From the age of 15, working on a golf course and learning how to care for turf has always been an integral part of Brian Ray’s life. And that’s a big reason why he’s had notable career stability, with superintendent duties at Long Beach (Ind.) Country Club for his entire professional tenure.
Brian Ray finds it hard to imagine himself doing anything different than being a golf course superintendent.
Golf and golf courses have been a part of his life for as long as he can remember. It began in his youth, playing several times a week with his brother at public courses in his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In high school, he played on the same team as PGA, British Open and Master’s champion Zach Johnson.
“We won the 3A state title in 1992 ,” Ray says. “Zach was just a little better than me. Seriously, he was good. But back then you didn’t think he was going to be one of the best golfers in the world. It’s a credit to him and his hard work.”
Ray’s father Bruce was the arborist at Cedar Rapids Country Club, and that introduced Brian to life as a golf course worker. At 15 he did grunt work, stationed in the cart barn to clean clubs and carts and operate a range picker. The next year he joined the maintenance staff and held a position on it throughout his high school days.
“I loved working outdoors, mowing grass and seeing my stripes—it was like art,” Ray says. “And I spent so much time on the golf course growing up, it just seemed natural to work there. As a teenager, the early mornings were tough, but I enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun.”
After high school, Ray stayed in Cedar Rapids to get his Associate’s degree in Turfgrass Management from Kirkwood Community College, all while still working on the golf course. He then went off to Ames, Iowa and Iowa State University, where he received his Bachelor of Science degree in Horticulture in 2000. In his last year, he served an internship at Cedar Rapids’ Elmcrest Country Club, under the legendary superintendent Rick Tegtmeier.
“It was great to learn from one of the best,” he says. “Rick definitely had his course dialed in and was well-respected by the crew. If you messed up, he let you know—but he was always fair, which I admired.”
From there, it was off to the far northeast corner of Indiana on the shores of Lake Michigan, to work as the Assistant Golf Course Superintendent at Long Beach Country Club —and Ray has stayed there for 20 years, the last 16 as Superintendent of the club that is part of a community located in the northeast corner of Michigan City, Ind. He filled C+RB in on that extended chapter of his made-for-golf life in this conversation:
C+RB: It’s unusual that you’ve been at the same golf course for your entire professional career of 20 years.
Ray: Yes, it’s been a good ride. I like the golf course, I like the members and I like who I work for. It’s been a good arrangement, and I feel very fortunate.
C+RB: Explain your arrangement.
Ray: I actually work for Serviscape, a golf course management company. We are contracted to maintain the golf course at Long Beach and have done so since 1985.
My boss is Clay Putnam, who now owns the company and was a former golf course superintendent himself. The club has a Board of Directors and a greens chair that I also report to.
Serviscape manages five courses, but also has expanded to lawn care, commercial landscaping and outdoor Christmas décor. It’s been a good arrangement for me and the club.
C+RB: What’s the geography of the region and the golf course?
Ray: Northwest Indiana is marked by swell and swale topography, as remnants of ancient Lake Michigan. There are also many marshes, lakes, rolling prairies, farmland and oak/hickory forests.
Due to our proximity to Lake Michigan, there are many sandy dunes with some reaching 200 feet, including “Mt. Baldy.” The area is also known as the Rust Belt, and home to the Indiana Dunes National Park.
The majority of the golf course was built on sandy dunes, with the exception of a few areas built over peat bogs. We’re located about halfway between Chicago and South Bend, just off Lake Michigan about a quarter-mile. You cannot see the lake because of the development, but there are times when you can hear the waves.
C+RB: What makes the golf course fun, yet challenging to play?
Ray: The course is nestled in the sand dunes just blocks away from the shores of Lake Michigan and there are oak trees that are more than a hundred years old throughout the property.
There is an abundance of wildlife and it’s not uncommon to see deer strolling about, hawks perched in the trees, sandhill cranes circling above, red fox in search of prey, and a multitude of waterfowl.
We have classically contoured smaller greens, strategically placed bunkers that require accurate shot placement, and a couple of water features coming into play on three holes. There are also three holes offering beautiful panoramic views from high atop the sand dunes. Tight fairways, small greens and strategically placed bunkers make it a challenge.
C+RB: What’s your biggest agronomic challenge?
Ray: The golf course is dynamic and conditions change daily, so providing consistent playing surfaces and growing Poa annua on sandy soils that tend to get hydrophobic are my biggest challenges.
In recent years, summer patch has become an increasingly problematic disease on my greens as we get into late July, and August, and dollar spot is an ongoing battle. Being so close to the lake also subjects us to the lake breeze.
C+RB: What weather challenges exist?
Ray: Lake Michigan greatly influences our weather. In the spring we stay much cooler than outlying areas and oftentimes we have thick cloud cover and fog. During the summer, multiple thunderstorms and hot and humid weather are the norm. In the fall, we tend to stay warmer longer and usually have delayed frost events due to the warmer lake waters. And then in the winter, heavy lake-effect snow is commonnplace. It is not uncommon to exceed 100 inches of snowfall during the snowy season.
In Long Beach, during the course of the year, the temperature typically varies from 22°F to 81°F and is rarely below 5°F or above 88°F. We could be at 90 degrees and then the wind shifts from the north and can drop the temperature 10 to 20 degrees in a half-hour.
C+RB: The golf course has undergone changes. Tell us about those.
Ray: The course was designed by Dr. William Hall in 1924. A local dentist and an exceptionally good golfer, he was asked by the landowners to design the layout. Except for some minor tweaks, it remained unchanged until the mid-1970s, when architect Ken Killian was brought in. Some of Killian’s suggestions were implemented, but major changes didn’t occur until the early 1990s, when Dr. Michael Hurdzan developed a master plan. At that time, significant changes were made including rebuilding greens, rerouting holes and adding bunkers.
