Bonus Industry Q&A: Alex Stuedemann
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Bonus Industry Q&A: Alex Stuedemann

Golf Course Industry managing editor Matt LaWell discusses children’s shows, mental health and data collection with the highly regarded TPC Deere Run turf boss.

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August 7, 2019

The John Deere Classic hauled in more than $13.4 million for various charities last year, a record for any PGA Tour event. Three years ago, the PGA Tour recognized the midsummer green-and-yellow bonanza as its Tournament of the Year. And year after year after year, the Quad Cities are honored as the Most Engaged Community on the Tour.

None of those accolades would happen without the commitment of Alex Stuedemann, the director of golf course maintenance operations at TPC Deere Run, who estimates the tournament fills up at least one third of his schedule every week, and probably more than that during the sprint from Memorial Day through the Fourth of July.

“If we were to not have the tournament, at least 30 to 40 percent of my time would be spent doing other things on the golf course,” says Stuedemann, who worked as an assistant superintendent at the course from 2002-07 before heading out for stints at TPC San Antonio and TPC Twin Cities and then returning to take over the top spot at TPC Deere Run in January 2014. “But I also think that because of the tournament, I keep a closer eye on things, because you're not only trying to prep inside the ropes for the event, for the PGA Tour players, you’re also trying to protect the asset that is the golf course outside the ropes.

“You spend more time really focused on every aspect, whether it be aesthetic, playability, safety, long-term integrity issues. It keeps you ramped up a little bit longer, whereas if we didn’t have a tournament, we might just get a routine and get tunnel vision.”

Stuedemann loves TPC Deere Run for so many reasons. He has worked on the course for more than a decade and knows every corner, of course. He also met his wife, Erin, on the grounds in 2004, when she was a student home for the summer and working in the clubhouse restaurant and he was an assistant working in the same irrigation hole every day. Both of their daughters were born during the days immediately preceding or following recent John Deere Classics. Even his teenaged yellow Labrador, named Mika, an engagement gift for his wife, has strong feelings about the grounds that were once a family farm.

“When we moved back,” Stuedemann says, “Mika and I came out and I swear to God, I pulled into the parking and that dog knew right where she was. She took off for the first tee after six and a half years.”

We talked with Stuedemann for a little more than an hour the Monday afternoon of John Deere Classic week last month about social media and mental health, how he uses data on the course, how Disney movies apply to course maintenance and, of course, the John Deere Classic.

Are you able to pause at all during tournament week?

I always say there’s the whole talk of superintendents’ work mentality needing to change, and I agree, there’s got to be a better balance. But in the same vein, I don’t treat this as a job. I love what I do. It’s a passion. And for me to come out here every day for eight weeks in a row, my wife works the tournament every year up in the restaurant, my kids come out here and sit down with me. My older daughter loves to look at the frogs in the 18th hole pond, and my youngest, the 2-year-old, she’s not fully aware of everything yet, but when my wife pulls up to the shop, she knows this is Daddy’s work. So when you factor that all in, it doesn’t have to seem like you’re dreading going to work for the 57th day in a row. But when this is all over, I really enjoy going home at noon, 1 o’clock, and sitting on the couch watching a movie with my kids or taking a nap.

What’s in the movie rotation for a 5- and a 2-year-old?

Oh, I’m sure Moana. Moana is constant in our house — we have the garb and the toys and the Heart of Tafiti — and probably endless reruns of Daniel Tiger. We’re all over that. Every night before bed, ‘What do you want to watch?’ ‘Daniel Tiger.’ ‘OK, well, we’ve watched that one 40 times.’ ‘41 times! Yay!’

I would take that over Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

Thank God we outgrew that one. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, for about a year —

That does end?

Oh, that does end. She did move on from that one. After that, it was Super Why! and then Daniel Tiger. I didn’t pay attention to Daniel Tiger for the first couple weeks, then I went, ‘Wait a minute, that sounds just like Mister Rogers!’ I use the time to do some work, too, because I see it 12 times, I know what’s going to happen, and they’re catatonic in front of it. Somebody could drop a nuclear bomb right next to her head and she would still have tunnel vision on that TV.

