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Mar 13, 2016
In the golf course industry there are many folks, male and female, who contribute to the immense pleasure we all share when we step onto a fine golf course. Clearly, the owners are where everything begins. Many are truly visionary, and all have the entrepreneurial wherewithal to finance these risky enterprises we call golf clubs. Then there are the golf course architects, who turn the owner’s vision into reality, moving thousands of tons of earth… or not… specifying grasses, sand, shrubbery, trees, railroad ties, boulders, waterfalls, drainage and sprinkler systems, and anything else their imaginations conjure up during the design process, to create a playground unlike any other. Golf courses, after all, are not like football fields with very specific parameters that must be met to satisfy league regulations. The PGA Golf Professionals are the front men and women, establishing and supporting the culture around their courses. They teach, they encourage and they welcome members and guests, creating an overall great experience for their clientele.
But the one group who has more to do than anyone else with our day-to-day enjoyment of the wonderful game of golf is, in my opinion, golf course superintendents. Those lush fairways and fast, true greens are the result of the superintendent's careful attention to every detail of a course’s condition. Those rhododendrons that usher in the Spring with brilliant colors... the azaleas that allow us to fantasize that we’re walking the fairways of Augusta National... the ability of our home course to withstand August heat and not just survive, but thrive… those things don’t happen by accident. They’re the result of a superintendent’s deep knowledge of horticulture, a genuine love for the work and a dedication matching that of any professional in any field.
Last year, I was in Scottsdale, Arizona to photograph the Padre Course at JW Marriott’s Camelback Resort, a course that was not impressive just 16 months before, when I was there to shoot Ambiente, their new, world-class Hurdzan Fry/Jason Straka design. As Ambiente was opening, Marriott brought in a new superintendent, and his impact on Padre’s condition was little short of stunning. Hats off to Aaron Thomas, and to all the golf course superintendents who help make golf such a great adventure!
Recently, over breakfast, I was discussing my high regard for the folks who tend the golf courses of the world with a good friend and highly regarded golf course architect. His comment to me on the subject was, “Hell, they can make or break us!” That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. Think about it. A decently designed course with great grasses, pristine bunkers and smooth, true greens can provide a great golfing experience. But a fabulous design by a highly qualified designer, with poorly tended fairways, grass growing in the bunkers and greens with weeds redirecting otherwise good putts can be anything but a great experience.
That superintendents are overlooked or unnoticed by so many who enjoy the game is baffling to me. Sure, golf course superintendents are publicly praised from time to time. During a rain delay at a PGA event, an announcer may fill a few seconds of otherwise dead air with a nod to the work of the superintendent and his crew. But during the PGA Tour’s swing through Florida this Spring, more alligators made it on camera than golf course superintendents. I’ve also heard “Mashed Potatoes!” screamed from the crowd more often that I’ve heard someone actually talk with a superintendent about the work it takes to keep his golf course is such amazing condition. Makes no sense.
When I’m shooting a course, and especially when I’m in the studio making decisions about how to edit a particular image, I always have the superintendent’s point of view in mind. My rule of thumb when cleaning up an image is, “If I were the super, what would I do? Would I leave that bare spot unrepaired? Would I want the tee box chewed up like my German Shepherd’s rawhide toy?" I don’t clean up elements of a golf course that are part of its character, but I do make an effort to fix minor issues the chief gardener would fix if he were with me on the photo shoot.
The superintendent’s dedication is evident in his work schedule. He’s always up early, and often out late. His vocation is not a nine-to-fiver. I seldom see a golf course owner out and about before sunrise when my day of shooting is getting underway. And the head golf professional doesn’t roll in until well after the sun has hit the ground. The outside staff is often on hand to give me a cart, but not always. Sometimes I spend my first hour hiking around, looking for sunrise shots and waiting for the cart team to show up. At one very well known club in North Carolina, I was once given a key to the front gate so I could get on the property and help myself to a cart, because nobody else would be there as early as I would be. (That morning, happily, I captured one of my best sunrises.) But the superintendent and his crew are always out before the sun, prepping their course for the day’s play. They’re raking bunkers, mowing fairways, cutting and rolling greens, and on and on. It never ends!
I have great respect for all golf course superintendents, at facilities of all kinds, but some stand out. At Camelback, the aforementioned Aaron Thomas is one of them. Mark Esoda, at Atlanta Country Club is, too. Billy Dearman, formerly at Wade Hampton and now at Wexford Plantation does great work. Rob Roy, at The River Club in Suwanee, Georgia does an amazing job. At Peachtree Golf Club, William Shirley is one of the best. Crooked Stick’s Jake Gargasz is another. And at Liberty National Golf Club, Greg James is a genius. In the past few months I’ve become familiar with Ralph Kepple’s work at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, and David Smallwood, who oversees both the Plantation and Bay courses at Kapalua, on Maui, does a very impressive job. I could go on, and hopefully those superintendents I’ve failed to mention will forgive me for not including them in this brief list, but the scope of this article won’t allow me to list every golf course superintendent whose work I respect. There are just too many of them.
I guess, if this article has a purpose (and I’d like to think it does!) it’s to highlight the work of the folks who get way too little attention, and who deserve so much respect. The next time you’re teeing off, thank the superintendent for everything he or she (there must be some lady superintendents, right?) does to make your experience a good one. And the next time you feel a desire to tell your club’s chief horticulturist about those weeds behind the 12th tee, zip it. He knows. He’s got it on his list, and it’ll probably be taken care of before your next round.
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