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The Caretakers: An Inside Look at Latino Immigrants In Golf

Latino immigrants, both legal & undocumented, are an indispensable part of American golf. We took an up-close look at their everyday lives, even working alongside them undercover, to produce this special report.
February 23, 2017

Editor’s note: In celebration of Golf Digest's 70th anniversary, we’re revisiting the best literature and journalism we’ve ever published. Catch up on earlier installments.

Journalist and author Gabriel Thompson has spent his career writing about immigration and labor and has often gone undercover to get the unvarnished story. He has hunched over lettuce fields in Arizona, worked the graveyard shift at a chicken slaughterhouse, served as a temp worker at a warehouse that makes online shopping possible and even spent 17 hours serving hot dogs at Super Bowl 50. For several months in 2013, Thompson investigated golf's essential—but largely invisible—maintenance workforce for Golf Digest, which included going undercover as a golf-course worker. His story, “The Caretakers,” shined a light on the thousands of workers who wake up early each day to cut greens, rake bunkers and tend to the playgrounds of golf.

An estimated two-thirds of the workers are Latino immigrants—both documented and undocumented—who earn about $20,000 a year. It's safe to say that many of the more than 15,500 courses in the United States couldn't operate without them
. These workers take immense pride in what they do even though they realize many golfers overlook their contributions. As part of his reporting, Thompson focused on the remarkable story of Francisco Mora, who tried crossing the border from Mexico illegally more than a dozen times before finally making it, finding a job as a golf-course worker, raising a family and eventually becoming a legal resident. Mora graciously allows the reader into his life, sharing his worries and hopes for an audience he’ll never know. As the photographer for this story, I got to spend a few days with Mora, his wife and seven children and was treated like a member of the family even though they had never heard of Golf Digest. It’s likely we don’t know much about the maintenance workers at our local course, but each, like Mora, has a unique history.

“The Caretakers” originally appeared in December 2013 and won the Sidney Award for outstanding investigative journalism that fosters social and economic justice.
—Alan P. Pittman

The sky over Palm Springs, Calif., is still dark when Francisco Mora steps out of his house and into the cool desert air, wearing a gray work uniform and tattered low-top Chuck Taylors. Although Mora is accustomed to rising at ungodly hours—it's 4:30 in the morning—he looks to be in need of a long nap. "Ya soy viejo," he says in Spanish, with a smile. ("I'm old.")


Inside, his wife and seven children are asleep; the other homes on the cul-de-sac are quiet. He stifles a yawn and rubs his eyes. By now, the stocky 50-year-old has spent the better part of two decades mowing greens and raking bunkers in what amounts to an endless race against players eager to start smacking golf balls at first light. "I'm still strong," he says, "but I'm starting to slow down."

It's a short drive to Mountain View Country Club, just north of PGA West in the town of La Quinta. By the time he arrives the sky has turned a magnificent deep-sea blue, backlighting the palm trees that line the club's entrance. Inside el shop, as he calls the maintenance-employee headquarters, Mora takes a seat among a dozen co-workers and receives his assignment from the trim and tan superintendent. This morning, like most mornings, Mora's cutting the greens. When the group disbands, he mounts a cart loaded with the tools of his trade—rake, shovel, weed whacker and hoe—and heads past spacious ranch-style homes to arrive at the course. "There's the mountain view," he says, pointing to the San Jacinto range to the west. From here, it can be hard to remember that the course resides in the desert: The grass is dark green, a group of ducks floats by and a cool breeze rustles through the trees.

Mora is one of three workers assigned to the greens: The first cuts the interior with a riding mower, the second—Mora—trims the edges with a push mower, and the third changes the cups. Mora yanks the cord of his mower, joining the chorus of machines buzzing across the course. With his shoulders hunched and head tilted slightly to the right, he walks the perimeter of the green three times, returning with a thin layer of Bermuda grass that he dumps into the back of the cart. "Still not sweating," he laughs. At the moment it's a beautiful day to be outside.

But the beauty is fleeting. Two hours later the sun has turned from friend to foe, beating down on the turf and reflecting off the man-made lake. Mora is now at the 12th hole, and the few golfers who have emerged to brave the heat will soon disappear. "In the summer, no one's out after 11," he says, his face glistening under an Adidas cap. No one, of course, except the workers. Today is relatively mild, with a high of 102 degrees. Later in the week it will hit 114.

