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Operating Zaca Creek Golf Course is a labor of love for Mike Brown.

“I absolutely love doing the work,” he said.

For more than a year, Brown of Nipomo-based Sierra Turf has operated and maintained the nine-hole golf course under a lease agreement with the city of Buellton, which owns the 24-acre property at 223 Shadow Mountain Drive.

Founded in 1999 in Truckee, Sierra Turf specializes in turf services; it helped seed the Zaca Creek greens during the city’s renovation.

The 42-year-old Brown, who moved from Northern California to Nipomo four years ago, was “looking for the right spot” to operate when Mike Scott at the Blacklake Golf Resort in Nipomo gave him the heads up about a mandatory meeting and walk-through for potential operators at Zaca Creek, which is just south of Highway 246 and west of the Avenue of Flags in the Rancho de Maria neighborhood.

Sierra Turf was one of eight groups on the tour and one of two bidders for the lease.

“This is exactly what we were looking for,” he said during a recent interview.

At the peak of his business, Brown spent about 158 days on the road in hotels across the country. He has experience as a golf pro in Lake Tahoe and on the East Coast.

His focus nowadays is solely on Zaca Creek, a “gem” of a property.

“This is the spot for me,” he said.

In May 2011, the City Council agreed to buy the par-29, executive-length course for $500,000. There is also a 230-yard driving range, area for chipping and clubhouse.

After struggling financially for years to keep the 1,590-yard course open, the former operator closed it to the public in December 2010.

While seeking an operator for the course in late 2011, the city spent more than $50,000 to repair and maintain the fairways and greens. A new patio cover at the clubhouse meant to protect a patio area from errant golf balls was also built.

The biggest issue during the renovation was irrigation, such as repairs to broken sprinklers. Also, the grounds were full of weeds and unmowed grass, had pesky gophers and the greens needed to reseeded.

To keep the watershed clean, Brown has been using fewer chemicals and has taken measures to reduce water use by as much as 40 percent.

He does most of the work on the property.

“I sure love being out here,” he said.

To save money, Brown plans to use biodiesel fuel from vegetable oil to run both of his tractors. He also intends to install a solar irrigation system and add more signage to attract new players.

Zaca Creek, which averages between 25 and 30 rounds played daily, has come a long way, Brown said, but there is still lots of room for improvement.

Brown said he puts all the money he makes back into the golf course. Also a percentage of certain fees, one-third of cart rentals and one-quarter from the driving range, go to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

Brown envisions Zaca Creek, which opened in 1986, as an affordable, family-friendly destination that succeeds financially. The course has hosted a car show and also holds disc golf and night golf with glow in the dark golf balls. There are plans to start a Saturday co-ed league. The course is home to the local First Tee instructional program for children.

Brown said he is working toward making enough money to cover his expenses and to create a couple of jobs.

At the moment, volunteers work in exchange for free playing time.

Brown’s father and partner in Sierra Turf, Mack Brown, has operated a nine-hole course in Carmel, Ind., for more than 30 years.

“I’m proud of his work,” he said, while visiting his son at Zaca Creek.

Residents like the course, Brown is a “nice guy” and “the course looks great doesn’t it?” Buellton Mayor Judith Dale said.

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