Just three months into the already daunting task of being only the seventh Superintendent to care for the 121-year-old Detroit Golf Club’s Donald Ross courses, Jake Mendoza learned he had a year to get ready to host a PGA Tour event.
Imagine you are a golf course superintendent and have been on the job a little over three months. One day you’re out on the course when your boss approaches you and says the club is going to host a PGA Tour event. And, oh yeah—it will be in 12 months.
For Jake Mendoza, there would be no easing into the role of golf course superintendent at Detroit (Mich.) Golf Club. The bright lights would be shining on him, his staff and the golf course before he knew it.
And the spotlight was already pretty bright for Mendoza even before the subject of a tournament came up. Detroit Golf Club (DGC) has a long and storied history. It was founded in 1899 as a 6-hole course, and later expanded to 9 holes. It moved two miles south in 1902 and in 1906, an 18-hole facility opened.
In 1916, a group of members who went south for the winter to Pinehurst, N.C., commissioned Donald Ross to build a 36-hole facility. It was completed in 1918, as the first Ross-designed facility in Michigan. Ross’s brother Alec became Detroit GC’s golf pro and held the position for 31 years. Then former PGA champion Horton Smith held the golf pro position as well. And Clem Wolfrom, a pioneer in the turf-management profession, was the club’s golf course superintendent for 51 years (1962-2013).
When Mendoza interviewed for the position in December 2017, there was some discussion about hosting a tour event. He says he wasn’t chasing a position to conduct a professional event, but at the same time he would not shy away from the experience. The club would sign the contract with the PGA Tour in September 2018, and in June 2019 the Rocket Mortgage Classic cruised into the Motor City, as the Tour’s first-ever event in Detroit.
“I had experience hosting a professional event, so I was not worried that we could do it,” Mendoza said. “I was praying for some good weather so that we could get the work done. It was really a blessing, because hosting the event provided us with the resources to get some things done on the course that we might have [otherwise] had to wait on.”
Mendoza and his team went to work, building six tees and firming up the fairways with 1,800 tons of sand. The focus was on playability features. And despite a rainy spring of 2019, the tournament was pulled off without a hitch.
And his reward?
“Because of the Olympics, we are moving our event up to May in 2020,” he reports. “The weather then can be a bit dicey, as you are not far out of winter—and in Detroit, those can be brutal. But we have a plan for all contingencies.”
Mendoza took time from that planning to share some more details about his career, and his club.
C+RB How did you become a golf course superintendent?
Mendoza Like a lot of those in this profession, I worked on a golf course when I was in high school. My neighbor was the Assistant Superintendent at Short Hills Golf Course in East Moline, Ill. One day he asked me if I wanted a job. I said yes, and the next day at 5:30 in the morning I jumped in his pickup and went to work. I actually worked there through high school and then for two more years, until I decided this is what I wanted to do for a career and went to Rutgers for turf school.
C+RB How was the internship experience at Winged Foot Golf Club?
Mendoza The reason I chose Rutgers is because it allowed for long internships. So, I did eight months at one of the best facilities in the nation. I learned so much from Superintendent Eric Greytok as we prepared for the U.S. Amateur. It was very high-end, and there was great attention to detail. Plus, it gave me multi-course experience, which paid off in getting the job at Medinah [Country Club] and then here.
C+RB You were part of a Ryder Cup at Medinah. What was that like?
Mendoza The 10 years at Medinah were great. [It was another] multi-course facility with high standards, and of course it hosted a number of professional events. Curtis Tyrrell, the Superintendent, was great to work for. He had a well-oiled machine.
They were all about giving us the experience we needed to be successful. One year, I volunteered at three different events—the U.S. Open, the PGA Championship and the John Deere Classic. I progressed from an assistant to be Superintendent of the No. 3 (championship) course.
For the Ryder Cup, my job was to be the liaison with the PGA of America for all of the various structures outside the ropes. That covered 47 acres. It was a great learning experience and obviously a good training ground for me to host a professional event [at Detroit GC]. I also got to go through a course renovation for the No. 3 course. I’ve just been very fortunate to have the experiences that have helped me down the road in my career.
