Talking to players isn’t a big part of this job. Effective turf writers should spend their time conversing with superintendents, assistants, irrigation and spray gurus, crew members, traveling agronomists, architects, contractors, and maintenance volunteers when covering a PGA Tour event.
A Henrik Stenson soundbite and photo might net a few social media likes. But neither helps a superintendent managing a five-person crew at a public course with a $325,000 budget.
Zac Blair stands 108th in the FedEx Cup standings. He doesn’t own a TOUR win or a prominent spot in an equipment manufacturer’s marketing campaign. His 2017-18 job status is anything but secure. The top 125 players advance to the FedEx Cup Playoffs.
And I couldn’t wait to break from turf writer norms and arrange an interview with Blair at The Greenbrier Classic. I spotted Blair while working a volunteer maintenance shift on a Tuesday night. Blair was clutching his phone between shots, taking pictures of The Old White TPC. Standing on the eighth tee, Blair turned around and noticed a crew mowing and raking around the third green. A few minutes later the photo and this message appeared on his Twitter account @z_blair: “Grinding on the Biarritz.” Boom! More than 14,000 people received a glimpse of what it takes to maintain a giant green.
Blair explained his reasoning behind such tweets a day later during a conversation in the media room. His views on golf course maintenance should motivate anybody “grinding” mornings and evenings to satisfy golfers. Blair has never worked on a maintenance crew, but his father, Jimmy, has operated and built several golf facilities in Utah.
“Growing up with my dad running golf courses, you obviously learn pretty quickly that the grounds crew is about the most important thing that there is to a golf course,” Blair says. “They are the ones that get it into the shape that it’s in. They spend the early mornings and the late nights taking care of the golf course. Anytime you get to a place and they are doing a good job and you see them out there working their tails off, I think it’s nice to at least go out there and tell them thanks and tell them how good the course is looking because it really means a lot to them.
“You won’t believe how many times a super has come up to me and told me thanks so much for at least shouting us out on Twitter or something like that. They are the guys kind of behind the scenes pulling all the strings and doing the things to make the place look so great on TV. It’s nice to at least give them the recognition they deserve.”
There’s nothing phony about Blair’s comments. The 5-foot-6, 26-year-old Utah native with wavy blonde hair displays youthful enthusiasm when discussing golf’s underappreciated business. Watching has father build and operate courses, including an executive layout Blair calls “the coolest little nine-hole course in the world,” sparked an interest in the non-competitive sides of golf.
That interest intensified following the 2015 Greenbrier Classic. Blair’s first practice round on The Old White TPC marked his initial look at a course originally designed by Golden Age dynamos C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor. The course looked – and played – nothing like what Blair experienced in Utah. Blair has played multiple courses impacted by Macdonald and Raynor in the past two years, including National Golf Links of America, Fishers Island Club and the Yale Golf Course.
The rounds are lessons in multitasking. Blair takes pictures, compiles notes, produces tweets and works on his game. His native state – with 112 golf facilities -- lacks a course built on Golden Age mythology, something Blair strives to change with his plans for The Buck Club. The course is still in the conceptual phases, although it boasts a sporty logo. A few superintendents already possess The Buck Club hats.
“It’s kind of a project that’s just rolling with the punches,” Blair says. “We’re rolling with it as we go. It’s going to be in Utah and we’re trying to build it. We’re looking at a few sites right now. I’m basically trying to build a course that’s all about golf. A straight-up golf club that’s built on all the principles of the Golden Age architects and stuff they thought was the correct way to build holes and courses.”
Blair and his father are elite players. But the proposed course will be enjoyable for players of all skill levels. “I think that’s a big thing all the Golden Age guys did,” Blair says. “They always kind of gave a route for a high-handicap person to hit or to at least have fun. I have plenty of friends who aren’t scratch golfers, and I have taken them to these Golden Age places. They have all come back to me saying how much fun they were and they really enjoyed it.”
If The Buck Club becomes a reality, Blair won’t lack superintendent candidates. Thoughtful tweets, images and words make him one of the most inspiring players competing on TOUR turf.
Guy Cipriano is GCI’s associate editor.