LA turf dreaming

Features - industry Q&A

Imagine landing a prestigious gig at a suave Southern California club before turning 30. Bel-Air Country Club’s Justin DePippo describes life on the industry’s fast track.

October 3, 2019

© jon Cavalier

Justin DePippo moved from the East Coast to the West Coast as a 23-year-old. He owned two valuable items in his chosen field: a Penn State degree and work experience at a well-known facility on the other side of the country. A new job at a glamorous Southern California spot awaited.

Before he could start experiencing his version of a sun-splashed, low-humidity turf dream, which involved helping maintain Los Angeles Country Club’s 36 holes, DePippo needed a place to live. The housing search proved more difficult than actually landing a full-time job at the renowned club.

“I got a rude awakening of what the cost of living was really like,” DePippo says. “I had to find the cheapest place I could find. That’s what determined where I was going to live.”

DePippo used Penn State connections and landed a room in a modest West Los Angeles apartment he shared with a few fellow Nittany Lions, whom he calls “friends of friends.” The apartment lacked air conditioning. And, yes, he encountered cockroaches in his living space. “I’m not very proud of it,” he says. “It took some adjusting. But year by year, I was able to move up a little bit, always looking to improve my living condition.” For the record, DePippo previously worked at Aronimink Golf Club, a phenomenal Philadelphia-area course offering modern onsite housing to young employees.

DePippo’s living conditions have significantly improved since he arrived in Los Angeles in 2013. He rapidly ascended at LACC, becoming the superintendent of the North Course (site of the 2023 U.S. Open) by the time he was 26. Then, in 2017, DePippo was appointed the director of golf course and grounds at Bel-Air Country Club, another glamorous club enjoyed by A-list celebrities. Bel-Air, like LACC, also has A-list architectural roots. George Thomas designed a series of holes that meander through scenic canyons. The charm between canyons increased following a nine-month restoration in 2017-18. DePippo arrived at Bel-Air two months into the project. He was just 28.

Now a 30-year-old – more on reaching that milestone later – DePippo represents a fast riser in an industry where talented professionals are being forced to wait longer for leadership positions because of the slowing and subsequent steadying of the golf economy.

What is it like being a superintendent in the shadows of Hollywood?

I always wanted to be in a big city. I have always been drawn to it; I have always wanted to try it out. That’s what first got me out here, wanting to be in a city where there’s a lot going on and a lot to do. LA is definitely unique. It’s perfect weather year-round. There are always people on the golf course. We have an event at some point during the month for all 12 months. There’s no low or dropdown like the winter you have back East. Our what you would call ‘off-season’ is the middle of February when Riviera hosts the Genesis Open. SoCal and Los Angeles is just a good, active golf area. There are a lot of great golf courses around here, especially in the private sector.

Justin DePippo became the director of golf course and grounds at famed Bel-Air Country Club before turning 30.
© photo courtest of justin Depippo

How did somebody from Philly who had lived in Pennsylvania his whole life make the transition to the West Coast so early in his career?

It’s a different way of life out here. Everybody who’s been out here gets soft-skinned from the weather. Every time I’m back East it’s a reminder of that. It’s not quite the same intensity as the East Coast, where the people have a little bit more grit, I guess you could say.

You had a good thing going at Aronimink with a great mentor in John Gosselin. There are a lot of great golf courses in Philadelphia. It would have been easy for you to stay in Philly. What convinced you to take the career and personal leap that you did?

I interned at Aronimink and had gone back as an assistant. I had a talk with one of the assistants I was underneath there, Matt Rogers, who’s now the superintendent at Gulph Mills Golf Club. He said, ‘At some point you have to go work somewhere else, learn a different program and be a supervisor at another property.’ I had nothing tying me down. As young as I was, I knew I was flexible. I always wanted to try the West Coast. I had always seen and heard about Pebble Beach, Torrey Pines, Los Angeles Country Club, Bel-Air and Riviera. I volunteered to work the Genesis Open at Riviera as a test run to see what it was like working in SoCal. I had a really good time. Between one of our morning and afternoon volunteer shifts, I threw a suit on and took a cab over to Los Angeles Country Club and did a quick interview with Russ Myers who was the director at the time. That was the beginning of it. It all clicked from there. I had a good vibe and I was blown away by it all, especially how great the weather was. I figured if I’m going to be working outside every day, I might as well do it where it’s perfect weather year-round.

