afternoon. The greens are double cut at 6 a.m. and then single cut again at 6 p.m. Depending on the speed of the greens, they could even be triple cut in the mornings.
One advantage Firestone has is the reduced field. With only 80 golfers coming and no weekend cut, DiMascio's crew can take its time carving intricate patterns into the fairways on Thursday and Friday. The smaller field means later tee times and more time to manicure for a pristine look.
The wildest variable in any tournament event is the weather. DiMascio has learned what's most important to tour officials is finding a way to complete the event in four days. There's nothing worse, he said, than having to rearrange travel itineraries because a tournament extends to Monday.
That can make for legendary moments such as Woods' ''Shot in the Dark'' in 2000. A number of workers on staff today were present for that shot 10 years ago, either watching from the course or from the small television inside Firestone's lunchroom for workers.
They'll be back there again this weekend, watching proudly as Ernie Els hits out of their bunkers, Vijay Singh walks across their fairways and Woods fist pumps on their greens.
Then the Family will pack up and leave and the crew will go back to work, spending the rest of the summer catering to Firestone's members.
''You like the hype and it's good because you've got something for your crew to focus on,'' DiMascio said. ''When it pulls out of town, though, it's a nice relief. But you can't let up, because we still have a product to sell. We have to get right back at it.''
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.