Now, after parts of seven decades in the business, including seven years at PGA, Gray is ready for the next chapter of his life, but it hardly includes a corner room in the old superintendents' home. He eats right and works out daily in a gym he built in his home in Stuart, and at age 77 is living proof it is never too late to reinvent yourself.
Gray exudes a toughness that is the product of another era. A former college wrestler in his native Indiana, Gray still can whip most people half his age. And if he doesn't know you, he's probably sizing you up for a takedown while simultaneously forming a first opinion - because you never know.
"I see the world through the eyes of a guy who has been on the mat," Gray said when he was named the 2016 Superintendent of the Year, presented by Syngenta (shown at right receiving the award from Syngenta golf market manager Stephanie Schwenke). "When I see someone, I'm sizing him up. I'm looking for opportunities and holes so that if push comes to shove, I know where I'm going and he doesn't. And that's my world."
His career as a greenkeeper began in 1967 at Pete Dye's Crooked Stick in Indiana and included a half-dozen clubs in Florida close enough to Stuart that he has had the same address and home phone number for 40 years.
That career that spanned more than 50 years came to an end, involuntarily, last June, when he failed to report that a couple of workers on his crew had tested positive for Covid-19 until after they returned safely to work.
That news was a blessing of sorts.
Gray's wife of 33 years, Toni, had been battling breast cancer on and off for a dozen years. His newfound time off gave him precious time to be with her as the disease ravaged her body and spread to her bones, liver and lungs. Unable to fight any longer, Toni Gray lost her battle on Nov. 10, 2020.
"She spent her 56th birthday signing papers over to hospice," Gray said. "That was on October 19. She was 21 years younger than I am. Last April, we were working on my will. I never thought about it being the opposite way. I always knew I would go first. Then all of a sudden, the cancer was back and that idea was reversed. Her personality just dissolved. That's the only way I can think to put it. It didn't erode. Erosion is slow. It was heartbreaking to see that personality dissolve in front of you. The last month to six weeks, there was little acknowledgement of anything other than pain. We were hoping for a miracle, but the miracle wasn't coming. We needed mercy."
That loss has afforded Gray a chance to look back on his career and put things into better perspective. For years, he was up at 4 a.m. seven days a week and at the golf course shortly thereafter.
"I always thought that if I was going to be the best I had to be at the golf course seven days a week," Gray said. "I thought I was in a groove, but really I was in a rut."
Gray's greenkeeping career began at Crooked Stick in Indiana. That's where he first met Dye, and the two formed a close friendship that lasted a lifetime - literally.
"This is my American Pie - the day the music died," Gray said when Dye passed away more than a year ago on Jan. 9, 2020.
Eventually, the job took him to Florida where he was the head greenkeeper at Loblolly Pines in Hobe Sound and Jupiter Hills in Tequesta, as well as Martin Downs and Sailfish Point in Stuart. In the mid-1990s, Gray designed the Florida Club in Stuart. Gray, who later in his career earned a master's degree in hospitality management from Texas Tech, also was the club's general manager. His legacy on the golf turf management business was the way he treated his employees. When he introduced staff uniforms shortly after he started at PGA, he told his team they could choose their own hats with one condition - they all wore the same one. He made such an impact on the team they chose to wear Gray's signature cowboy hat.
"He is the total package," Loblolly pro Rick Whitfield told TurfNet in 2017. "He can build it, he can grow it, he can maintain it and he can grow a crew."
A decade after building the Florida Club, Gray took a break from the golf course for a sales job with Pathway BioLogic. That gig gave him a new appreciation for the way soil microbials and how they influence golf turf. He came in off the road to take the job at PGA Golf Club so he could spend more time with his wife as she fought cancer.
After the separation from the PGA, Gray has been doing some consulting work around Florida for Tom Fazio, and he thought about peddling biologicals again. The death of his wife, however, has poured cold water on that idea. Instead, his thoughts have turned to selling his home on the St. Lucie River where he enjoys fishing, and moving north somewhere along Florida's I-10 corridor. He also is renovating a home in his native Logansport, Indiana, where he can spend summers and entertain his grandkids.
"Stuart? It's just time to go," he said.
"I love to bluegill fish, and maybe I need a change of seasons. Here, we have gators behind the house that are 11 feet. At Sweetwater Lake in Indiana, the water is gin-clear and I won't get eaten."
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