When did you realize you would be in California for more than a few years?

Our industry is small. There are only 15,000 golf courses in the United States. Depending on the level of club you want to be at, you have to be flexible. I was always willing to go anywhere in the country for the right job. Timing just worked out great at Los Angeles Country Club. There was a good bit of movement and I was able to work my way up there until the end when I was North Course superintendent. We also hosted the Walker Cup and it was the same time the U.S. Amateur was in town at Riviera and Bel-Air was right up the street. It was a big year for golf in Los Angeles. Timing was great. A great club, a great opportunity. I definitely feel lucky in our industry to not have to move to take a superintendent job. The only thing that changed was the exit I take off the 405.

What were the challenges of arriving at Bel-Air in the middle of a restoration?

First thought is that you would say it’s a lot to walk into. You have to learn the old course and new course at the same time, in a very short amount of time. In my first construction meeting, one of the big-ticket items on the table was whether we were going to move the cart path and shift the tee box to the other side of the third tee and the eighth tee. Everybody was giving their opinion and it gets to me and I said, ‘Guys, I have to go see the third tee and the eighth tee before I can tell you.’ It was actually great being able to start fresh in a new job with new greens, new fairways, new tee complexes. Plus, all the new infrastructure. We started a new lease package with our equipment. It was a fresh start all-around. Being in a restoration on an old property and getting to work with Tom Doak was great as well. Timing-wise it couldn’t have been any better.

Justin DePippo arrived at Bel-Air Country Club in the middle of a Tom Doak-led restoration.
© photo courtesy of Justin DePippo

What guidance can you give superintendents who might be beginning a new job in the middle of a major renovation or restoration?

Be ready to put in the work. It took a lot of time. Luckily, weather was great for us. We didn’t have any major setbacks there. Build relationships quickly with the architect and the construction superintendent, the property manager, the general manager, the greens chairman, the board, your new assistants, your new staff and the whole list of contractors. You have to build relationships quickly and be ready for the work. Some people are attracted to that. It’s a challenge, but it’s fun. I enjoyed it. It keeps you on your toes. Looking back, you can say it was definitely an achievement to get through that. We opened up great. The members couldn’t have been happier with the new course and the new design, and we have been busy ever since.

When did the course reopen?

July 11, 2018.

What did that day mean for your team?

We had a big countdown timer on the wall. I think we started a 100-day countdown. We tried to get as much done as we could and perfect it as best as we could. In our industry and our line of the work, the job is never done. You can always do more. There was never a stopping point. That whole week was exciting. We did tee times that first week, so everybody had the opportunity to play at least once. A lot of people wanted to get out. All that hard work we put in – and people got to finally enjoy it. Everybody here takes a lot of pride in their work. We have a good staff. To have 37 guys that all take pride in their work is unique and special. We also had quite a few barbecues.

What is it like maintaining a course with throwback charm and modern infrastructure?

It’s a very unique property. Logistically, it’s one of the most difficult properties to get around. There are four tunnels that you can barely fit a small golf cart through. We have the iconic swinging bridge to get from the 10th tee to the 10th fairway. The property has a lot of history. It’s one of the main things that makes it so special. When you get to walk through the canyons and you’re in these foothills, it’s amazing how perfectly the holes fit into each canyon. I was walking with Ron Whitten from Golf Digest one day and he said it perfectly, ‘If any of these holes had been 20, 30 yards wider or 20, 30 yards tighter, it wouldn’t have worked.’ The fact that they laid that out in the mid ’20s with the equipment that they have … it’s amazing that it fits. With opening up the vistas and views with all the trees that we removed, it was kind of somewhat hidden how great the course really was. It’s always been a great golf course and a known property, but I don’t think anybody knew how great.

You were coming into Bel-Air as a 28-year-old department leader. How were you able to gain the respect of the membership and your crew early in your tenure?

