Brotherly love between the Superintendent and his General Manager helps to ensure special care for the golf course at San Juan Oaks GC.
It’s not unusual for golf course superintendents to become emotionally attached to the facilities they manage. After all, the hours are long, the scrutiny is intense, and Mother Nature is frequently throwing curveballs in the form of unpredictable weather. Taking one’s eye off the ball is not an option.
But Mark Freitas’ ties with San Juan Oaks Golf Club in Hollister, Calif., run even deeper. To begin with, his brother, Manny, is the club’s General Manager. And numerous members of the Freitas brothers’ extended family serve on the San Juan GC course maintenance staff and in its golf operations and food-and-beverage departments.
“We joke that if you’re a member of the Freitas family, you’re never without a job,” Mark Freitas says. “It’s great, though. We have a family environment here with staff and the golfers. Everyone knows each other. It can be hard to focus on work sometimes with so many people wanting to just to talk or say hello. It’s a unique situation.”
The relationship between the Freitas family and San Juan Oaks actually began before the golf course opened. Mark and Manny grew up on their family-owned and -operated apple farm, just a stone’s throw from the pastureland that would later become the golf course. Golf would fill whatever little free time they had as they grew up. Thanks to their uncle, they became hooked on the game when he took them to watch the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am just down the road in Monterey.
So when word leaked out in 1994 that a golf course was going to be built on the open grazing land, 16-year-old Mark and 14-year-old Manny begged their parents to drive them to the property to stake their claim for a position at the facility. At that time, workers used an old ranch house as an office, and the only activity at the time was heavy equipment moving dirt— certainly not a job for young teenagers. But the Freitas brothers were not deterred, telling then-General Manager Scott Fuller to hold a spot for the two of them once the course was closer to completion.
A couple of years later, as a high school senior, Mark would get a job in June 1996 to help finish with the course grow-in. And shortly before the facility opened, Manny would get a job in the cart barn.
Both Mark and Manny worked while attending college. Manny had aspirations of turning professional and played golf while at Gavilan Community College in nearby Gilroy, and then completed his education at San Jose State University. Upon graduation, he was hired as San Juan Oaks’ Assistant General Manager in 2003, and went on to add the Director of Golf title in 2009 before becoming General Manager in 2018.
Mark, meanwhile, took a break from the golf business in 2003, after moving up to hold the title of Assistant Superintendent at that time. He would return to San Juan Oaks in 2010, again as the assistant, and was promoted to Superintendent in 2014.
“I realized how much I missed golf, and specifically San Juan Oaks,” Mark says of that period away from the club. “When the opportunity opened to come back, I jumped at it.
“There is really no better office than the golf course, and I could see myself retiring here—as long as they will have me,” he adds.
Mark Freitas provided more insights into the unique aspects of his position at San Juan Oaks in this conversation with C+RB.
C+RB What’s it like to work as a Superintendent when your brother is the General Manager of the club?
Freitas I think we get along great and have a nice working relationship. We can go to each other’s offices at any time. We definitely respect each other’s opinions, and both want to do what is best for the operation. There really haven’t been any issues.
We do talk shop away from the course—that is for sure. We probably do not play as much golf as we should, but when we do get out it is a great way to see what we can improve. We’ll play different tees. Being a superintendent, that is the best way to see the golf course. When we play together, we knock ideas off each other with different perspectives. To have a boss that you can collaborate with, and also have that person be your brother, is very cool.
C+RB What’s the story behind the development of the club and the golf course?
Freitas The original owner, visionary and developer of San Juan Oaks was Lee Brandenburg. He partnered with a Japanese company, the Nikko Corporation, and then later sold his portion to Nikko to go on to build Cinnabar Hills in San Jose.
The Nikko Corporation sold in 2006 to our current owner, Ken Gimelli, who has been looking to add development ever since. The potential future project is approved for a 55-and-over active adult community to also include a resort hotel and commercial shopping space. When the recession hit in 2009, those ideas were put on hold, but we are anticipating the project moving forward soon.
C+RB What is the physical location and setting of San Juan Oaks?
Freitas We’re located about halfway between San Jose and the Monterey Peninsula. You can get to San Jose in 40 minutes and Monterey in 35.
The golf course itself starts out in a valley setting and then the back nine climbs into the foothills. The area adjacent to it is mostly grassland. In the summer the dry grassland and the golf course itself creates quite a visual contrast.
