By his own admission, Sean Sullivan, CGCS, the Golf Course Superintendent at The Briarwood in Billings, Mont., is a “curious tinkerer.”
Sean Sullivan, CGCS, is a self-taught golf course superintendent. Armed with degrees in forestry management and petroleum engineering, he unwittingly got sucked into the golf industry through a weekend job of mowing greens. But that led to a 32-year career in turf management and recognition as an industry leader in the Northwest, after 19 years overseeing the scenic golf course at The Briarwood in Billings, Mont.
“I’m the kind of guy who will try just about anything to improve,” Sullivan says. “I might have a certain chemical that works for what I am doing, but I might just switch it up to see if it can be done better. Being self-taught, trying new ways of doing something is how I learn.”
Sullivan realizes he is a bit of a relic. Today, it is rare to find a golf course superintendent who has not earned a degree in turf management from a college or university. In fact, the biggest changes that Sullivan says he has seen over the years, fueled by these programs, is the improvements in science and the utilization of data by superintendents to manage their courses.
Though ongoing education offered by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and its chapters, as well as the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association (BIGGA), Sullivan has supplemented his on-the-job education with the latest techniques and training. His recipe for success has been a mixture of art and science.
“I still think that it’s important for superintendents to rely a bit on trial and error,” he says. “You need to have a feel for your course and experiment a little. But then again, I like to break things and put them back together.”
C+RB: You have an interesting educational background. Tell us about it.
Sullivan: I tell people that I had the worst timing early in my career. I got a degree in forestry management from Texas A&M in 1978. I got a job out of college working for the forestry service, but then there was the election, and a new administration came in and made new appointments. So I was left looking for a job.
The industry was not particularly strong, so I went back to Texas A&M and got a petroleum engineering degree. Well, a few years after I got out of college in 1986, the oil industry was struggling, and I was not confident about what lied ahead. I was kind of at a crossroads.
C+RB: So you decided to become a golf course superintendent?
Sullivan: I took a job in Atlanta in the late 1980s framing homes. There was a building boom. I decided that I could earn a little extra money on the weekends, so I got a job mowing greens for superintendent Steve Wilson at Druid Hills Country Club. That was 1989.
Shortly after I started, they talked me into becoming the spray technician. Two years later they talked me into becoming the assistant golf course superintendent. I was 32 when I began at Druid Hills, so I got a later start compared to others.
While in Atlanta, I also worked for a business that restored golf clubs. That work matched my personality as a guy who likes to fix things. I worked on clubs for Ian Woosnam and Charles Howell.
C+RB: So the third time was a charm?
Sullivan: I liked being on the golf course. I played a lot with my friends growing up, mostly public courses. My father was in the oil industry and I was actually born in Butte, Mont. When we lived in New Orleans, I played Brechtel Golf Course, a public course that was leveled by Hurricane Katrina. When we moved to Houston, our home was right across the street from The Champions. We’d jump the fence and sneak on and play the back nine. That was a great course.
So the experience I had later at Druid Hills matched my interests. I took the plunge in 1994 when I became the Golf Course Superintendent at Lane Creek Golf Club in Bishop, Ga.
It’s interesting—when I tell people I went to Texas A&M, everyone assumes I was in the turf program. But the closest I got was the forestry classrooms, which were in a building that overlooked the campus golf course.
C+RB: You moved to Montana in 2002. That’s quite a change from Georgia.
Sullivan: Yes, there aren’t many prairie rattlesnakes, mule deer, brown bears or other predators on the course in Georgia. You’ll see quite an array of animals here, even while you’re playing on the course. It’s a completely different environment.
We are in what they call the High Plains. It’s a semi-arid, desert region. We only get 13 inches of precipitation a year, including the runoff from snow. We need to supplement it with irrigation. We really do not have much disease pressure.
C+RB: What challenges do you face in managing the Briarwood course?
Sullivan: The lack of rainfall is an issue. There is little humidity. We lose a lot of moisture daily due to evapotranspiration. And we have temperature extremes daily. We can begin the morning with a frost delay and it will be over 80 degrees later in the day.
A big issue is our poor soil conditions. We are on the edge of what was an inland sea centuries ago. That means there was a considerable amount of decomposing shale salt.
We are constantly adding amendments such as gypsum to improve the quality of the soil. We need to regularly flush the greens to move the salt through the profile. The land was on the edge of a ranch, and the vegetation was bramble.
C+RB: What changes have you made to the course?
Sullivan: The course had dropped a bit in stature just before I got here. We don’t have a big population or a lot of golf courses in Montana, but it is a competitive market. We re-did some of the green complexes and then did a bunker renovation. We just needed a little more attention to detail.
C+RB: That renovation included using black bunker sand. What’s the story behind that?
Sullivan: When the Old Works Golf Club opened in Anaconda, Mont., I saw they used black sand that came from their copper smelting. A few other courses in North Dakota had done the same. I thought it might give us a hook to attract new members. And our members had interest in doing it when it came time to do a bunker renovation.
