Extending the Legend at Baltusrol GC

By | September 29th, 2016
Photography by Evan Schiller

Photography by Evan Schiller

Behind the scenes of Jimmy Walker’s dramatic win at this year’s PGA Championship was the equally compelling—but not as surprising—tale of how the storied New Jersey club once again met all challenges to reinforce its preeminence as a major venue.

When Jimmy Walker sank a short par putt on the 18th green at Baltusrol Golf Club shortly after 7 p.m. on Sunday evening, July 31, he did more than just win the 2016 PGA Championship and his first major golf tournament. Walker’s final stroke also earned him rare standing as one of only a handful of modern professionals to win a major while playing 36 holes on the final day of competition.

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AT A GLANCE

Baltusrol Golf Club

Location: Springfield, N.J.
Founded: 1895
Members: 1,475
Clubhouse Size: 80,000 sq. ft.
Golf Courses: Two 18-hole championship courses (Upper and Lower), designed 1918-1922 by A. W. Tillinghast
Major Championships: 17, including seven U.S. Opens and two PGA Championships
Annual Golf Rounds: 35,000
General Manager/COO: Kevin Vitale, CCM
Director of Golf: Doug Steffen, PGA
Director of Grounds: Mark Kuhns, CGCS
Clubhouse Manager: Brian Baldwin
Executive Chef: Edward Stone
Director of Security: Mitchell Fenton, CPP
Communications Manager: James Lum

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As impressive as Walker’s feat was, he wouldn’t have had the chance to endure and excel under such extended pressure without an equally impressive behind-the-scenes performance by the members and staff of Baltusrol. Working closely with PGA of America officials, those at the host club in Springfield, N.J., drew on years of collective experience and summoned the special resolve that comes with being part of the Baltusrol culture to defy the odds—and public skepticism—and make the determined effort needed to ensure that the tournament could be finished on its scheduled final day.

Less than 24 hours before Walker stroked his short winning putt, though, some doubts were harbored even by those who are the most deeply steeped in Baltusrol’s legends and mystique (which date back to the 1830s and include the tale of the murder of Baltus Roll, a farmer who owned land near the club, and subsequent writings by A. W. Tillinghast about ghostlike creatures that the famed architect saw while designing the club’s two golf courses).

“Saturday was a difficult day,” reports Kevin Vitale, CCM, Baltusrol’s General Manager/COO. “We had had so much rain that day [which caused delays that prevented many golfers, including Walker, from even starting their third rounds], and there was no assurance that Sunday was going to be any different from a weather standpoint.

“Weather really has a way of humbling you, and it was certainly a humbling week,” Vitale continues. “But while you can’t control the weather, you have to stay focused on keeping your composure and sticking together as a team to work hard and do your job, no matter what happens.”

The handshake between Jack Nicklaus (left) and Arnold Palmer after Nicklaus won the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol is just one of many  historic reminders that help those at the club retain proper appreciation for, and focus on, their major missions.

The handshake between Jack Nicklaus (left) and Arnold Palmer after Nicklaus won the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol is just one of many historic reminders that help those at the club retain proper appreciation for, and focus on, their major missions.

As it turned out, while Sunday brought another day of volatile atmospheric conditions to the area, somehow nothing fell on the 500 acres of the Baltusrol property, even with more storms popping up all around it. “We were lucky,” Vitale says.
And after it was suggested that luck is the result of good preparation, Vitale declined to completely buy into that concept.

“You know what,” he says. “You still need some luck.”

Reducing the Chances
There’s no question, however, that in the case of Baltusrol, its exposure to, and reliance on, the level of luck that may always come into play is greatly minimized both by the club’s long and storied history as a preeminent golf venue, and by the experience of its membership and staff in putting on major events. This is especially impressive given the makeup of the property, which is squeezed into northern New Jersey’s famously congested environs (Springfield is just over 20 miles from New York City), with no room to expand.

While the signs and symbols that pointed to potential disruptions came in many forms, Baltusrol’s  experienced crew of grounds staff and volunteers didn’t hesitate in rolling out all of the know-how needed to ensure that the 2016 PGA could be completed on schedule. (Photography by Evan Schiller)

While the signs and symbols that pointed to potential disruptions came in many forms, Baltusrol’s experienced crew of grounds staff and volunteers didn’t hesitate in rolling out all of the know-how needed to ensure that the 2016 PGA could be completed on schedule. (Photography by Evan Schiller)

“Our facility, and this area, wasn’t really built for holding events of the scale [that major championships have now grown to], especially for things like transportation and selling merchandise and handling media operations,” says Vitale. “In many ways, it’s become a challenge of putting a square peg into a round hole. So you have to go into it knowing that sometimes things may not work the way they’re supposed to, and always have a Plan B and be prepared to go to it if needed.