I’m sure we were the same with 1980s cartoons.

I’m trying to think of whether I was really that into it, but I watched Looney Tunes and Smurfs and He-Man.

Mental health is something we’ve focused more on this year.

I think it’s important. I look at social media, and there are a lot of perspectives that can be gained from social media, but there’s also only so much that can be told in 140 characters on Twitter or in a picture on Instagram. Somebody just might have that eye with the camera where they catch their daughter or son at the right moment and they’re happy and it seems like everything is wine and roses when, in fact, they could be stressed out and the next second the kid’s crying and having a tantrum on the floor. People only see the good stuff on social media, so it starts cycling in their head: ‘I don’t have that. I go home and I’m tired and the kids are rowdy and my wife’s strung out.’ We’re not seeing that on social media and it just starts a vicious cycle if you don’t step back and remember that life is a day-by-day thing.

I may work a lot of hours, but I find enjoyment in just going home and sittin’ and playin’ vacation with my daughter. It might be for 15 minutes before she goes to bed and that might be enough because I know I’m supporting my family and they support me. I don’t let myself get hung up on what others do. Just like when we’re growing grass, just because the guy down the road is verticutting or aerifying doesn’t mean I’m supposed to.

We have to be aware of the impacts of the job, because we have all these bosses — we might report to a general manager or a director of agronomy or a greens committee or a board president — and we have to try to not take it personally. We’re at the mercy of Mother Nature. We can control it and manipulate it only so much. At some point in time, grass will die, something won’t meet an expectation. You can’t please everybody, and if you try to do that, you’ll drive yourself into the white padded room.

You’re on Twitter.

I am.

Any other platforms?

Just Facebook.

What do you think of Facebook? Because I’m off Facebook and it always felt to me like Facebook was where everybody tried to live their best life.

Yep.

Twitter, I look at it for headlines, stories to read. I might follow friends on there but it’s primarily other reporters, news outlets, I follow superintendents for course information. Facebook seems like the black hole.

I think it can be, though I’ve also seen us as a society get more honest, paint a little clearer picture — but there’s still that utopian vision of life that people want to present. I took my daughter to a daddy-daughter dance and my wife took a bunch of pictures. Of course, I’m going to post that out there, but if my dog dies, I’m going to post that out there, too. Life happens and nobody should expect when they’re looking at somebody’s social media feed to think, ‘Man, they really got it good.’ No.

I have a lot of respect for Kasey Kauff down at Trinity Forest. He’ll go out there and make these funny videos of bouncing golf balls on his fairways, photos of his dog, Dixie, and that’s awesome, but he’s also been forthcoming about his struggles with anxiety and depression. Paul MacCormack, The Mindful Superintendent, another great example. You listen to his seminar at GIS, we’re more open to talk about things, and if people are comfortable with that, it doesn’t become a stigma. Nobody’s going to disagree with this being a stressful job, but if everybody feels they gotta just cram it down inside and not recognize it as a daily challenge, then it does become a problem. And we still haven’t fully crossed the bridge on that. There are still too many individuals in the business who are dragging themselves down for no good reason.

You have less than a thousand tweets in six years. Well done.

And I like to put out relevant stuff. I think Twitter especially is informative. When I see a good thing happening out here that could help somebody else, we’ll stick it out there. I’m not going to post my green speed or my bunkers being blown out by another storm — everybody’s got those same challenges — but if we’ve done something that’s innovative or I want to give a shout-out to a staff member, I think that’s great. But normally I’m more a social media observer.