In 2010, we brought in architect Todd Clark of CE Golf Design to be an ongoing consultant for the course. In 2017 Todd developed his own master plan to update and enhance the course. We divided that plan into three phases, which were prioritized based on impact and need. We are excited about the updated look.
C+RB: Where are you in the implementation of the changes?
Ray: Phase one was completed in 2019. It consisted of the removal of hundreds of trees to expose the natural sand dunes throughout the property; rebuilding our 15th, 16th, and 17th greens to enlarge them for more pin locations; the addition of fairway bunkers and renovation of all greenside bunkers; and converting four bluegrass approaches to bentgrass and building containment areas around a couple of greens to create playing options for the golfers.
We are currently finishing phase two, which is a massive $700,000 modernization that began in September of 2020. This work included: the leveling and squaring of 54 tees; adding an additional 18 tees to implement a four-tee system, which now accommodates all skill levels of golfers; the addition of eight bunkers at strategic locations; removing hundreds of trees to open views and help with air movement and turf health; rerouting several cart paths; expanding an existing pond, and re-contouring several fairways.
In addition, a new MCI/Flowtronex control panel and two new 75-hp motors were installed in December of 2020 to update the irrigation system.
Some of this work was actually planned for phase three, but we had such a good year that we decided to go forward and combine it with phase two. We normally average 12,000 rounds a year, but did 20,000 in 2020.
Phase three will conclude with the addition of bunkers and redoing some greens. Other than Todd Clark’s involvement, all of the work has been done in-house. It has been quite a project and very rewarding to be a part of.
C+RB: Describe your members.
Ray: The relaxed atmosphere along the shores of Lake Michigan attracts many Chicagoans to have second homes in the area. It is also a beautiful area for locals to live, work and play.
Our membership consists of primary and secondary residents, and we entertain many guests who come from all over the United States to play.
In recent years there has been a large influx of younger professionals and families. We are currently at full capacity with a waiting list.
The golf course has something to offer everyone. We have a Junior Golf Program led by PGA professional Brian Godfrey, and both a 9 and 18-hole Ladies League. We also have a lot of spouses who enjoy playing together.
The golf course hosts various member events, outside fundraisers and charity events throughout the year. We have also hosted several Chicago District Golf Association Outings several times.
We offer more than golf. We have a clubhouse, Olympic-size pool, outdoor dining, fine dining, and host special events (family and business functions, luncheons, banquets, wedding receptions, holiday parties, etc.) under the direction of General Manager Annette Corbett. We also have a lot of spouses who enjoy playing together.
C+RB: Do you have any hobbies?
Ray: I do. I think everyone needs a release to get away from their work. I have always enjoyed fishing. As kids, my younger brother and I went down to a small creek near our house and we fished every day. In fact, we would seine for chubs and shiners and sell them to a local bait shop. Now, I have a good friend who is a charter captain and will take me out on Lake Michigan.
My wife and I have three daughters. Two are grown but I’m happy our seven-year-old still likes to go fishing with me. She and I will go down to a small pond by our house and fish from time to time. Sometimes she does more talking than fishing.
I am also a hunter and weightlifter. I love to watching sports, play fantasy football, and cheer on the Iowa Hawkeyes and Green Bay Packers.
Super in the Spotlight
Years at Long Beach CC: 20; hired in March of 2001 by Serviscape, LLC (an outsourced maintenance management company) as the Assistant Superintendent; promoted to Superintendent in February 2005.
Years in Golf Course Maintenance Profession: 28 (including summer jobs, internships, full-time).
• Summer grounds crew during high school and college at Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Country Club
• College internship at Elmcrest Country Club, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Education & Training:
• Associates Degree in Turfgrass Management from Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa
• Bachelor’s Degree in Horticulture from Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa in 2000
• Yearly continuing education to maintain Class A status with GCSAA and chemical application license
Golf Course Profile
Long Beach Country Club
Website: longbeachcc.org, getserviscape.com
Year Opened: 1924
Golf Holes: 18
Course Type: Classic Parkland
Course Designer: Dr. William Hall
Course Redesigns: Hurdzan & Clarke in the late 1980s, and most recently Todd Clark of CE Golf Design
Yardage: 6,570 yards
Golf Season: Typically Mid-March until the end of November
Annual Rounds: Typically 12,000; in 2020, an all-time high of 20,000
• Tees, Fairways: Bent/Poa annua mix
• Roughs: Kentucky Blue/Rye mix
• Greens: Bent/Poa annua mix
Water Features: Six-acre lake on 6th hole and a ¾-acre pond between 7th and 8th holes
Bunkers: 40 bunkers with Pro Angle sand and one large waste bunker on the 11th hole
Course + Grounds Operations Profile
Staff Size: 3 full-time and 10 to 12 seasonal employees to manage Long Beach Country Club; Serviscape (owned and managed by Clay Putnam) employs about 75 at peak season
Water Source and Usage: Six-acre lake, watering the golf course
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules: In the spring and fall, everything is solid-tined and heavily topdressed. In the last two years, the club has started to verti-drain the greens in late October, to open deep channels for water and air movement and to encourage deep root development. The greens are also solid-tined monthly throughout the golf season with needle tines for gas
exchange, so they don’t become anaerobic. No overseeding schedule, but periodically areas of the rough that have thinned out are seeded.
Upcoming Capital Projects: Currently finishing phase two of three-phase upgrade.