|Representatives of the USGA or the PGA of America help prepare properties like Colonial CC for a major event, by overseeing details ranging from course specifications to the location of access gates and corporate tents.|
Whether preparing for a member-guest outing or a PGA Tour Championship, superintendents say a consistent approach is the key to getting their golf courses tournament-ready.
Golf course superintendents are expected to keep their courses in top shape at all times. And the pressure to maintain prime playing conditions only intensifies when a property serves as host of a major event. But as far as superintendents are concerned, it doesn’t matter if the event is a member-guest tournament, a club championship or a PGA Tour event. Preparation is everything.
“It’s like the generals getting ready for battle,” says Mark Kuhns, Certified Golf Course Superintendent and Director of Grounds at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J. (and the incoming President of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America).
The Best-Laid Plans
SUMMING IT UP
• Preparing for a major event requires early, sharp and consistent focus on specific elements, including golf course conditions, gallery viewing and routing areas, corporate areas, and aesthetics.
Mark Wilson, Certified Golf Course Superintendent at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky., says his preparation for the 2008 Ryder Cup and the 2000 PGA focused on four key components—golf course conditions, spectator viewing and routing areas, corporate areas and aesthetics. He says he started preparing for the Ryder Cup and the PGA four years and two years in advance, respectively.
Normally, Wilson tries to have the course in top condition when the golf season gets in full swing around April 1. But for a major event, he notes, “It’s a completely different mindset, because you’re trying to peak out for that one week.”
He starts planning for major events from an agronomics standpoint about three years in advance because, he says, “There’s a look we want to get.”
To prepare for the Ryder Cup last fall, the staff at Valhalla planted vegetation that would bloom at its peak in September, not May—for good reason. Each day 45,000 spectators attended the event, and 600 million households in 177 countries watched the Ryder Cup, reports Wilson. Valhalla also added water features to the property and dressed up the television station compound.
“Everybody in the world is going to see what you’ve done out there,” adds Kuhns, who says he started planning for the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol four or five years in advance. Well aware of the monumental task at hand, he already is making preparations for the PGA’s return in 2016.
“You always prepare for the worst, and that’s where experience pays off,” says the battle-tested Kuhns, who has overseen tournament preparations for five majors at three properties.
For the 2005 PGA, he says, Baltusrol had a tree surgeon on site and the fire department on standby. The property coordinated security with law enforcement officers, and contingency plans were in place in case the power or the irrigation system failed.
“There’s a whole list of what-ifs,” says Kuhns. “With enough planning, we are always prepared to respond.”
Bob Farren, Certified Golf Course Superintendent and Director of Golf Course and Grounds Management at Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort & Country Club, agrees. Over-planning, he says, is the best way to ensure that nothing will be left to chance, other than weather-related issues.
“You’re always at the mercy of the weather—no matter what kind of planning or contingencies you have,” Farren notes.
A Steady Course of Action
As for the most important aspect of all—course conditions—Kuhns believes one concept overrules all others.
“I think consistency is the key to preparation for any tournament,” he says.
To prepare for a major tournament, he adds, properties might need to increase aerification and top-dressing applications to firm up the greens, or to intensify fungicide or insecticide programs. The density of the turf and the variety of grass in the fairways must be evaluated to determine if an inter-seeding program should be started, and the rough might need to be renovated as well.
Dealing with the Aftermath
Despite all of the coordination and effort that goes into the preparation for a major golf tournament, dismantling the operation can be equally demanding.“The day it’s over, your members don’t want to see it anymore,” says Mark Kuhns, Certified Golf Course Superintendent and Director of Grounds at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J.
But, he adds, it can take two to three months to clear out the added tournament facilities and seed the property again. “Everything outside the ropes really gets beaten down badly by the gallery,” he notes.
It took four months to build the village and grandstands at Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort & Country Club for the 2005 U.S. Open, says Justin Meyers, the property’s Director of Tournament Operations. However, he adds, everything was dismantled, primarily by the grounds crew, within two weeks.
“That’s when our work really begins again,” Scott Ebers, Certified Golf Course Superintendent at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, says about post-tournament duties. “Everyone’s trying to get out at once. The first two days are a madhouse of activity, with people breaking things down and pulling them on trailers.”
