Button Hole Golf Course: Pressing the right buttons

Superintendent John Rourke has found a rewarding home at Button Hole Golf Course, a facility that caters to those who may otherwise never discover the game.


Pressing the right buttons
Button Hole Golf Course in Providence, R.I., is nine-hole short course, driving range and community center. Photo by James P. Jones

In the 19th century, the property now occupied by Button Hole Golf Course in Providence, R.I., sat downstream from a thriving shoe manufacturing operation. According to local folklore, this particular factory used buttons as fasteners, and enough stray or defective buttons flowed down the Woonasquatucket River that the pond on this future golf property, where they gathered, became known as the “Button Hole.”

This seems a fitting foundational myth for Button Hole GC, the nonprofit, nine-hole short course, driving range and community center overseen by superintendent John Rourke. Since opening in 1999, the facility has introduced golf to thousands of disadvantaged Providence-area youngsters who may have otherwise drifted toward less positive pursuits. Rourke’s 26-acre facility hosts an average of about 15,000 nine-hole rounds per year, many of which are played by kids who couldn’t ordinarily afford those rounds and therefore would likely never be exposed to the game.

Making golf more affordable and accessible has been a mantra of the golf industry for decades now. Too often, though, it comes off as corporate lip service — the sort of thing too many golf backers declare when they’re not complaining about the proliferation of cargo shorts on the course. While superintendents generally avoid this sort of talk, many wouldn’t dream of trading their jobs at higher-end facilities for posts at more accessible public or municipal courses, much less a place like Button Hole, where the budget is almost entirely dependent on donations.

Rourke, though, is different. The 13-year GCSAA member has put his money — and his career prospects — where his mouth is, and he’s pretty happy with the way things have turned out. “Day to day, I love the environment here. I don’t miss private golf at all,” says Rourke, who was an assistant at the private Agawam Hunt Club in nearby Rumford, R.I., before joining Button Hole in 2014. “I love that we’re doing something that will grow golf, but also something that directly benefits inner-city kids, Special Olympic kids, Wounded Warriors — people who might not otherwise get a chance to experience the game.”

The job offers personal perks as well. “I can also leave work and spend more time with my kid, so there is more flexibility here for me personally. I’m not married to the job, in other words,” Rourke says. “I started in this business at 16 as a weed whacker. That first day, I worked 14 hours. That stuck with me. Eighty to 100 hours a week — that’s the reality at many clubs in this business. At a place like this, you can find that work-life balance. It’s a bit different here for sure — a totally different clientele than most supers are used to. But I sleep pretty good at night.”

An urban oasis

The Button Hole property is certainly unique in its setting, even when compared with other urban courses. A residential neighborhood of Providence and the Dennis J. Roberts Expressway bind its rectangular footprint on the short sides. The mighty Woonasquatucket forms one long border, with King Philip St. (and the Schnitzer Steel operation) across the way. An 8-acre driving range occupies one end of the property, while nine holes, a couple of practice putting greens and the original Button Hole pond fill out the other. Rourke keeps bentgrass on the tees and greens, while fairways are a variety of native species.

“We’re basically sunken down in a pit. It’s one big bowl, and the wind really blows through here, which is tough on conditioning,” Rourke says. “It was an adjustment to go from a place where there is no blade of grass out of place to here, where we’re not worrying about manicuring every inch of the property. Because of the financials, we focus on the fundamentals. We really watch our water management, because you can reduce disease pressure just by doing that well. Having a lot of bentgrass is another key. It does well here.”

About that maintenance program: Rourke reckons his annual budget is about 40 percent of that of your typical nine-hole short course. Button Hole is open to the public — there are green fees, and the range generates revenue too, but that’s about it. Rourke formulates a small budget each year based on past budgets. For all practical purposes, however, the facility in general and Rourke’s budget in particular rely almost solely on donations.

Some superintendents frankly couldn’t rest very easy at night if their budget were structured in such a fashion. But Rourke seems to thrive on the random nature of it, as well as on the challenge of making do with what’s available. He says he’s grateful for the many in the golf industry who have steadfastly supported the Button Hole mission. “Textron, for example, has been very generous,” Rourke says. “They gave us an entire equipment package for nothing, and while you can’t expect something like that every year, they have found a way to help us out, in some way, virtually every year. The wider golf industry really does get it. We’re here because we’re creating the better chance that someone in the city might take to this game.”