After finishing the greens, Mora returns to the shop with the other workers for a refried-bean sandwich and several large glasses of water. During the brief break our conversation turns to art. Back in his 20s—before he decided to attempt a border crossing from Mexico, before he knew words like rough and fairway and bunker—Mora spent much of his free time painting. He eventually came to prefer landscapes and still lifes; in one yellowing photo, a young Mora stands in front of his artwork at an exhibition in Guadalajara. He doesn't have the energy or time for such pursuits now—besides the golf job, he works nights at McDonald's—but he dreams of someday returning to the canvas. "In Mexico you don't have as many things," he says, "but you do have more time." He wipes his face with a wet towel. "There are costs to living here." It's the closest I'll hear him come to complaining.


For now, the golf course is his canvas, and though Mora has never played the game—"They carry around a lot of clubs; that's about all I know," he says—he speaks with pride about the long hours he spends each day mowing, trimming, raking and weeding. In the McDonald's kitchen it's "hurry, hurry, hurry," he says, sometimes making it hard to even find time for a bathroom break. But on the course he can watch players putt on greens he has recently cut to perfection, see them admire and sometimes bend down to smell the colorful flower beds he has planted. What is a golf course, after all, but a massive landscape painting that requires daily touch-ups?

Mora takes another bite of his sandwich and heads out to find the superintendent and get his next assignment. "Without us, nothing would look right out here," he says. "It would be like a man wearing a suit without a tie."

There are an estimated 180,000 golf-course maintenance workers in the United States who wake each morning at dawn with the never-ending assignment of keeping courses in playing shape. It's a labor-intensive operation—nearly $6 out of every $10 needed to maintain a course goes to maintenance workers—with a typical course having about 12 employees. Among the workforce are mechanics, irrigators and pesticide applicators, but the bulk of the labor is performed by operators and landscapers. Operators are responsible for mowing the fairways and rough, and landscapers like Mora cut the greens, rake bunkers, change cups, and generally make sure everything—trees, shrubs, flowers, paths—looks pristine.

However, despite their critical role, jobs in these two categories average $10 to $11 an hour, or just more than $20,000 a year. For a worker supporting a family with two kids, the wages fail to bring them above the poverty line. Heath care is a challenge, too. It's not known what percentage of maintenance workers are uninsured, but only about one-quarter of low-wage workers in the United States have insurance through their employers. Workers at Mountain View are offered a health-care package, but Mora doesn't participate, citing the deductions it would take from his paycheck. He can't recall the last time he has been to the doctor, and his children have been covered under his wife's plan. (She works at Walmart.)

Although demographic data on golf-course workers doesn't exist, it's safe to say that a good number of the 15,619 courses in the United States couldn't operate without Latino immigrants. In Palm Springs, a union official who represents workers at several dozen courses estimates that 85 percent of the maintenance staff is Latino, and a similar percentage likely holds for much of California. But it's not just California or the Southwest anymore. Over the past two decades, the Latino population has dispersed across the country, growing especially fast in the South. In 2008, Cornell University published the only study to date of Latino workers in golf. Researchers surveyed golf superintendents from 23 states—mostly in the South—who employed at least one Latino on their crew, finding that at the peak of the season, nearly three-quarters of the maintenance workforce was Latino. And when the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) offers immigration-related workshops for superintendents, attendees converge from all corners. "If you ask them about their workforce, the majority say it's made up of immigrants," says Chava McKeel, the associate director of government relations for the GCSAA. "They're not finding American workers willing to do those jobs."

‘Without us, nothing would look right out here. It would be like a man wearing a suit without a tie.’

Mountain View Country Club is managed by Toll Golf, a division of Toll Brothers that operates country clubs in 11 states. According to David Richey, president of Toll Golf, the recession briefly caused more Americans to apply for maintenance positions at the company. "So many people were out of work," he says, "but we quickly found out they didn't last long. A lot of people said, 'This is not the job for me, thanks.' They were just trying to find a job until their old job came back."