His crew immediately starts to mow the rough back down, repair damage to the course and take down ropes, he adds.
Mark Wilson, Certified Golf Course Superintendent at Valhalla Golf Club, the site of the 2008 Ryder Cup, notes that he felt a letdown after the event ended.
“It’s a real thing,” he says, adding that returning to normal operations was a challenge. “You develop this pace, trying to get ready for this tournament for four years.”
Bob Farren, Pinehurst’s Director of Golf Course and Grounds Management, says these feelings can also extend to spectators, who sometimes leave with higher expectations for their home courses.
“The resources it takes to have [a major] is probably 10-fold that of any other week during the year,” Farren says. “It’s not feasible to recreate the same conditions at your home club.”
Nevertheless, superintendents agree that—letdown and all—seeing everyone in the industry, from fellow superintendents to vendors, pull together for a major event makes all of the efforts worthwhile.
“I love it when the plan comes together. You plan it, and you plan it for a long time,” Wilson says. “You’re surrounded by committed people at their best.”
The Baltusrol maintenance staff formed a greens crew as part of its efforts to keep the greens firm, dry and alive—no small feat in mid-August—for the PGA. During the week of the tournament, two-person teams, which included an intern and a crew member, were responsible for three greens each.
While the greens must be dry enough to maintain the proper speed and firmness, notes Kuhns, “you’ve got to give it a little roll. You want to have a challenging shot to the green, but you also want it to be firm and consistent.”
For the 2016 PGA, he wants to improve the gallery areas, change the type of sand in the bunkers, and place even more emphasis on consistency.
At Pinehurst, the Tournament Office handles all aspects of the property’s significant events. Director of Tournament Operations Justin Meyers says the facility puts together a checklist for every tournament, which could range from a U.S. Open (in 1999 and 2005, with a return date scheduled in 2014) to the North & South Amateur Championships.
“Each event is going to be a little bit different in some of the requirements,” Meyers adds.
Efforts are magnified during preparation for a major event, Farren adds. However, he adds, planning needs to begin three or four years in advance to set a tournament budget as well.
“We keep the course pretty close to championship levels on a daily basis,” he reveals. “Many times we do the same tasks that we do all year long. But instead of doing them three times a week, we do them every day for three weeks.”
Getting the green speed right is paramount for a major tournament, Farren says. If the greens are too fast, then the number of pin locations is limited, he explains. However, if the green speed is moderate to fast, more challenging pin placements can be set up around the edges of the greens.
“You don’t approach it with the intention of making (the course) harder—you identify the things that will help you determine the best player,” says Farren.
Switching to TV Time
As the annual site of the PGA Tour’s Crowne Plaza Invitational, Colonial Country Club, in Fort Worth, Texas, also has a tournament staff that includes a director, about six full-time employees and a committee of members who oversee the tournament. Their duties range from setting up corporate amenities to compiling the list of players to invite.
Scott Ebers, Certified Golf Course Superintendent, says the grounds crew shifts into high gear in March each year for the May tournament. Although the event is about “90 percent the same each year,” he says, a PGA Tour agronomist visits the course annually to make recommendations about playing conditions.
“They want to make sure the TV windows are hit,” Ebers notes. “If they have play that takes a long time, they’re not happy campers.”
Colonial’s bunkers, tees, areas surrounding the greens and one of the greens were renovated this year, Ebers says. However, he adds, the property does not have to undergo the same type of renovations as a facility that is preparing for a major tournament years in advance.
The first orders of business to prepare for the tournament, he says, are to sod areas in the early spring and to manicure the fairways as the grass comes in. Growing the rough—and hoping for good weather—are the last details to complete.
“The job doesn’t get a whole lot easier, but your sense of expectation and what’s involved gets a little better each year,” says Ebers, who has been at Colonial for four years.
‘The Circus Comes to Town’
Many people are involved in the decision-making process for a tournament, depending on the organization that is hosting the event.
Representatives of the governing bodies of organizations such as the United States Golf Association or the PGA of America will be assigned to help prepare a property for a major event. They oversee details ranging from course specifications, including the length of the rough and the speed of the greens, to the location of access gates and corporate tents.
