A long and winding path took Dennis Petruzzelli to his current position at Oronoque CC, but the one constant every step of the way has been the special feeling he’s never lost about the allure of the golf course.
Dennis Petruzzelli, Certified Golf Course Superintendent at Oronoque Country Club in Stratford, Conn., is a testament to the fact that hard work, determination and a sense of humor will take you a long way.
Petruzzelli’s 47-year career in the golf course industry has not necessarily followed an orderly path, but that’s been more because of circumstance than of his own doing. Nevertheless, he has made the most of each stop. Even considering how many years this industry warrior has under his belt, the native of Harrison, N.Y., is not ready to slow down anytime soon.
“I like what I am doing too much to stop — it’s my love and passion,” Petruzzelli says. “My wife keeps on telling me I need to find a hobby. But I like being on the golf course. It’s my hobby. They are going to have to drag me away.”
Lest you feel sorry for Petruzzelli’s wife Pamela, you should know she likes the golf course as well. She serves as Oronoque CC’s horticulturist and helps in other areas as well.
“She’s probably my hardest worker!” Dennis Petruzzelli says. “She takes a lot of pride in her work and is very meticulous in it. I love having her around.”
We pulled Dennis away from the course long enough to have him tell us more about his interesting life’s journey.
C+RB: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you become smitten with the golf course?
Petruzzelli: I did not have exposure to the golf course until I was 13, when I joined my friends as a caddie at Willow Ridge Country Club, which is adjacent to Westchester Country Club in Harrison. N.Y. That is when I started to play golf as well. I played a lot of other sports and came to enjoy golf right away.
At the same time, my dad had a landscape and irrigation contracting business, and I had spent some time going to work with him. I didn’t totally enjoy that line of contracted work, but I did want a job outdoors. So working on a golf course appealed to me.
My dad was not really in favor of me being a superintendent, though. He saw the challenges they faced and thought I did not need to deal with all the hassles that came with it. He knew it could be a tough profession.
Ironically, my dad never played golf until he and my mother moved to Florida as “snowbirds.” He only played because the golf course fees were part of the homeowner’s association dues. The first time he picked up a club was at age 75 and just loved it. He still plays today at 94 years old!
C+RB: You were a good baseball player as a youth. Did you consider playing in college?
Petruzzelli: My schooling was more important, but I did play at SUNY-Cobleskill College. I was a second basemen, and being in the Northeast, I did get asked on more than one occasion if I was related to former Boston Red Sox all-star Rico Petrocelli. Of course, our names are spelled differently, but at first glance they look somewhat close.
When I transferred to the University of Rhode Island after getting my associates degree (SUNY-Cobleskill College was a two-year school at the time), I considered walking onto the team, but knew the time commitment would be too difficult trying to do both. I was there to learn, study and get my degree.
C+RB: But you were able to continue your athletic career to a degree?
Petruzzelli: Yes, I did play club rugby at URI and enjoyed it very much. Years later, I got involved with lacrosse through my son. He started at the youth level, and I helped the coaches. As I learned more, I was asked to coach at the youth level and then at the high-school level. I was the junior varsity coach, an assistant for the varsity team and helped on the freshman level, too.
That was a lot of fun, but a big time commitment, though. I played weekly in a summer men’s masters league — another term for old-guys league. It kept me in shape and was a bit of a release for me. That was too much fun!
C+RB: Did you have any internships during college?
Petruzzelli: I was extremely fortunate to be able to work three summers at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. I worked under two legends in the golf course management industry: first Ted Horton, and then Sherwood Moore, who was back for his second stint. Both were so good to me and excellent mentors.
We hosted some high-profile events and I got to meet many people, including those from the USGA as we hosted the first U.S. Senior Open in 1981. I could not have asked for a better experience to begin my career.
C+RB: You worked as an agronomic consultant for a regional company after being a turf manager for almost 20 years. Why that move?
Petruzzelli: I had worked at Lakeover National Golf Club, in Bedford Hills , N.Y., beginning in 1989 and shortly after my arrival assisted in a complete reconstruction of the course. It was quite a project and a tremendous experience.
About 10 years later, the property was sold to a new ownership with new design ideas, so I led another significant renovation. The property was rebranded and renamed as GlenArbor Golf Club, and I had the pleasure of working with Gary Player and his design team.
Once the optimistic workload was completed in a very short timeframe, I was very exhausted, both physically and mentally. So I decided to make the move.
C+RB: You spent six years out of the superintendent profession, but then got back into it, going to Putnam National Golf Club in Mahopac, N.Y. Why?
Petruzzelli: I enjoyed working as an Agronomic Consultant. There is no doubt I became a better golf course superintendent because of what I learned visiting so many courses and talking to superintendents. It also made me feel good that I could help them from utilizing my past experiences. Superintendents face so many challenges, and we appreciate the support we get from the industry and our fellow colleagues.
But the one thing I missed after a while was the camaraderie of the crew. I missed leading a team and the sense of accomplishment. I missed working with other departments as a team, and developing friendships with the golfers/customers. I’m a social, “people person,” and too many times I felt alone and on an island. So I got back into golf course management. That’s where I’m happiest.
C+RB: Two times in your career, you took assistant positions after being a head superintendent. Why?