Wages figure into the equation as well. "It would cost us a fortune if we hired a whole American workforce," says Lance Rogers, superintendent at Colonia (N.J.) Country Club. "Everyone I know, their workforce is all immigrant." American workers, he says, want at least $14 an hour, but as the membership of his club has dropped by half since the recession, he says the club can't afford to pay that rate. So he goes with a crew from El Salvador, most of whom earn $9 to $10 an hour, which he estimates saves the club $70,000 a year. "Those guys are the best," Rogers says, echoing a sentiment shared by many superintendents. "The day after Hurricane Irene hit they came out and worked through the night, no questions asked."

It's likely that a good number of the immigrants are undocumented. In the Cornell study, 10 percent of the superintendents reported having lost workers to deportations in the previous three years. And McKeel says that if all employers are forced to use E-Verify—a voluntary federal program designed to identify unauthorized immigrants—there's the potential of losing a chunk of the existing workforce, which is one reason the GCSAA is supporting an expanded guest-worker program. This isn't a topic that superintendents are eager to discuss, but it's hardly surprising. Many low-wage workplaces, from the tomato fields of Florida to the kitchens of the finest New York City restaurants, would have a hard time surviving without contributions from undocumented immigrants. Golf workers are similar to dishwashers and farm workers in that they're easy to overlook. "We get up early and try to stay out of the way," Mora says. "We don't know anything about the players, and they don't know anything about us."

As a teenager, Mora never imagined that he would settle down in California, much less spend his days on a campo de golf. The fourth of nine children, he grew up in a hardscrabble neighborhood near downtown Guadalajara, a bustling metropolis in the state of Jalisco. "We were so poor my brother told people we lived in a nice house on the other side of the street," he says. At 10, Mora left school to help his father at his tannery shop on the corner, working eight-hour days stretching hides to dry. Mora worked on the weekends, too, resoling shoes with his grandfather. As a teenager he took up two pursuits: the guitar and boxing. "Our neighborhood was known for its fighters," he says, and Mora—who woke up early each morning for long runs around the neighborhood—won several local tournaments. Along the way he picked up two tattoos, a spider web on his left hand and a bull on his left forearm. He did the work himself, with a large sewing needle.

In 1988, shortly after Mora married his wife, Maria Isabel, the couple decided to try their luck in the United States. Theirs was a common migrant aspiration: spend a few years up north and return to Mexico with stories to tell and pockets full of cash. "I told my dad that when I got back, we would use the money to open up a new shop," he says. "It was going to be a quick trip." A wry smile crosses Mora's face. That was more than 25 years ago.


Theirs was a common migrant aspiration: spend a few years up north and return to Mexico with stories to tell and pockets full of cash.

They traveled to the border city of Mexicali and hired a smuggler, called a coyote, who charged $300 each to shepherd them successfully across the line. Crossing was easy; eluding capture was not. By Mora's count they were apprehended eight times, sometimes by the same border-patrol agents. One guard, recognizing Mora, told him to try crossing somewhere else. They took his advice and headed west to Tijuana. After being caught six more times—"We were determined," he laughs—they charged down a hill on a starry night and finally made it safely into California. During a brief stopover in Los Angeles they spent $40 for fake green cards and Social Security numbers, then reunited with Maria Isabel's sister in Coachella.

Golf was booming in the Coachella Valley. Larry Bohannan, a journalist who covers golf in Palm Springs, says more than 30 courses opened during the 1980s. A similar spree was occurring across the country, often spurred by real-estate development. From 1980 to 2000, some 3,500 new courses were built; meanwhile a new labor force was crossing the southern border. In 1980, the Latino population in the United States hadn't reached 15 million; by 2000 it was 35 million and climbing.

The new arrivals harvested crops, cleaned buildings, washed dishes and built houses. Like Mora, they found their way onto golf courses. Soon after arriving in Coachella, he was employed as a landscaper at the Vintage Club, an exclusive development with two 18-hole courses.

At Vintage, it didn't take long for Mora to realize a hard truth: Amid his dreams of higher wages, he'd forgotten to factor in higher costs. He started at $6 an hour—much more than he'd made at home—but expenses mounted quickly. "I never was able to send much money home to my parents," he says. "Rent, food, bills . . . " His voice trails off. Then there was his growing family to support. Maria Isabel was three months' pregnant when they crossed, and two more children soon followed. Meanwhile, cheap vinyl flooded Mexico's market, eating sharply into the demand for leather. Francisco's dream of returning home to open a new tannery shop with his father waned.