“That’s where the experience and knowledge of the membership and staff really becomes valuable, along with everyone’s understanding that this is part of what we do here every 10 or 15 years,” he adds. (Baltusrol has now hosted 17 major championships dating back to 1901, including seven U.S. Opens and now two PGAs.) “So you just know to stick to the program and follow the leadership’s direction.”

To keep the golf course ready for play throughout a week that brought a total of four inches of rain and a constant stream of foot and vehicular traffic, that meant following the expert guidance provided by Director of Grounds Mark Kuhns, CGCS, in his characteristic calm and understated fashion. Having now been in his role at Baltusrol for 17 years and three major tournaments, following a decade at another legendary venue, Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, there’s little that Kuhns hasn’t seen or learned to deal with in a career that has encompassed a total of six majors and actually extends to his days as a pre-teen working at Laurel Valley Country Club in his hometown of Ligonier, Pa.

Baltusrol GC management had plenty to smile about after hosting another successful major tournament. From left: Kevin Vitale, CCM, General Manager/COO; 2016 PGA Champion Jimmy Walker; Doug Steffen, PGA, Director of Golf; Mark Kuhns, CGCS, Director of Grounds.

Baltusrol GC management had plenty to smile about after hosting another successful major tournament. From left: Kevin Vitale, CCM, General Manager/COO; 2016 PGA Champion Jimmy Walker; Doug Steffen, PGA, Director of Golf; Mark Kuhns, CGCS, Director of Grounds.

The first thing you must learn about dealing with downpours under the pressure of tournament timetables, Kuhns says, is to stay patient and resist the urge to start trying to clear water from the course too soon. “The worst thing you can do is to be out there while it’s still raining,” he says. “And once it stops, you want to hold off starting to work as long as you can, to let gravity and nature take their course; [those forces] can still get rid of more water more quickly than even the best crew and equipment.”

When it does come time to turn the grounds workers loose, Kuhns and Baltusrol have benefitted from having an especially experienced group of staff and volunteers. In addition to the appeal of working under Kuhns and at such a respected property, further attraction and motivation comes from the capabilities and comforts provided by Baltusrol’s $2.3 million grounds operations building (“Inside Baltusrol’s ‘Taj Mahal of Maintenance,’” C&RB, June 2005), which was state of the art when it opened just before the club hosted the 2005 PGA Championship, and still stands among the top facilities to be found anywhere in the world.

“Most of the volunteers [for the 2016 PGA] had worked here before, and together with our staff, we’ve learned to handle water pretty well,” says Kuhns. “Everyone knows, for example, to push the water that you do still have into landing areas, and not short of the green.”

Baltusrol’s food-and-beverage team served 2,000 people a day at its seven clubhouse buffets during Championship week, while also creating and operating a popular temporary pavilion that was set up primarily for bar service. And planning paid off for smooth adjustments in both operations when weather disruptions created the need to go into “shelter mode.”

Baltusrol’s food-and-beverage team served 2,000 people a day at its seven clubhouse buffets during Championship week, while also creating and operating a popular temporary pavilion that was set up primarily for bar service. And planning paid off for smooth adjustments in both operations when weather disruptions created the need to go into “shelter mode.”

Sheltering in Place
Other Baltusrol managers followed a similar formula of familiarity and unflappability to weather the challenges that came their way during the club’s latest tournament experience. Director of Golf Doug Steffen, PGA, who has held that role since 1997 and whose total experience at Baltusrol dates to when he started as an assistant in 1977, says operations were noticeably improved this time around compared to the 2005 Championship, even with the infrastructure of the tournament growing significantly and the week bringing another onslaught of disruptive weather. (The 2005 tournament, won by Phil Mickelson with his famous chip out of deep rough to set up a birdie on the 72nd hole, was delayed by Sunday rain that forced a Monday completion.)

“Working with the PGA, we all learned a lot about what we could do to make people more comfortable and provide better access to where they wanted to go,” says Steffen about changes made for 2016. “It’s a matter of constantly discussing what should happen, and what could happen, and being properly prepared to react to whatever does happen.”

Baltusrol also benefits from having a full-time Director of Security, Mitchell Fenton, CPP, and a full-time Communications Manager, James Lum, to help respond to the myriad of special situations or requests that can arise during a major tournament and that otherwise might fall on the shoulders of already well-burdened department managers.