“That is a huge plan. They have a designer. Someone lays out a blueprint of the entire property several years before,” says Kuhns. “Every detail of what’s going to be on the course that week is on that map.”
Operations teams will also coordinate transportation of the 180 or so tractor-trailers that bring in tournament materials—everything from golf cars to flooring to scaffolding.
When “the circus comes to town,” as Farren quips, the operations manager of the event’s governing body will work closely with the golf course superintendent. But other key players at the host property must be kept informed as well—and coordinating this communication becomes an important added duty for the superintendent.
“The grounds chairman is still the grounds chairman. The club president is still the club president,” notes Kuhns. “You always have to keep your people in the loop. My job is to look out for their interests. If there are changes that have to be made, they have to approve them.”
Regularly scheduled meetings among all department heads are also a must, to keep tournament preparations running smoothly. To prepare for the August PGA, Kuhns says, Baltusrol started holding bi-weekly meetings in January and weekly meetings in May.
“That communication is very key,” he says. “It wasn’t always like that in this business. Everybody used to have their little fiefdoms, but that’s not the case anymore. Everybody works together.”
Once the major event begins, superintendents must oversee the efforts of crew members, interns and 100 or more volunteers. Corporate partners made sure that Valhalla had all of the equipment it needed for the Ryder Cup, Wilson says, and other corporate sponsors provided meals for the staff and volunteers during the week of the tournament.
|When heavy winds blew through Valhalla GC days before the Ryder Cup—causing a television tower to fall on the 12th hole—Wilson and his team moved quickly to make needed repairs. By “game time,” no evidence of the mishap could be found.|
Taking Care of Their Own
Superintendents also must ensure that members’ needs are met when a property is preparing for a major event. The first key decision—when to stop regular play—depends on the tournament that is coming to a site and the decision of the ruling body.
Guest play at Baltusrol generally is eliminated two to three weeks before a major event, says Kuhns, while members’ play is not restricted until two or three days before.
“It depends on what we negotiate with the ruling body. We can go to the night before,” he notes.
Valhalla starts restricting play about a month before a major event and stops play about two weeks in advance, Wilson says. But it’s also important to be aware of how a course can become an even more popular place in the days leading up to a tournament.
“There ends up being demand for people wanting to play your golf course, which creates a lot of distractions,” he says.
Pinehurst stops play on the course that holds a U.S. Amateur or U.S. Open two to six weeks before the event, Meyers says. However, he adds, “it depends on the course conditions and business levels of what we can handle.”
Because Pinehurst is a resort with multiple golf courses, he adds, the property has the resources to meet the needs of its members and guests while accommodating a major event.
“We have such an extensive maintenance department,” Meyers reports. “Courses are kept in such a high level of condition on a daily basis, there’s not much we can or need to change.”
PGA Tour championships are not the only events that shift golf course maintenance staffs into high gear, however. Kuhns pays just as much attention to the details when he is preparing for a member-guest tournament or a club championship at Baltusrol.
“You always want to make your membership feel special. You want to make them feel like they’re playing in a major event,” he explains. “We have a certain advantage because we’ve had majors here.”
To prepare for these tournaments, he says, the crew spray-paints the tops of the cups white, just like they would for a major tournament. The property also might get new flags or new flagsticks.
In addition, Kuhns reports, the crew can set up the course one day during a tournament with the same pin placements that were used, for example, in the third round of the 1993 U.S. Open.
Ebers, however, takes the opposite approach for a member-guest or club championship at Colonial.
“We don’t set up the course like the tournament, because it would be too punitive. The Tour pin placements are demanding,” he explains.
Ebers also notes that he has more control over club tournaments, because he does not have to deal with the collateral materials that accompany the PGA Tour event. But the events do share some similarities, he notes, such as trying to ensure that the course is in peak condition during the tournaments.
“We’re trying to be consistent the whole year,” adds Valhalla’s Wilson. He might pay more attention to pin placement or add a mowing each day if a tournament is on the schedule, but he also takes care to ensure year-round that members’ needs are not forgotten.
“I work on our habits and routines,” he says. “They’re not all that different from a tournament.”