But Francisco and Maria Isabel made it work, like families do, and Mora found Vintage and its close-knit maintenance crew a good place. There was a volleyball court next to the shop, and in the cooler months the staff would play during breaks, preparing for an annual tournament against teams from other clubs. Mora took to the work with passion and discovered he was good at it. Soon he was earning raises and taking home an employee-of-the-month plaque. That he was an undocumented immigrant wasn't particularly important. He was paid like any other employee, by company check with taxes withheld. "A lot of people didn't have real documents," Mora says. "It was more relaxed then."

Relaxed is not a word many undocumented immigrants would use to describe their current situation. The Obama administration deported a record 1.5 million individuals during its first term, and on the local level a number of states have passed tougher laws in the hopes that unauthorized immigrants will pack up and leave. That trend began in 2010 with Arizona's controversial SB1070, which permitted police officers to check the immigration status of people they suspect are in the country illegally. Georgia passed a similar law the next year, which also punished workers who land jobs using fake IDs—like Mora—with up to 15 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. Elected officials in Alabama went further, including a provision, later ruled unconstitutional, that forced schools to collect immigration data on students. The language could get ugly. A co-sponsor of the Alabama bill said it was time to "empty the clip and do what has to be done." Another Alabama politician said he would do anything "short of shooting" undocumented immigrants.

As the overheated rhetoric illustrates, the immigration issue cuts deep for many Americans, and people on opposite sides can draw very different conclusions about an individual like Mora. Those supporting a crackdown will say he crossed the border illegally, received a job that might have gone to an American citizen, and failed to file taxes for many years. Others will argue that Mora is a devoted family man who fills a labor gap—who wants to work in temperatures that exceed 110 degrees?—and that payroll taxes were in fact deducted from his paycheck. He also paid sales, property and income taxes and helped subsidize Social Security. (Undocumented immigrants who use fake numbers pay into a system from which they'll never collect.) There are plenty of studies both sides can point to, which have found that undocumented immigrants have a slightly positive or negative effect on wages and jobs.

More recently, however, a growing number of Americans have come to support legalizing the country's 11 million unauthorized immigrants. In polling done this spring by the Pew Research Center, which asked how to deal with people in the country illegally, seven out of 10 said they should be able to legalize their status, with only 27 percent arguing against. The survey also found that a majority believed that newcomers strengthen society rather than threaten traditional American values. Such sentiments could help the current push for immigration reform. In June, the Senate passed a bill that would put undocumented immigrants on a 13-year path to citizenship. If enacted, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill would save $175 billion during the first decade, partly because of additional taxes paid by newly legalized immigrants, and boost the GDP by 3.3 percent. But the measure faces stiff resistance in the House, where a number of conservative members have declared it "dead on arrival." Instead, they plan to focus on increased border security. "They talk and talk," Mora says about politicians, "but nothing changes."

If Mora represents a traditional migrant stream—Mexico to California—then Oscar (not his real name) is part of a second wave that's increasingly headed to the southern part of the United States. It's an overcast day when we meet at a public course in an Atlanta suburb, and Oscar, 70, spends much of his shift pumping water out of bunkers, the result of a recent storm. Oscar, who resembles an older Tom Selleck, is initially hesitant to speak and agrees to an interview only after I assure him that I'm not an undercover immigration agent. (I also agree to change his name and not identify his workplace.)

Having left the third grade for a lifetime of hard work, Mora just wants ‘to give my kids a chance.’

Oscar is from the Mexican state of Tamaulipas and followed his son to Georgia in the 1990s. Before the journey, Oscar had been working at a ranch, struggling to support his wife while earning 200 pesos a week, or about $70 then. After moving into a room at his son's house in Marietta, a town 20 miles north of Atlanta, he got in touch with a friend from his hometown. "He said he was working at something called a golf course," says Oscar, who had never heard of the sport. But he tagged along one morning, and when the crew began pulling weeds, Oscar took out his pocketknife and uprooted a few. The superintendent came by, noticed the new face, and told him to show up the next day. Pay was modest—$5 an hour—but he would be making more in two days than he earned in a week in Mexico.