I’m a believer that you have to earn respect, not demand it or expect it. From when they hired me, they knew I had a decent amount of experience. That’s why they hired me. It definitely wasn’t because of my age. One of the things that I said, ‘Being as young as I am, it’s an advantage to the club.’ I have everything to lose because I have my whole career ahead of me. If I didn’t give it 110 percent or give it my all, I have my whole career ahead of me to have to make up for that. I thought being somebody who hadn’t built a name for himself or been a head superintendent was a huge advantage.

You just turned 30. Do you feel any different now that you have joined that age bracket?

Not really. Everybody says the only birthdays that matter now are the decades: 30, 40, 50 … Yeah, maybe knowing I’m not in my 20s anymore you really feel like an adult, but I don’t feel any different. I have always been told I’m mature for my age. I have had crew members ask me all the time how old I am and tell them to guess. And they start with 40!

A lot of people in this industry must wait a long time to become a superintendent. You became one early in your career. Why do you think it happened so fast for you and what would you tell somebody who wants the same type of job you have early in their career?

You have to set yourself apart. There are good people in every industry who want it just as bad as you do. A good way to separate yourself is to be the hardest working person in the room. I learned working at Aronimink and Los Angeles Country Club that there’s competition at those places. Big staff, quite a few assistants, AITs, interns. I was willing to do whatever it took. I was willing to sacrifice my time, vacations, whatever. I worked probably every day through my summer internships at Aronimink. I didn’t really do the beach trips or the weekends off. If we wanted to get a night spray in on intermediates or tee boxes, I would come in with the assistant. He’d light the place up ahead of me and I would be spraying behind him. Try to make yourself the go-to person; make yourself part of somebody’s solution. The job is never finished. If you are that person who’s willing to do whatever it takes to make it better, then you can really set yourself apart and move up. I tried to take one or two trips back East a year and it was tied onto the Penn State Turf Conference or volunteering at Lancaster Country Club for the U.S. Women’s Open, Oakmont for the U.S. Open or Liberty National for the Presidents Cup.

Have the sacrifices you made been worth it?

I think so. I enjoy what I do every day. My fiancée thinks it’s weird sometimes how much I enjoy coming into work. I’m here six, seven days a week. It’s not work for me, though. I really do enjoy it. If we are doing something different on greens or testing out new equipment, that’s fun. When I’m trying to build a staff here or work with the guys under me, I want everybody to enjoy coming to work every day. Creating that environment and then having a lot of guys who take pride in their work, you can build something special and something that people want to be part of.

Do you wonder how long you can keep this pace?

I guess I have never really thought about how long I can keep this pace. I have a good bit left in me. I don’t quite worry about that yet. Who knows if you ask me that question 20 years from now or 30 years from now what I would say.

If someone had told you when you were a student at Penn State you would be the superintendent at a course such as Bel-Air Country Club by the time you were 28, would you have believed that would be your career journey?

I don’t know if I would have believed the journey. But I’d say, ‘Yeah. That’s the goal. That’s why I’m putting in the effort.’ When I was interviewing at Bel-Air, one of the things I said was that my whole career had been building up to this moment. That’s why I moved from the places that I did and worked for the guys that I worked for and volunteered as many tournaments as I could. Putting in all that time and the hours … it was building up to that moment. That’s everything you’re working for.

In 2008, I volunteered the U.S. Women’s Open at Saucon Valley. I had lunch during one of the day shifts with Mr. (Paul R.) Latshaw. At the time, I didn’t know who he was. I was 17 or 18. I was helping move plastic boards for mowers. The entire operation blew me away. I had never experienced such detail, passion and culture. It wasn’t until my roommate, an older gentleman and previous superintendent trying to get back into the industry, asked me if I could introduce him to Mr. Latshaw. At the time, I didn’t think much of it or understand it. When I was in school and working, and later working at Aronimink, I saw the articles and heard the stories of Eric Greytok, who hosted two major championships by 28, John Zimmers, Russ Myers, Paul B. Latshaw and Jim Roney. They all took superintendent jobs at a young age. It really opened the industry up for me and what I felt like was another level. I’m lucky enough now to have built relationships with these guys today, but they had set the bar for me then. They all had stacked resumes and put in the work. They gave it their all. I wanted that. It pushed me to network, work hard and volunteer at least one event a year.

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s editor.