The whole region—the San Juan Valley—is agriculture land. When we were growing up you would see a lot of walnut, pear and apple trees, but that has given way to more row crops. You drive in and you see miles and miles of vegetable crops, and then you get to the foothills and all of the sudden a golf course appears. It is a pretty striking look. The natural soil is more of a clay type, so when the course was built topsoil was brought in.
C+RB Who plays the golf course?
Freitas We have golfers of all types. During the week we get one type of golfer and then a different type on the weekend. Those who play during the week are either retired or traveling on vacation. On the weekend you get the locals and others from Silicon Valley/Monterey.
We also do several corporate events throughout the year. Those events are our bread and butter, because of the setting we offer and because we have the management of them down to a “T.”
We say we’re a hidden gem, because we are off the beaten path. We have a great reputation, but we do a lot of marketing because we are so far out. We have to constantly remind people to come out and pay us a visit.
C+RB What’s your biggest challenge with maintenance of the course?
Freitas Managing water and water quality. We have high bicarbonates in our well water, so the challenge is to keep flushing the salts through the greens. We fight rapid blight in the summer because of the high salt content. In addition, with the wind it is easy to get dried out. We do a considerable amount of hand-watering and syringing. And you get a lot of soil contraction in the summer, which can also cause some breaks in our irrigation system.
C+RB I understand there’s a story behind many of the trees on the course?
Freitas As you might guess from our course name, there’s an abundance of oak trees on the course, with many of them being very old. They make for a picturesque setting throughout the golf course. When the course was built, a lot of them were put in boxes, moved from the hills, and transplanted onto the course.
C+RB What are the year-round weather conditions?
Freitas Being that we are in California, our weather conditions are fairly mild all year ‘round. During the summer, there are days when it can warm up to 100 degrees, but for the most part summers are in the mid 80s. Summertime also brings with it a coastal breeze.
From a playing perspective, I think the fall is the best time of the year to play—it’s calmer, not as warm and there’s not a lot of rain. The winter doesn’t get too cold and we don’t get any snow, but we will get some days of frost.
Our rainy season is from the end of November through mid-March, and we don’t get a lot of rain, anywhere from 9 to 11 inches in total. We rarely get a storm that makes the course unplayable. We are year-round golf, closed only on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
C+RB What else makes San Juan Oaks unique?
Freitas I think the fact that we are off the beaten path. A lot of golf courses have housing developments around them, but here, it is just you and the golf course—and nature. You’ll be playing and see turkeys run across the golf course or see some deer or other wildlife. It’s a very peaceful setting, and we have elevated tees that provide some impressive views. Even though we are looking to add some development in the future, it will not be near the golf course.
The golf course itself offers two distinct experiences. The front nine is rather flat with some tricky doglegs and great par 3s. You can go out and put up a good score, even though there are challenges. Once you get to holes 11 and 12, you start climbing into the hills, and the bigger challenges start.
We have several sets of tees, which gives players of all skill levels the ability to either challenge themselves or just go out and play a fun round. The best way to score well is to keep your ball in play, because of the native grasses just off the rough lines. The course can become even more of a challenge when the wind picks up, which can be in the afternoons during mid-April to early fall.
C+RB What changes are planned for the golf course going forward?
Freitas Right now we have several projects that we are working on in-house. We’re doing some bunker renovations, teeing areas and irrigation projects. Being that the course is 23 years old, there is always something we are working on.
The plan is for some of the bigger projects to get started in conjunction with the potential development. For right now though, we are trying to focus on being as cost-effective as possible while still providing a first-class golf experience.
San Juan Oaks Golf Club
No. of Holes: 18
Yardage: Five sets of tees (yardage):
Black (7092), Blue (6712), White (6342), Gold (5785), Red (4770)
Ownership: Public Golf Course, Private Owner
Course Type: Front nine located in a valley; back nine located in foothills at high elevation
Course Designers: Fred Couples and Gene Bates
Year Opened: 1996
Golf Season: Year-round
Annual Rounds: 32,000
Grasses (Tees, Fairways, Roughs):
Roughs: Rye, Fescue & Bluegrass
Grasses (Greens): Bent Grass, SR-1019 & SR-1020
Water Hazards in Play: 5
Number of Bunkers: 69
Course + Grounds Operations Profile
Annual Course Maintenance Budget: $900,000
Staff Size: 10
Other Green and Grounds Managers: Two foremen and an equipment manager
Water Source and Usage: Private wells on property. During non-winter months, use is 1-acre foot up to 2-acre feet per day
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules: Spring aeration, third week of March; Fall aeration,
last week of September
Upcoming Capital Projects:
Bunker renovation, tee renovation