Oscar learned the work quickly and took up the game, playing weekly in his younger years. "My clubs were all different brands at first, and I thought that the bigger the number, the farther the ball would go," he says, chuckling. Like Mora, he takes the work seriously. "Quiero todo perfecto," he says, locking eyes to make sure I understand the importance of a perfect course. "If I make a mistake, I don't need the boss to come tell me about it. I already feel terrible." Oscar can be tough on others, too. One morning on the course, someone compliments his co-worker, who is mowing a green. Oscar pauses from blowing leaves and takes a long look. "It's OK," he says. "But you have to watch him. Sometimes he cuts lines that look like bananas."

Oscar has worked on four courses and says when he first arrived, the workforce was diverse—black, white, Latino—but now it's all Latino immigrants. Over the years he has mentored a stream of younger workers but believes many didn't display sufficient commitment. When he needs to cut shrubs or branches in a hurry, he takes to the course with a machete and lets loose. One time, after a rare snowfall, a superintendent told Oscar to cut the greens. He obeyed despite reservations, and slid his riding mower into the water, going in up to his chest. "You have to be willing to do whatever needs to be done and follow all directions," he says.

Oscar now makes nearly $11 an hour and is able to send $350 home each month to his wife, who has diabetes. His remittances have also turned what was once their small wood shack into a large cement house. "Mother's Day is coming," he says, "and so I'll send something extra to make sure she can pass the day pleasantly."

But after an hour of sunny news—work he cares about, a new house in Mexico, the sizable sum he dedicates to his wife—Oscar starts sobbing when asked about the last time he has been home. Though he speaks to his wife every day, he hasn't seen her in 20 years. In the last photo he received she looked sickly, gaunt in the face. He feels stuck, unsure of what to do. "If I go back, how will I make money to take care of her?"


Adding to his stress is a new state law that cracks down on undocumented immigrants. Faced with an influx of newcomers—Georgia's Latino population has grown by an astounding 784 percent since 1990—lawmakers passed HB 87 in 2011. Modeled after Arizona's law, the bill gives local police the power to check the immigration papers of people they stop. Now Oscar feels as if he's on house arrest and rarely ventures from his rented room except to go to work and buy groceries. His granddaughter, a U.S. citizen by birth, has noted the change and asks him why he doesn't visit his friends anymore.

"I tell her that I don't want to drive over to their house and maybe get stopped by the cops," he says, wiping his eyes with a napkin. "I try not to worry . . . but it's impossible not to worry."

Back in palm Springs, Mora is a hard man to track down. He can log up to 70 hours of work each week, and his home phone has been cut off because he couldn't afford to pay the bill. When he does get a day off, he tries to spend it with his children. On a recent Sunday afternoon he's sitting on a plastic chair in his front yard watching his 11-year-old daughter, Angie, ride her bike.

Suddenly Angie, who had disappeared into the cul-de-sac, comes careening down the street at full speed, shrieking with joy.

"Angie, be careful!" Mora shouts, moments before she takes a sideways spill over the curb. She stands up, dusts off her yellow dress and runs laughing into her father's arms. He rubs her head and tells her to slow down. "She never stops moving," he says. "You have to watch her, or she'll just disappear down the street."

Mora's seven children, all citizens born in the United States, range in age from 5 to 24. Nearly every conversation eventually comes back to his family. "I want to give my kids a chance," he says as Angie heads back to her bike. Having left the third grade for a lifetime of hard work, he envisions his kids sitting inside air-conditioned offices, typing away behind computers, doing the kinds of jobs that don't leave a person exhausted. He nods. "That's what I want: to give all my kids a chance."

Every child changes a family, but Angie changed it more. A gregarious adolescent with shoulder-length hair and a contagious smile, Angie was born with Down syndrome. For years, Mora and his wife were like Oscar, keeping their heads down and hoping to minimize interactions with the government. Then they had no choice, because Angie required early intervention and extensive therapy. But the parents discovered that they could be eligible for green cards and hired an attorney who successfully argued in front of an immigration judge that deporting the parents would create an "exceptional hardship" for the daughter. In 2003, Mora and Maria became legal residents.