Petruzzelli: Both times there were changes in the facility. One of them closed and another time there were two management-company changes in three years. Both times, there wasn’t an abundance of superintendent job openings. The timing was such that with my kids in college and bills to pay, I took assistant positions to stay connected to the business and use these temporary positions as “stepping stones” back to being in charge of a facility.
I appreciate both facilities hiring me, because they knew I would have a short stay as I continued to look for head positions. It really was a “win-win” for both of us. I think it helped them to have another veteran around to offer support and solutions.
I really did not feel sorry for myself. There was no time for that. You just put your head down, go to work, be a team player, and help make difference.
C+RB: You have been at Oronoque Country Club since 2018. What type of facility is it?
Petruzzelli: We are a golf-only facility. It is located within the gates of a planned community, so the other typical amenities such as swimming, tennis and pickleball are located elsewhere within the development.
We do host weddings, banquets and golf outings although in 2020, we were golf only, due to COVID-19. So we were open for member play seven days a week ,and that drove our rounds from the usual yearly average of 19,000 to 26,000. Like many facilities, our rounds increased significantly, with people working from home more and needing something to do.
Our clientele is varied. We get families, business people, young and old. There are so many courses in the area and there is a lot of competition. Most of our golfers come from within 15 to 20 miles.
C+RB: What makes the course challenging to play, and what makes it enjoyable?
Petruzzelli: It is a narrow, mostly tree-lined layout, so you need to keep it in the fairway. The greens are very undulating. If you don’t place your shots in the right area you have the potential for a big score. So that is the challenge. Golf Digest once had us ranked among the top 50 golf courses.
The terrain is rolling, but the course is walkable. The greens are the star of the facility, because they are so undulating. I have to be careful in their management because if I get the green speed too fast, fair and usable hole locations are reduced and they will be unplayable.
This is a course that is tough to play the first time. Without knowledge, it is very tough. But the more you learn the course, the more fun you have. I think it’s important that you choose the right set of tees to match your ability, or it could be a long round.
C+RB: What are your maintenance challenges?
Petruzzelli: Weather-wise, we do not have that many challenges. Being close to the Long Island Sound, our temperatures moderate a bit in our favor. But we can get heat stress that can occur quickly, so we have to be on our toes monitoring the conditions.
We do face some challenges with the mature trees. We’ll have tree-root competition into the turf areas and obnoxious seasonal leaf drop. The problem is many of the trees are not on our property, but on HOA land. So we don’t have total control of that.
An additional challenge that all golf courses seem to face is finding labor. Competition is difficult in trying to lure potential workers away from air-conditioned workplaces and less physical jobs that may pay the same as us.
I love working on the golf course, but it is not the same for everyone. You have to endure work outside in weather that is not always comfortable—and of course there are some early-morning hours. You have to love what you do!
Super in the Spotlight
Dennis Petruzzelli, CGCS
Current Position: Golf Course Superintendent, Oronoque Country Club, Stratford, Conn.
Years at Oronoque CC: Three
Years in Golf Course Maintenance Profession: 36 (27 as golf course superintendent); 47 total years in golf course industry
• Project Specialist, Oxford (Conn.) Greens Golf Course, 2017-18
• Superintendent, Woodbridge (Conn.) Country Club, 2012-17
• Associate, Trump National Golf Club, Hudson Valley, N.Y., 2011-12
• Superintendent, Putnam National Golf Club, Mahopac, N.Y., 2007-10
• Metro Turf Specialists, 2001-2006
• Superintendent, Lakeover National Golf Club/GlenArbor Golf Club, Bedford Hills, N.Y., 1989-2001
• Superintendent, Redding, (Conn.) Country Club, 1986-89
• Assistant, Brae Burn Country Club, Purchase, N.Y., 1982-85
• Intern, Winged Foot Golf Club, Mamoraneck, N.Y. (three summers)
Education & Training:
• Bachelor of Science, Turfgrass Science, University of Rhode Island, 1982
• Associates Arts & Sciences – Plant & Soil Science, SUNY-Cobleskill (N.Y.), 1980
Honors and Awards: GCSAA Scholarship; GCSAA/Golf Digest Environmental Leaders in Golf – Merit Award; Golf Course Superintendent of the Year, Billy Casper Golf; GCSAA Melrose Leadership Academy
Course + Grounds Operations Profile
Other Green and Grounds Managers: Michael Crockett, equipment manager/mechanic and assistant; Jesus Monge, equipment operator/crew; Drew Perani, equipment operator/crew; Pam Petruzzelli, horticulturist/crew
Water Source and Usage: Totally domestic (purchased); average 7 to 8 million gallons/year
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules: Aeration in spring and fall (greens, tees, fairways, roughs); overseeding as needed
Golf Course Profile
OronoQue Country Club
Year Opened: 1972
Ownership: Private (management-company owned)
Golf Holes: 18
Course Type: Parkland
Course Designer: Desmond Muirhead
Black Tees, 6,575; White, 6,112; Gold, 5,527; Green, 5,077
Golf Season: Open year-round, weather-depending; primary season mid-April to late October
Annual Rounds: On average, 19,000; 26,000 in 2020
• Tees and fairways: Bentgrass/Poa annua/Ryegrass;
• Roughs: Kentucky bluegrass/ryegrass
• Greens: Bentgrass/Poa annua
Water Features: Two ponds that come into play on three holes