With the big boys of the PGA Tour descending upon his golf course, groundskeeper Wayne Mills must walk a tightrope.
On one hand, Mills is giving Valencia Country Club a few more teeth, letting the rough grow long enough to gobble errant drives and cutting the greens short and fast.
On the other hand, he doesn't dare make the course play too tough.
"That's what the players call 'trickin' it up,' " Mills said. "They don't like that."
Thus the delicate balance.
"Don't try making the fairways 20 yards wide and the rough six inches high," he said. "You want to let the design play."
Robert Trent Jones Sr. dictated that shape and look, the overall yardage and hazards, when he designed the course in 1965. But by the time the Nissan Open begins today, other men will have tinkered with the variables.
Tour officials determine tee and pin placement. Groundskeepers such as Mills--they are called course superintendents--control equally important factors:
The outline of each hole and the turf.
After 22 years at Valencia, Mills seems born to such work. He is built low to the ground, padding around the course each morning in jeans and rubber boots, kneeling to pinch the blades of grass or running his fingers through a puddle, checking for silt.
He and his crew of 26 men started their preparations by spreading 55,000 pounds of rye grass seed in October. When the winter turf grew in thick and green, they began sculpting the holes into something different than club members were accustomed to playing.
Because this is the first time the PGA Tour has come to Valencia, tour officials wanted the course to conform to general guidelines. Mills found himself working from a sheet of specifications.
Many of the changes accommodated the likes of John Daly and Tiger Woods and their 300-yard drives.
From the distant realm of the gold tees, trees that had been unobtrusive were suddenly menacing, hanging too far over the fairway.
"We don't use those tees very often," he said. "When you got back on the gold tees, the guys were looking at a real tight shot."
Mills trimmed some branches.
His fairways ran wide for about 250 yards, about as long as his club members could hit from the tee. After that, they narrowed.
But the PGA did not want to penalize long hitters, so Mills mowed the fairways to a uniform width.
While the reconfiguration created more room for good shots, it also created greater penalties for balls hit astray. Mills let the rough grow from 1 1/4 inches to three inches and even longer outside the ropes.
As tour official Glen Tait put it: "Grow it long. If [the players] want to get out there with the squirrels, let 'em play with the squirrels."
The groundskeeper was similarly tough with his greens.
While he widened some approaches by several yards, he also narrowed the collars from 71 inches to a miserly 30 inches. And he spent weeks making the greens faster, cutting them down to 1/8-inch and sprinkling sand over them to make the ground firm.
Once again, he was working from PGA specifications.
"You can speed the greens up to where they are like ice, but it's just not done," Tait said. "The idea is to play it strong but fair."
The Nissan Open is making a one-time visit to Valencia only because its usual site, the Riviera Country Club, is preparing for the 1998 U.S. Senior Open in July.
The selection of Valencia as an alternative was not warmly embraced at first. Some tour players laughed while others predicted a less-than-stellar turnout.
After so many years at Valencia, Mills is somewhat proprietary and eager to prove that his course can be more than challenging enough for the players on the tour.
So far, his efforts have received a passing mark.
"It's in great shape," said Duffy Waldorf, a tour veteran who lives nearby. "The rough has grown in and they've got the crisscross cut going. It looks like it's holding up well."
Said Tait: "Turf-wise, this might be the best I've ever seen in this area. I can't say enough about Wayne Mills and the job he's done."
But now that he has the course in shape, Mills finds himself struggling to keep it above water.
The winter storms pounding Southern California can wreck all sorts of havoc on what amounts to a carefully cultivated, precisely trimmed lawn.
Several weeks ago, Mills arrived to find mud percolating from underground on the 12th fairway.
Sleuthing around an adjacent construction site, he discovered the mud was pouring into an old irrigation pipe, installed in the days when carrot fields dominated the area. That pipe ended directly beneath his fairway, where the mud was being forced upward through the grass.
It took a backhoe to stem the flood. It took dozens of workers with shovels to remove the inches of silt that had accumulated.
Since then, Mills has been dealing with smaller disasters.
After each rain, he and his crew squeegee the fairways and pump out bunkers. They walk the course, clearing debris from drains. They hurry to finish their mowing between storms.