I’m spoiled rotten here at Deere Run. We got this great fleet, this big facility, a PGA Tour event — there’s not much more we could ask for. But to sit there and not try to recognize the person who has a nine-hole operation and one part-time employee and is doing a fantastic job, without some of the social media platforms, we’d never see that. And it’s cool, and it makes you appreciate more and more what you have here, and when they come in here as a volunteer, you can show them a couple things that might work based on what you saw on Twitter. ‘Hey, I saw you struggling with this. Try this. It hasn’t cost us a dime, but it’s saved us so much time and effort on the course.’

Among the 30 or so volunteers you normally have for the John Deere Classic, did you meet any on Twitter or Facebook?

Yes. I would say at least half a dozen, and a lot of it is just a continual daisy chain from year to year where we made a connection one time on Twitter, then one volunteer joined us and that person either took a job at another course. Social media has almost been like the cherry on the sundae for us, because we like for volunteers to have fun, but we also want the week to be educational. It’s been invaluable.

That’s a reason not to delete your social media accounts.

Correct. Every time I think about not looking at it, there’s a good idea that pops up. It could be the smallest of things — from how a Gator is hooked up to a greens mower trailer and what’s in that setup, all the way up to somebody doing a different cultural practice, taking aerification and doing it in a different way. We may not copy it, but we may pick up one small thing that makes it better here at Deere Run. It’s another tool for us.

Data collection and analysis is another side of tech that more courses are turning to. What data do you collect, and how do you use it?

We’re collecting moisture data throughout the year, checking greens every day or through our on-site weather station with evapotranspiration rates, precipitation rates, solar energy. Especially during the tournament, we’re collecting greens speeds every day, we’re collecting firmness readings on the greens — and this has been going on for six, seven years so now we have historical data that we can connect particular conditions or scoring to particular firmness or speeds. Without that data, you’re just shooting from the hip and you can’t convey that to a PGA Tour player who’s trying to earn his living.

Another thing we’ve gotten really big into this year is clipping data, clipping volume data, so we’re collecting clipping volumes off of our putting surfaces. For me, it’s been a game-changer to be able to see the ebbs and flows with applying a fertilizer or a growth regulator and trying to find a nice, even plain of clipping management every day. Doing that has been invaluable because my staff texts me what they’re getting each day and I can see the clipping data and see that we’re perfect. We’re recovering from ball marks but the grains are staying tight, they’re rolling true, they could be speeding up a little bit, and when I start to see those going either direction then we can adjust our programs.

All the data is there in front of you, but you still have to have feet on the ground. Have your hands down on the putting surfaces feeling the turf, checking your soil moistures with a probe, managing your thatch through proper aerification. There’s still that intangible feel part of being a superintendent. You have to be out there doing it. If you’re not looking at it, you’re gonna get yourself hung up at some point.

How much time do you still get to go out on the course and work it a little bit?

During the season when we’re not in tournament prep, I like to change cups every day. That’s forcing me to be on all 18 greens and I’m pulling 18 plugs out where I can look at rooting, I can look at thatch, I feel how firm they are, I can look at moisture throughout the profile. It’s also a way of changing a couple of cups ahead of our mowing team and looking at dew patterns, and then coming in behind on a couple other cups and checking quality of cut, seeing how guys are doing raking the bunkers, things like that. It’s a great way to get around.

A couple times a week, I like to sneak out on a rough mower where I can just shut off my brain from the administrative side and just look at it from an operator standpoint. One of the first superintendents I worked for told me, ‘Don’t assign something you haven’t done yourself.’ It’s a great way to stay in touch with how the golf course is maintained and knowing when something might be too wet or too dry, or when a piece of equipment might is not the right application. Plus, it’s a great way to decompress. I can’t just sit in a cart and point.

Between your run here as an assistant superintendent and now your years running the show, you’ve been here more than a decade and you’ve been here for about half the course’s life. You probably know this course better than anybody else.

We have two guys on our staff who helped build the place and they’re still around in varying degrees, and there’s a lot of value to be had in that, but I think there’s value also in discovery and looking deeper into things. You want to make yourself be that go-to person. Find the knowledge. Even in some circumstances, say, ‘We can handle that,’ when you may have never done it before.