Rourke’s former boss at Agawam, GCSAA Class A superintendent Andrew Cummins, has been instrumental in spreading the word among his and Rourke’s fellow members of the Rhode Island GCSA. Cummins is the chapter vice president, and he, president William Coulter and Rhode Island GCSA chapter executive Julie Heston arranged to hold a demo day at Button Hole a few years back, and the event made an enormous impression. “It really put us on the map,” Rourke says. “It got other supers and vendors here for the day to see what we’re doing, and the response has been terrific. When they can donate older equipment or aeration capability, they do it. When they sign a new package or lease, they try to slide something in there for us. I have chemical companies coming to me simply because they heard about us from other people in the association.”

Rourke’s means of drawing attention and support to Button Hole are diverse. “I did a seminar here with some local professors and local nonprofits a couple years ago. That was great for us,” Rourke says. “It got our name out there, which is a continual process.” Grants are another big part of the equation. “It’s not necessarily feast or famine, but let’s say there are hot years and cold years,” Rourke explains. “This was a good year. We’ve done a major reconstruction of our bunkers to make them handicap-accessible, a process we’ve been streamlining all around the course for years.” Last winter, Rourke received a grant to build a nursery green, which is growing in right now. “AAA of New England made that possible,” Rourke says. “That was completely random — one of our board members was out socializing and talking about Button Hole. Someone from AAA was there, and it turned out to be a perfect fit.”

Agronomic advances

The behind-the-scenes of Button Hole isn’t all about hustling for grants and donations, though. Rourke is currently converting an outlying rough area into a short-game practice area. He’s also in the midst of applying for certification for Button Hole through the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Hospitality Green Certification program. Compliance ranges from the mundane (using both sides of each piece of paper in the office) to the agronomically advanced, such as maintaining a proper storage facility — “which we don’t have currently but are working on with the local fire department to see what we can do,” Rourke says — and implementing an integrated pest management program.

Some new, environmentally focused explorations are taking place on the course itself. “One of my employees is a sustainability major at Goddard Memorial up in Vermont, and he’s experimenting with floating wetlands that he’s building himself, as a dedicated water purification process,” Rourke says. “He’s already built a raised bed on a floating platform, and he’s now experimenting with which plants to use, what works and what doesn’t. We’re using our pond as the test site.”

The pond, Button Hole’s namesake, has high phosphorus levels because of water that enters the property upstream from the course, and Rourke thinks this will have interesting effects on the tests. But the pond isn’t the facility’s water source — that would be the Woonasquatucket River itself, which accounts for the superintendent’s primary, ongoing maintenance headache. “For the most part, I see no real effects (from pumping out of the river), but we do have an algae problem here, and it’s probably a result of the water source,” he says. “I’ve got algae and moss in the greens that create a thick hydrophobic layer that leads to increased disease and a thatch-like issue that isn’t exactly thatch. Spraying isn’t as effective as it needs to be. I have some management programs I’m trying now to combat this.”

Opening doors

Rourke takes his agronomy seriously, but he knows it’s secondary to the bigger objective at Button Hole, which is to get kids on the course — kids who otherwise may not be there. Getting those kids on the course at the appropriate time can also be a challenge: “We often say that we’re open 365 days a year, 24/7 — and we are,” Rourke says. “But we try not to encourage play after dark.”

Many young people are attracted to the facility organically, but Button Hole partners with local schools and organizations to annually award some 2,500 scholarships for free golf lessons and course access, all year long. The initiative is known as “Button Hole Kids,” and no level of phosphorus could diminish the program’s impact. “All that is required of the kids is that they fill out an application,” Rourke says. “Since it began, we’ve had over 18,000 Button Hole Kids come through the program. That’s one big reason right there why I love the environment here, day to day. We’re taking inner-city kids who are potentially going the wrong way and giving them something else — an option.”

Hal Phillips is the managing director of golf and resorts for Mandarin Media, a public relations firm with offices in Portland, Maine; Park City, Utah; and Saigon, Vietnam. He is the former editor of Golf Course News.