Fenton, a former local police officer who has held his position at Baltusrol for 12 years, describes the challenges involved with holding a major golf championship in a major metropolitan area as a matter of keeping “controlled chaos” from becoming “mass confusion.”

After Jimmy Walker hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy as the 2016 PGA Champion, he made sure to pose with the members of the course maintenance team who stood out as the tournament’s other top  performers, by ensuring an on-schedule finish despite a week that brought four inches of rain (two alone during the third round). Fittingly, Walker held up a squeegee for the photo, to acknowledge a piece of equipment that made nearly as much of a contribution to his win as his golf clubs.

After Jimmy Walker hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy as the 2016 PGA Champion, he made sure to pose with the members of the course maintenance team who stood out as the tournament’s other top
performers, by ensuring an on-schedule finish despite a week that brought four inches of rain (two alone during the third round). Fittingly, Walker held up a squeegee for the photo, to acknowledge a piece of equipment that made nearly as much of a contribution to his win as his golf clubs.

“It’s a Herculean task, but you just know that you have to stay on top of your game and not let your guard down,” Fenton says. “And fortunately, there are so many experienced people here who know that, it’s almost become second nature to them.”

On the food-and-beverage side, the same culinary passions and exacting operational and service standards featured in the July 2016 cover story of C&RB’s Chef to Chef (“The Dream Team”) were given a special showcase during the PGA Championship. Inside the clubhouse, seven different buffets were offered through Championship week, providing meals for 2,000 people a day. Adjacent to the clubhouse, a pavilion designed primarily for bar service was set up that proved to be an extremely popular viewing area, at times getting as lively as “a Jets football game,” reports Clubhouse Manager Brian Baldwin.

“Our goal was to make sure nothing ever ran out, even though nothing was pre-made, and we set up constant prep lines for that purpose,” Baldwin says. “In the early part of the week, we did have some challenges maintaining the buffet lines, but we made some adjustments and by Wednesday we had it down. Then the rains came.”

But here, too, Baldwin reports, experience paid off through the plans that the Baltusrol F&B team had prepared for going into “shelter mode” and avoiding the “gridlock” that can be produced when crowds rush to get out of the weather.
“We had to go into it two separate times, but each time it worked well—as soon as the buzzer went off, everyone knew how to proceed to shut down the buffets and slow down drink service,” he says.

Effective contingency planning also paid off when a dishwashing machine went down in the middle of a peak lunch period, reports Marco Porras, a dining room Head Captain who has been with Baltusrol for 23 years. “Within ten minutes, we had switched to disposable [tableware] for all areas of the clubhouse, and didn’t miss any service,” Porras says.

Baltusrol Golf Club, Springfield, N.J.

Baltusrol Golf Club, Springfield, N.J.

“Everything was much bigger this year [compared to previous tournaments],” he adds. “But it’s all about planning and managing—if you know what you’re doing and make adjustments as you go, and always ask the team how we can do things better, it actually becomes pretty easy—you might even still have times where you think things are too slow.”

Positive Returns
Another reflection of the experience factor at Baltusrol comes from not only how quickly staff members have learned to bounce back after a tournament week, but also from how readily they acknowledge and accept the need to do so.

“There’s a tendency to have a hangover in every respect, and you definitely want to provide opportunities for people to catch up on their rest,” says Vitale. “But the members can have a different type of hangover, and they want their club back. So you have to make sure there’s an understanding among all of the staff of the need to get back to normal operations, because tournaments are just part of what we do.”

The task of getting back to “normal” is most daunting for the grounds maintenance team, especially after a mud-filled week that left deep ruts from where vehicles were stuck badly enough to require tow trucks.

Mitch Fenton, Director of Security (left) with Baltusrol GC’s Greens Committee Chairman, Roddy McRae

Mitch Fenton, Director of Security (left) with Baltusrol GC’s Greens Committee Chairman, Roddy McRae

Here, too, a Kuhns-led restoration effort has the benefit of invaluable experience that can be called on to greatly speed recovery time. To restore gallery areas, for example, Kuhns had the crew start to spread new seed during tournament week. “When you get those kinds of crowds to trample it in, it comes back rapidly,” he says.

Kuhns even saw a silver lining in the fact that this year’s PGA was moved up to the last week of July from its usual August timeframe, because of golf’s return to the Olympics. “That means we’re two weeks ahead of ‘05 in returning [the course] to the members as quickly as possible, which is always the goal,” he says. “The sooner we can have members say, ‘Gee whiz, did we just have a major here?’ the better.