I was fortunate to be involved in the project in San Antonio, where, my first day, my project manager gave me a Google map and said, ‘We’ve put poles at the back tee, the center of the landing area and the center of the green. Go find them. We need to get in there with the designer.’ So here I am in the middle of the Texas hill country, fighting hogs and snakes, 98 degrees with a machete and snake chaps, just plowing through. But from that point, I was involved in the installation of three-phase power, the vertical construction of the maintenance facility, storm drainage, lift stations, retention ponds, capping an environmentally sensitive site, blasting through limestone. You don’t be that person who’s arrogant and says, ‘Well, I can do everything,’ but you know you can be helpful.

How special is this course for you?

Coming here, this was the first time I had left home. I had been living here for a couple years on my own and was solely job-focused. For a few mornings, Erin would come walking by while I was digging holes, and we’d say hey. I’m six years older and she’s said this to me, ‘I thought you were already married and had two little blonde-haired girls running around’ — which I now have with her.

We developed this relationship and I think what was really good about it was we shared a passion for the golf course. She understood the charitable impact of the John Deere Classic, and for her being a Moline native, it’s all about John Deere. Without John Deere, this town disappears. She also got to see what the job demanded of me. There were times when we started dating when she would be working a wedding up in the clubhouse and call me at 2 o’clock in the morning, ‘Alex, we can’t find a golf cart,’ and I would get out of bed and come in because I knew there might have been a guest who had imbibed too much and I knew where they would always crash. So, there I am at 2 o’clock in the morning, I got my truck down next to a ravine, a tow strap pulling a golf cart out of the woods. She gained an appreciation for the hours I worked, and then it just burgeoned from there.

She sounds like an incredible person.

We got married in ’06 and eight months later, we were living in Texas on a whim. We always moved because of my job but we would have never been this successful without her. That’s the most important thing. She’s supported me in these endeavors.

You mentioned your daughters love the course, too.

It wasn’t great timing, but we had our first child 10 days before the tournament in 2014. I remember my wife took me to the hospital the day our daughter was born. I remember driving the course that day, coming out with the baby the first day of the tournament. Two years ago, our second daughter was born two days after the Classic finished.

Little better timing.

Unbeknownst to both me and my wife, she was actually having contractions the Sunday of the tournament.

Ha! Babies decide when they want to join us.

There are all these memories attached to this property, and then there are the people. You have these connections where you don’t feel like you’re going to a job because it’s a part of who you are. That’s what Deere Run is to me.

This job is what you make of it. If you take it for what it is — and it is a job but you have to have a passion for it and keep the perspective that life encompasses so many other things — the little stuff won’t drag you. … One of the international superintendents that was here said, ‘Alex, you don’t seem that stressed out.’ I go, ‘Why? It’s a golf tournament. We do it every year. There are going to be things we like, there are going to be things we don’t like, but we’ve done the best we can and we move on.’

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I feel like we watch a lot of the same programming — Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Moana and, per your allusion right there to letting things go, Frozen. Any of the lessons those shows and movies teach sneak into your mind, almost subliminally?

I don’t know if it’s that or if you just look at the untattered mentality of a child. They get a cut on their leg and they’re crying, and then they’re suddenly off playing with blocks or getting their teddy bear, and life is good again.

Thirty seconds of utter disaster …

… and you’ve moved on. I’ve found that in older age, I read more, and I like reading stuff from military generals, very regimented, different ways to manage, but I think you get all these different perspectives and you hear people’s stories and you just go, ‘I don’t have it too bad.’

I’m watching my sister-in-law, Bre, right now battle breast cancer. She got diagnosed in March, she just had her third infusion of chemotherapy. You know where she is right now? She’s working in the merchandise tent. You wouldn’t know a damn thing about her having breast cancer. She’s all business. If she can be like that, I ain’t gonna worry about a divot on a tee or a ball mark on a green.

Matt LaWell is GCI’s managing editor.