So in 2007 I found some black sand that was a byproduct of an energy plant in Beulah, N.D., and I took the 425-mile drive (one way) to check it out.
We built a bunker at our practice facility and they voted the next year to convert all of the bunkers to black sand. It has a glossy appearance to it. It’s a dense sand and is about the same price as white sand, so it was a good replacement. The density means you don’t get any fried-egg lies, so the members like that. It also drains well and never loses its color. It’s been a positive.
C+RB: What makes The Briarwood golf course fun, yet challenging to play?
Sullivan: It really is two different courses. The front nine is flat and a parkland style. There is very little elevation change, but you have to keep it out of the creek.
The elevation change comes on the back nine. The three hardest holes are 13-14-15, and they run diagonally up a hill. The members call them “the three bitches.” Then there is a 200-foot drop to the green on No. 16.
The back side is fairly tight, cut through the hillside. The greens are Mackenzie-style with some challenging contours. That means there are not many areas to cut cups and we can have some long rounds. So you can’t get the greens too fast, or the rounds would really get long.
C+RB: You’ve also had frequent opportunities to work the British Open Championship—how did those come about?
Sullivan: I am a member of BIGGA and one of the perks is you are eligible to work the Open Championship. So I have worked 2012 (at Royal Lytham & St. Annes), 2013 (at Muirfield), 2015 (at St. Andrews), 2017 (at Royal Birkdale) and 2019 (at Royal Portbrush).
That is my vacation. I generally go over 10 days early and work at another course and then the Open. I am on the bunker-raking crew. For the Open, you follow the same group. I have had the chance to get to know quite a few of the professionals. I think the conversations between the player and caddie are interesting.
The club gave me $5,000 for the first Open and told me to enjoy myself. I brought back about $4,200 in merchandise for the members. Obviously, it is a great experience. Not only for the golf, but it exposes me to other ways of doing things. I learn a lot.
C+RB: Didn’t you also develop a hobby that you’ve turned into an interesting sideline?
Sullivan: When I was in Atlanta, I got two Triumph TR7s. Over the years, I did complete renovations on them. One is a convertible. That is where I learned how to do powder-coating; I coated some parts for of both cars.
So when I got here at The Briarwood,, a member gave me his old oven and I began to renovate our accessories such as cups, tee markers and ball washers. My wife wanted to refinish our kitchen, so I took the old oven and that allowed me to do more.
I have been refinishing ball washers for people as a bit of a hobby. I’ve done about 27 different ball washer logos that can now be found in the U.K. I have about 100 located all over the world. I’ve even done some Yeti cups. I have my own powder-coating gun that cost me about $100, so it has been relatively inexpensive.
C+RB: What are your overall thoughts on the state of the game today?
Sullivan: Golf is a great game, but I fear we have lost a focus on course etiquette. I think it started when the downturn began in 2008. Courses were struggling a bit and the focus was getting people out to the course, without really teaching the game and how to behave in terms of etiquette. There seems to have been a decline in the respect for the course and property.
Super in the Spotlight
Sean Sullivan, CGCS
Current Position: Golf Course Superintendent, The Briarwood, Billings, Mont.
Years at The Briarwood: 19
Years in Golf Course Maintenance Profession: 32
• Golf Course Superintendent, Lane Creek Golf Club, Bishop, Ga., 1994-2002
• Assistant Golf Course Superintendent, Druid Hills Country Club,
Atlanta, Ga., 1993-94
• Spray Technician, Druid Hills Country Club, Atlanta, Ga., 1990-92
Education & Training: B.S. Forestry Management, 1979; B.S. Petroleum Engineering, 1986 (both from Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas)
Honors and Awards: President, Peaks and Prairies Golf Course Super-
intendents Association (two different terms). Bernhardt Delegate (BTME), 2008.
Golf Course Profile
Location: Billings, Mont.
Year Opened: 1984
Ownership: Private (member-owned)
Golf Course Designers: Brad Benz and J. Michael Poellot
Golf Course Holes: 18
Golf Season: Year-round (traditional golf season is May through October)
Annual Rounds: 24,000 (32,000 played in 2020)
Golf Course Type: Front nine, parkland; Back nine, hills and valleys
Yardage: Men’s tees, 6,310 to 7,004 yards; women’s tees, 5,458 to 5,916 yards
Grasses: Tees, Fairways, Roughs: Kentucky Bluegrass, Rye, Poa annua; Greens: Bentgrass, Poa Annua
Water Features: Blue Creek winds through front nine, affecting play on 7 of 9 holes. Two ponds on back nine; one is for irrigation.
Course + Grounds Operations Profile
Annual Course Maintenance Budget: $628,000, including labor
Staff Size: Two year-round; six seasonal (four more join in mid-May)
Other Green and Grounds Managers: Assistant Golf Course Superintendent Geoff Bauwens
Water Source: Ponds, Yellowstone River
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules: Spring and fall, aerate and/or verticut everything. Solid tines on the greens.
Upcoming Capital Projects: 400 linear yards of concrete cart paths in fall of 2021