C+RB What are your biggest agronomic challenges at Detroit Golf Club?
Mendoza Drainage is a huge challenge. We have very little elevation change on the course—only 10 feet between the highest and lowest spots. It can be tough to move the water off the course. Most of the original drainage tiles are still there and they did a good job keeping the structures in shape. It’s just a challenge because we are so flat.
Second, recovering from winter damage can be a challenge. The winter wind can cause desiccation. With our tournament moving to May, that lessens to time we have to recover.
C+RB How did the first tournament go for the facility?
Mendoza It went great. Obviously [tournament winner] Nate Lashley’s story was a great one. He was the third alternate and the last one to make the tournament.
The club and the city really embraced it. This is a fantastic property for hosting [a tournament], with good space that, given that it is flat, is not hard to move around on. The routing includes 17 holes from the North Course and one from the South Course.
We were a little conservative in green speed, and might be a little more aggressive this year. Having the event helps us to get some needed work done. I’m looking forward to the next one. If anyone wants to volunteer, just call me. We can use all the help we can get.
C+RB Why are your courses challenging?
Mendoza It’s definitely because of the greens. The South Course has the original Donald Ross design on 17 of 18 greens. The North course has had some greens redone, but have maintained the original design. There is a lot of movement in the greens and they are fairly small, so you have to take that into account. Our play is actually split fairly evenly between the longer North Course and the shorter South Course.
C+RB Detroit Golf Club has quite a history. Tell us what it is like to work there from that perspective.
Mendoza Our membership is very proud of the club. There are families who have been members for several generations. I’m only the seventh superintendent in 121 years. It’s good to have Clem [Wolfram] still around. As an honorary member, he still plays golf and will play cards with the other members, too. He spent more than 50 years here, so I pick his brain from time to time. I’ll have lunch with him and soak up all I can.
C+RB What other activities does the club offer?
Mendoza We are a high-use facility. We have dining, tennis, an aquatics center, and an athletic facility. Swim competitions between clubs in southwestern Michigan are a big deal. From a golf course perspective, we host several outside events on Mondays. We did 22 last year. There’s just a lot going on around here.
The challenge has been in staffing. You are asking people to work in an outdoor environment during the early hours. We are competing with many others in a tight labor market. It is a big issue for the golf industry.
C+RB What other responsibilities do you have?
Super in the Spotlight
Current Position: Golf Course Superintendent. Detroit (Mich.) Golf Club
Years at Detroit GC: Two
Years in Golf Course Maintenance Business: 15
• Superintendent, Course No. 3, Medinah (Ill.) Golf Club, 2009-18
• Assistant Golf Course Superintendent, Rich Hills Farms Golf Club, Chicago, Ill., 2005-08
• Intern, Winged Foot Golf Club, Mamoranek, N.Y., 2004
Education & Training: B.S., Professional Turf Management. Rutgers University, 2005
Golf Course Profile
Detroit Golf Club
Ownership: Private, member–owned
Golf Course Type: Parkland
Golf Course Designer: Donald Ross
Year Opened: 1899 (club); 1918 (current courses)
No. of Holes: 36
Par: North Course 72, South Course 68
North, 7,350 yards;
South, 6,600 yards
Golf Season: April to November
Annual Rounds: 34,000
• Tees & Fairways: Bentgrass and Poa mix
• Roughs: Bluegrass, Rye, Fescue mix
• Greens: Bentgrass & Poa mix
Water Hazards: 2 ponds
Course + Grounds Operations Profile
Staff Size: 36 (45 including seasonal)
Other Green and Grounds Managers:
Construction Superintendent Steve Addis;
North Course Superintendent Evan Herman;
South Course Superintendent Kenny Agler;
Assistants Mark Omell, Adam LaFrance;
Equipment Manager, Tim Travis
Water Source: City
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules: No overseeding. Aerate April and September (Greens: Solid Tine; Tees and Fairways: Core)
Upcoming Capital Projects: None underway, but working with the PGA Tour to prioritize a list of improvements for Rocket Mortgage Classic in May 2020.