“And the good news is, we put on another one and got through it relatively unscathed, even with the weather we had to deal with,” Kuhns adds. “Nothing died that we can’t get back, and we won’t have to have any temporary greens.”

Eyes to the Future
From management’s perspective, having the schedule pushed up because of the Olympics (a midstream announcement that was made well into Baltusrol’s planning for the 2016 PGA) will be marked down as a lesson learned for the next time around, precisely because of its implications for the club’s year-round operation.

Photography by Evan Schiller

Photography by Evan Schiller

“We won’t seek to book [a tournament] in an Olympics year again,” Vitale says. “[Moving the 2016 PGA up to July] did have a significant effect on our calendars for golf events and outings and for banquets and weddings. We are normally busy with those events through July, and we had to clear our calendar earlier for them this year than we normally would [in a tournament year].”

But while it won’t be too long before the Baltusrol team does begin pursuit of its next major tournament, with an eye to maintaining the club’s tradition of hosting one every 10 to 15 years, for now it will turn to more immediate issues related to how it provides services, amenities and facilities for its membership.

In addition to getting its golf courses fully playable again “within six to eight weeks,” Vitale says, and resuming regular capital investment that has brought $50 million in improvements to the club over the last 12 years, the most significant short-term development will be the need to find a new Director of Golf and, as part of that transition, to bring the pro shop operation under the club’s management.

The 2016 PGA will be the last major at Baltusrol for Steffen, because he will retire at the end of the calendar year. “It’s a nice year to go out, and I’m certainly proud of how [the golf department] contributed to another successful tournament,” he says. “But when you ask me what I’m most proud about, that’s an easy answer—through my years here, I’ve had 34 assistants get head professional jobs at other clubs.

pga16_7654“From the time assistants come here to when they’re ready to leave, they’ve seen and been exposed to a wide range of roles,” Steffen adds. “We’ve always made it a point to rotate responsibilities frequently to help everyone develop a well-rounded resume, even if they don’t happen to be here during the time when we host a major tournament.”

Now Baltusrol, with the help of a search firm, has begun the process of finding the right new person for a critical position at a property that—as its name still suggests and its tournament history confirms—continues to position itself primarily as a golf club, even with the growing prominence of its culinary operation (it does not have a pool or tennis courts).

“We hope to have an announcement [of the new Director of Golf] in October,” says Vitale. “We will be looking for someone with strong management and people skills who can engage with all departments, and who can continue our growth as a teaching facility, as we continue to invest in our driving range and instruction centers.”

The transfer of the pro shop to club ownership as part of bringing in a new director, Vitale says, reflects a trend being seen throughout the private-club industry. As part of that transition, he adds, a new position for a retail manager is also planned. But he doesn’t expect either change to yield significant differences in how the shop is presented or in its sales volumes, at least in the short term.

pga16_7619“Doug has done a tremendous job in his years at Baltusrol and replacing him is certainly going to be a tall task,” Vitale says. “And certainly, the primary focus of the new [Director of Golf] for the immediate period after he or she arrives will be on engaging the membership and determining how to best meet their needs.”

‘What We Do’
While the Baltusrol management team and staff had quickly turned their attention after the last day of the 2016 PGA to short- and long-term considerations unrelated to hosting a major tournament, Vitale did allow himself a few moments to reflect on just what had once again transpired at his storied property.

“You almost do truly appreciate [the challenge of holding a major tournament] more after it’s over,” he says. “Even if every single day was sunny and 80 degrees, the time and effort and energy that’s required to pull off these events is pretty incredible—and not only for the staff, but for the members, too.

“It’s amazing the amount of volunteers that are needed to help do a lot of the basic things, and then you have the committee chairs who take on some really significant responsibilities,” Vitale notes. “And our General Chairman, Rick Jenkins—he took on what basically is another full-time job for two years. It’s really phenomenal to see all that goes into it.

“That’s why it has to be stressed to everyone on the club staff, when things get challenging before or during the tournament, or when we see all the digging out and restoration that we have to do after it’s over and we’re tired, that there’s really nothing to do but keep finding a way to get it done,” Vitale adds. “Having major tournaments is one of the reasons why people want to join Baltusrol, and when you work here, you have to get that it’s part of what we do.

“Especially after what we went through this time, it’s clear to me that everyone does,” he says. “Two weeks out, I haven’t had one complaint or negative comment. That’s in part because we don’t have that type of membership. But it’s also because our team once again did everyone proud.”

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