Keeper of the Greens
Kenny Zimmerman has worked the Sun Valley course for seventy-one years
When 82-year-old Kenny Zimmerman looks down the fairways at Sun Valley’s Trail Creek Golf Course, he sees more than landing zones, bunkers and rough. He sees a story about the course’s evolution from an original nine holes to the twenty-seven manicured links Sun Valley boasts today.
Zimmerman has been the superintendent of grounds at the Trail Creek course since 1958, but his history with those greens and fairways dates back to 1939, when he was a 12-year-old caddie working the original nine.
“We’d get fifty cents a bag for nine holes plus maybe a ten- or fifteen-cent tip. That was life,” Zimmerman said. “If we had thirty golfers a day back then, it was a busy day.”
Born in 1928 in West Yellowstone, Montana, Zimmerman moved to the Wood River Valley in 1939, three years after Sun Valley Resort was founded by Union Pacific Railroad Chairman Averell Harriman. It was the depth of the Great Depression and before the United States had entered the war. Zimmerman’s father was a carpenter and his mother a homemaker. He married his wife of fifty-four years, Roberta (Bobbie), in 1956, and the couple’s son, Marty, was born in 1958.
" If we had thirty golfers a day back then,
it was a busy day. ”
According to Shannon Besoyan, who works in public relations for Sun Valley Resort, Zimmerman is probably the oldest active employee at the resort. “He works every day. That’s probably what keeps him going. What could be better than being out on the course every day?” she said.
Sun Valley Marketing Director Jack Sibbach put it this way: “What an example of a hard-working, dedicated employee. You don’t get them any better than Kenny.”
As the sport of golf evolved and became more finely tuned, so have the veteran grounds keeper’s responsibilities. Twenty years ago, he supervised a crew of ten to twelve workers. Today, thirty-five to forty are involved in turf maintenance on a daily basis.
One of the greatest challenges came when the back nine at Trail Creek was added in the 1960s. Zimmerman recalled that the original architect for the expanded course, Wayne North, died before work began. When the owners of Sun Valley decided against hiring a new architect, they instructed Ed Fagen, the superintendent of grounds, to simply follow the plans North had drawn.
“We had these miniature plaster of paris models of what each of the greens was supposed to look like,” Zimmerman said. “We just went out there and measured it off and got it built.”
The biggest change on the Trail Creek Course came when Utah oil and hotel magnate Earl Holding purchased Sun Valley from the resort’s second owner, Bill Janss, in 1977. At the time, the course consisted largely of alfalfa fields along the elevated benches and stream bottoms near the meanders of Trail Creek, for which it is named. Holding purchased 5,800 spruce trees from a nursery in Salt Lake City and had them delivered and planted. Now those saplings have grown into forty-foot testaments to Holding’s vision and are a signature feature of the Trail Creek fairways.
" We’d get 50 cents a bag for nine holes plus
maybe a 10 or 15 cent tip. That was life.”
Despite monumental changes in golf technology since the course’s humble beginnings, Zimmerman said Trail Creek plays pretty much the same as it did when he started with the company.
“I’d caddie for some of the golf pros back then, like Huck Florence, Art Schultz and Jim Haines. Their drives off the tee, with the metal shafts, would land pretty much where they land today. They’d generally be on the green in two, which makes you wonder.”
Golf is more than a profession for Zimmerman. It is a passion, and he encourages his grounds keepers to appreciate the experience. His crew can play the Sun Valley courses for free on a space-available basis.
“I encourage every one of them to play golf regularly,” he said. “I don’t care how well they play, but it is important they understand the courtesies of golf and the challenges the players are facing.”
Zimmerman said he has one pet peeve, and that’s the pace of today’s play. “One thing that really slows it down are these range finders. One guy looks, and then the other guy looks. I don’t think a lot of these guys are that exact (with their approach shots),” he said.
Zimmerman, along with assistants Shawn Aicher and Christopher Gray, is also in charge of the new White Cloud Golf Course, which opened in August 2008. Draped along the top of a spectacular mountain ridge, the White Cloud Nine presents challenges for golfers and groundskeepers alike.
“I think some people have problems with the White Clouds because they are so accustomed to swinging with their feet flat and on level ground,” Zimmerman said. “We need to work on developing some uneven ground at our practice facility so players can start to feel comfortable hitting those types of shots.”
Zimmerman has had a front row seat to the evolution of Sun Valley’s golf course and clubhouse into a world class destination. The days of caddies has passed, as have spoons, mashie niblicks and tipsy three-wheeled carts that were built to resemble miniature trains during the early Union Pacific ownership. Today, golfers zip around the twenty-seven manicured holes in electric carts before retiring to an opulent 60,000-square-foot clubhouse and lodge.
Zimmerman still plays golf, generally once or twice a week and usually only nine holes. Retirement could be on the horizon, but he approached the subject with the same caution a weekend golfer mulls an eventual hole-in-one.
“Sure everyone thinks about retirement,” he said. “It’ll happen one of these days.”
Photography Glen Allison
Text Dan Gorham