When asked about his hopes for the future, Mora replies: "More time with Angie." He imagines long hours spent reading her books, teaching her new words, going over math problems. And, of course, hanging out, like what he's doing now, watching her bike along the street and fruitlessly encouraging her to slow down.


But since the recession, time is something Mora doesn't have. After more than a decade at the Vintage Club he moved on to Indian Wells Golf Resort. By 2007 he was making $14 an hour and overseeing a landscaping crew of eight. But that was before the real-estate market crashed and the golf industry contracted. Mora was among a group of workers laid off at Indian Wells.

With his experience, he thought finding golf-related work would be easy. But forces were aligned against him: Players were dropping out, golf-course construction halted, golf tourism dried up. "I'd show up at a club, and they'd say, 'Oh, we just started cutting more people,' " Mora says. He spent two years collecting unemployment. The only bright spot was that Maria Isabel managed to keep her job at Walmart, where she works in the bakery. "She's the one making the real money in the family now," Mora says.


His break came in early 2010, just as his benefits were ending. A caseworker told him about an opening at Mountain View. He rushed over and filled out an application. Considering the state of the economy, he feels fortunate to have a job. But like many victims of the recession, he has ground to make up. At Mountain View he was hired at $8.50 an hour—his pay has since risen to $8.84—and he knew he would need a second job to make ends meet. One day, while eating at McDonald's, he noticed a help-wanted sign. Now Mora often takes a shower in Mountain View's maintenance shop after a shift and drives straight to McDonald's, and it's not uncommon for several days to pass before he sees his children or wife awake. Mora puts in nearly 40 hours at the course each week and another 25 to 30 at McDonald's. Fortunately, his daughter April, 24, lives at home and watches Angie and her brother David, 5. "My dad was the one who used to take us everywhere," April says. "We went to church, to the park, to the pool. He was so playful, and protective of us girls. My mom says, 'If it wasn't for your dad, you'd be all over the place.' Now it's different because he's always working."

Still, Mora thinks the long hours away help clarify his priorities. He hates to miss big events—like the party he couldn't attend for his 22-year-old son, Steven, who recently graduated from junior college—and sometimes it can feel like life is passing him by. So he tries to slow down when he's home. "The little time that you have left makes you realize how valuable it is," he says, his eyes watering. "Maybe it's just three or four hours, but in that time we are together . . . " He takes a deep breath. "You have to take advantage of that time."

On a Tuesday in June, Mora is riding atop a green John Deere, mowing the lawn next to Mountain View's clubhouse. His normally gentle face tenses as he maneuvers the machine in tight arcs around trees, ducking his head to avoid low-hanging branches. It's only 10 o'clock in the morning, but the heat has already driven everyone from the course except for an intrepid group of women who are determined to finish their round. By now Mora has replaced his Adidas cap with a straw hat and draped a wet towel over his head.

During a break, he tells me he has been thinking about the future. One of the challenges with Angie, he says, has been communicating with her therapists and caseworkers. "They don't speak Spanish, and sometimes we don't know what they are trying to tell us. As a parent, it can be hard to not know what to do." So Mora has begun contemplating a new career. He might enroll in English classes, get his GED, and take courses to get a job working with immigrant parents who have disabled kids. "That would be really important," he says.

It's a challenge, for sure. How many 50-year-olds reinvent themselves—much less ones who left school after the third grade and don't have a firm command of English? He admits it would be difficult, but the man who was caught more than a dozen times before finally arriving in the United States shrugs it off. Everything is a challenge.

For now it's just his private dream. In waking life, Mora finishes up the grass, eats a lunch of fish tacos under the shade of a palm tree and spends the rest of his shift at Mountain View weeding flower beds on his knees. When he gets home, Angie is inside, wearing a striped purple shirt with the word LOVE emblazoned across the chest. She charges at her father with a hug. But time is, of course, short. He takes a quick shower and heads out the door to McDonald's. When he arrives, the drive-thru lane is backed up, and half a dozen customers are waiting inside on their orders. "Let's go! Let's go!" yells a supervisor wearing a headset, at no one in particular. As she paces behind the registers, Mora slips on his black McDonald's cap, clocks in, and disappears into the kitchen.

Gabriel Thompson is author of the book Working In The Shadows: A Year Doing The Jobs [Most] Americans Won't Do.