Cliff Wagoner faced a large window as he sat down for lunch Tuesday, and he couldn’t help but admire the view.
There before him spread Del Rio Country Club in all its charm – the trees, the rolling terrain, the fairways, the greens, the beauty of one of Northern California’s most respected golf addresses.
“Almost brings tears to my eyes,” he said. “They’re doing a better job than me.”
That’s doubtful. Wagoner, 93, in many ways is Del Rio Country Club. He was there when an old turkey ranch on a bluff overlooking the Stanislaus River was transformed into a golf playground. Later, he became the club’s superintendent from 1954 until his retirement in 1985, which would have served as a body of work by itself.
But during the journey, Wagoner upgraded his business from top to bottom. Put it this way: He made it a business.
“Before him, we were known as greenskeepers,” said David Bermudez, the Del Rio superintendent for the past six years. “Cliff lifted our whole profession.”
Bermudez is right. Wagoner, with help from his “secretary” – his wife Myrtle, 92 – upgraded the golf-course maintenance job to a new level. In fact, he played a prominent role in launching the superintendents’ certification program. Under his guidance, superintendents became proficient in everything from golf turf management to budgets, raising of professional standards, record keeping, personnel and public relations.
Wagoner believed in constant learning and self-improvement. To him, complacency was the enemy.
He knew there was much more to the job than watering and mowing the fairways and greens. With that, he escorted his career choice onto the proud stage on which it stands today. Wagoner says that is his finest achievement.
So do others.
Wagoner, who lives in Modesto, has served as the president, vice president and director of the California Federation of the Golf Course Superintendents Association. In 1973, he was unanimously elected as president of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. His expertise has brought him to golf-course projects as far away as Morocco and Tunisia. A few years ago, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of Northern California renamed its scholarship and research event the Cliff and Myrtle Wagoner Scholarship and Research Tournament.
“I’ve been around a little bit,” he says.
Wagoner was 26 when construction began at Del Rio. Billy Bell, who designed Del Rio’s original Oak and Bluff nines, leaned on Wagoner for assistance.
“If he had listened to me, the 18th (the original par-4 18th on the Bluff) would have been a great hole,” Wagoner said.
Wagoner learned at the foot of Ed Silva, Del Rio’s first superintendent, before he took over in ’54. So began his affection for the place, capped by the creation of the River nine.
“I don’t think anyone could have imagined what it became,” Wagoner said.
The affection from the club to its longtime superintendent has been returned. He remains Del Rio’s only honorary member.
Wagoner remembers it all – how his German shepherd would scamper across the first fairway to steal members’ golf balls, how he would be blamed for everything from bad weather to bad shots, and how a valley course earned its place in the golf universe. Del Rio has welcomed top-flight events such as the 1976 U.S. Girls Junior, the 1990 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur, the Women’s Trans National in 1986 and ’94, two Canadian Tour events and countless others.
“I was going through some old papers at Del Rio when I found three incredible things,” Bermudez said. “I found the deed to the property, construction notes and wages books from 1946. Cliff made $2.25 an hour before he gave himself a quarter raise. They found out he could run a bulldozer!”
It comes full circle on Monday at Del Rio when Cliff, with Myrtle at his side, will be honored at the annual tri-chapter meeting of the Sierra Nevada, Central California and Northern California superintendents association. About 90 will gather to recognize one of the true icons and pioneers of their profession.
Wagoner didn’t have to play much golf (“Only when I had to”) to be a difference-maker in the game. Yes, he’ll pass on advice and wisdom to his younger colleagues Monday.
“I’ll tell them to enjoy their work,” he said. “Don’t be stressed. Do it like you would take care of your back yard.”