Joe Eades' mornings always begin in total darkness. The sunrise is still hours away when he arrives at Forest Park Golf Course, the city still fast asleep.
It's his favorite time of day, when the grass is still dripping with dew and there is a serenity to all the silence. Out of bed no later than 3:30 a.m., he is wide awake when he pulls into the course parking lot, ready to get to work. The course, which has been around since 1934, is already talking to him in a language that takes years to learn.
"It's such a pristine place to be in the morning, when it's quiet and there is no one else around," said Eades, a thin, muscular 53-year-old whose mustache is just starting to show a hint of gray. "You can't help enjoy it."
Being the superintendent of a public golf course is a year-round, often seven-days-a-week job (the only day it's officially closed is Christmas), but there is no season more challenging than summer. This summer — with temperatures hitting triple digits one day, followed by heavy rains the next — has been particularly stressful, both for Eades and the course. Once the sun hits the course and the first golfer steps to the tee, Eades is in constant motion and cannot relax.
"I'm ready for fall," Eades said, cracking a smile on a recent morning, just after 5 a.m. "Especially when you've had a summer like we've had. When you cut grass at 5/32nds of an inch, it can really stress it. I feel like it's time for the grass to rest, and fall is that time.
"Summer is when you're really on edge all the time."
It's Eades' job to make certain nothing gets missed, that putts roll true and the course remains challenging but fair. A Baltimore native who graduated from Douglass High School, Eades started working at Forest Park 20 years ago as a part-time groundskeeper, after a six-year stint in the Marine Corps. He didn't play golf, and had no inkling that it was about to become such an important part of his life. It was just a job and a paycheck.
"The first thing I learned to do was cut cups," Eades said, reminiscing as he sipped hot tea. Despite his early hours, he doesn't drink coffee. "It's the most important thing on the golf course, because the whole focus of the game is to get the ball on the green and into the cup. It takes a while to really understand it."
But over the course of two decades, the job became less of a vocation and more of a passion. There is a man at every golf course like Eades, an invisible orchestra conductor who oversees every blade of grass, trying to find some harmonic convergence between nature and the business aspects of golf. But a superintendent's job is especially important at a municipal, working-class golf course like Forest Park, where funds can be limited and staff stretched thin.
"If you don't love what you're doing, it can be frustrating," said Eades, who arrived at the West Baltimore course dressed in freshly ironed khakis, a green Under Armour polo shirt and donning a black Callaway hat. "Because the business is manicuring the golf course for golfers, and when you have to be out there while they're playing, it's a partnership between you and them. You try to get them to understand that you're doing this for their sake, and you're trying to make the game better for them. Together, you form this little bond."
Though he's now the man in charge — having risen from groundskeeper to head greenskeeper to first assistant to course superintendent — you can still find Eades on the course most mornings, resetting tee boxes or inspecting the greens. His first order of business each day is to assess what the night hours have done to his course, from fallen branches to stolen tee markers. Then he'll hand out instructions, marking off a mental checklist he memorized long ago. His staff, out of respect, refers to him as Mr. Joe.
"You're always thinking about how to make the golf course better, and what that will take," Eades said.
If he's feeling restless, he'll occasionally climb atop a riding mower and glide across a few fairways, his eyes narrowly focused as he tries to cut perfectly straight lines.
"I like cutting fairways because when you get started first thing in the morning, it's just you and that machine, the lights and the grass, and nobody else," Eades said. "You get to clear your mind and relax. You have this total concentration. It sounds funny, but you're just concentrating on making straight lines until golfers show up."
Quiet moments of reflection and tranquillity are particularly important to Eades because of what happened to him one morning back in 2000 while cutting the ladies' tee box on the ninth hole. He felt a tickle in this throat, so he covered his mouth and coughed. When he looked at his hand, it was covered in bright red blood.
"Doctors took some X-rays and told me I had a disease called sarcoidosis," said Eades, who had never smoked cigarettes a day in his life. "It destroyed my lungs completely."
Eventually, a specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital told him if he didn't undergo a lung transplant, he would be dead within a year. He underwent a double lung transplant in December 2007 and began down the slow road to recovery. His weight plunged from 210 pounds to 126 pounds. Doctors asked him to take it easy, but he couldn't stay away from the golf course. He wanted to oversee things, make sure nothing got overlooked.
"It felt like I was missing something," Eades said. "A part of me was missing."
Eades is almost fully recovered now, although he's still not ready to swing a club. But playing the game never interested him as much as getting the course ready for others to play. He had to relearn how to breathe with his new lungs, all the while conscious of the fact that they once belonged to someone else.
But on the mornings when he's walking the course before dawn, when the sun is rising just above the city skyline and bathing the course in sunlight for the first time, he doubts there is anyone anywhere who has a job where the air tastes as sweet.