Inside the Major Spotlight

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Guy Cipriano learns about Bethpage State Park’s greater purpose from the people responsible for managing its golf courses, plant species and ecosystem.

June 6, 2019

The Black Course at Bethpage State Park blends championship golf with natural characteristics of the park.
© guy cipriano

Hello. Great to meet you. Let’s start walking and talking.

Bethpage State Park horticulturist Victor Azzaretto and I dash through the maintenance facility and down a steep hill referred to as “Pike’s Peak.” We stop briefly at a spot called “Victor’s Valley,” a former dump-turned-garden parallel to the Black Course’s fourth fairway.

Bird boxes are placed throughout the five golf courses at Bethpage State Park.
© guy cipriano

Azzaretto talks excitedly, waving his arms and hands describing how his role managing plant species fits into the greater mission of the five-course park. A gallery marches along the right side of the hole and Dustin Johnson, the world’s top ranked golfer, struts between the gallery and the temporary stopping point. Neither of us has much to discuss about Johnson’s prospects at the 101st PGA Championship.

Bethpage fascinates because if offers 1,368 acres of public greenspace — including a major championship golf course and four other soothing tracts — within a crowd slice of Long Island. High-energy, high-productivity personalities such as Azzaretto are entrusted with doing what they deem fit to lure visitors to the park. A Long Island native, Azzaretto worked as a teenager in Bethpage’s clubhouse, then joined the golf course maintenance crew, and later earned a horticulture degree from nearby SUNY-Farmingdale. His bosses created the horticulturist title, satisfying Azzaretto’s desire to work with plants while boosting golf course and park aesthetics. “This is a nice hidden gem,” he says. “You can learn a lot here.”

A hidden gem? In a county with 1.3 million residents? At a major championship venue? The rise of the Black Course as a fabled American golf venue represents a small sliver of Bethpage’s busy existence.

Daily green fees and PGA Championship tickets come with visual perks carefully cultivated by the Bethpage staff. Broomsedge adds fire and color to the golf courses, with the plants being grown by the thousands each spring in a greenhouse Azzaretto manages near the Green Course. The periphery of the Black Course boasts dozens of birdboxes, providing audible escapes from subway rumbles, car horns and jet engines.

Park ecologist Yael Weiss says tree swallows, bluebirds, warblers, red-tailed hawks and great horned owls are among the birds spotted on the Black Course each spring. The park collects data on its wildlife as naturalist Jim Jones serves as a part-time employee responsible for studying hawk and owl activity. Weiss hopes golfers are inspired to become citizen-scientists and contribute to the digital community of photos and observations.

Victor Azzaretto is the enthusiastic and longtime horticulturist at Bethpage State Park.
© guy cipriano

“Before I got this job, I didn’t even know Bethpage State Park had a public area that people could go to,” says Weiss, a graduate of nearby Hofstra University. “I thought it was only for golf. It was a new world. It’s an open classroom and there’s so much that you can learn here. If this golf course wasn’t here, this would be developed. It would be a mall or something. People will say it’s a golf course and they use pesticides and all of that, but there’s so much untouched area between all the wooded areas and all the pollinator gardens and rough areas that serve as wildlife refuge. There’s so much greenspace here. It’s an important part of Long Island.”

The Black Course starter’s hut, a spot thousands of spectators pass during a major championship, displays signage promoting Bethpage’s status as a Certified Audubon Sanctuary. An extensive study with Cornell University examining reducing inputs makes Bethpage a frequent topic in industry research papers and conference presentations. But the park’s best ambassadors and educators are its employees, many of whom are self-starters such as director of agronomy Andy Wilson and Black Course superintendent Mike Hadley. Even well-traveled tournament veterans such as PGA of America chief championships officer Kerry Haigh notice employees’ zest for the park. “Their passion for this venue, for their golf courses,” he says, “is second to none.”

Creating repeatable course conditions over the years has allowed Bethpage to extend its outreach efforts, and Wilson and Hadley openly talk with anyone willing to listen about their maintenance practices and management philosophies. Wilson, who grew up in Bethpage, and Hadley, a western Pennsylvania native entrenched on Long Island for two decades, maintain turf that takes a pounding (the five courses combine for more than 225,000 annual rounds) yet keeps flourishing. Their team includes multiple employees who migrated from Bethpage only to return, a sign of the park’s enduring pull on talented people seeking lasting fulfillment.

State bureaucracy, golfers of all skill levels, taxpayer money, ecology, horticulture, Northeast intensity, televised tournaments and predatory birds could be a toxic mix at some places. But it all meshes at Bethpage.

Azzaretto continues our walk, stopping in the woods twice, including once on the way up “Pike’s Peak” to showcase blooming pink lady’s slipper, the only orchid found in the park. The people who care deeply about Bethpage are always moving, stopping and explaining. Creating connections to a park, whether it’s via golf, horticulture or ecology, requires unyielding enthusiasm.

It’s a major undertaking.

Tartan Talks No. 35


Drew Rogers restores classic courses in cool-weather regions. He also enhances modern courses in South Florida.

Rogers joined the Tartan Talks podcast to discuss a busy decade executing projects in divergent regions. His growing portfolio since launching his own firm JDR in 2010 includes steady work in Florida snowbird meccas such as Naples and Palm Beach. Closer to his Toledo, Ohio, home, Rogers has executed work on courses designed by Golden Age architects such as C.H. Alison, Harry Colt, Donald Ross and Willie Park Jr. Rogers often finds himself wondering how the venerable architects would handle Florida’s flat terrain and demanding club memberships. “I think they would be forced to be very responsive in very similar ways as we are today,” he says.

If you listen to the podcast closely, you’ll also receive tips on the art of listening from Rogers and hear him offer thoughtful praise to superintendents everywhere.

Enter into your web browser to hear the podcast.

The (relative) calm between the storms

Shane Omann and Keith Wood lead the golf course maintenance team at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte.

For 30 glorious minutes, Shane Omann reclines in a plastic folding chair inside the grounds crew meal tent at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte. His sunglasses provide him with a shield to rest his eyes as director of green and grounds Keith Wood explains the rigors of championship golf to dozens of guests. The industrial air conditioner in the corner is blowing enough of a gust in his direction to chill a glass of sweet tea.

After this rest, he is ready for another long afternoon of work.

Omann is the golf course superintendent at Quail Hollow Club, which is famous for playing host most springs to the Wells Fargo Championship. That would be more than enough responsibility for most clubs. Two years ago, though, it also provided the backdrop for the PGA Championship, and two years from now, it will open its gates to the Presidents Cup. Championship golf runs through its history.

Quail Hollow Club will likely never double up in the same calendar year — the Wells Fargo Championship moved across the state in 2017 to Eagle Point Golf Club in Wilmington, and it will head north in 2021 to TPC Potomac at Avenel Farms in Maryland — but that clustering of headline events still provides professional and personal challenges for Wood, Omann and the grounds crew filled with 20-somethings just out of turf school. Long hours. Demanding players. Tens of thousands of fans trampling their art.

“We don’t get much of a break in how we work,” Omann says. “We’re going to grind all the time.”

How does a club so tied to an annual PGA Tour event shift gears? How do Wood and Omann keep morale high during the inevitable valleys between the weeks when cameras and crowds fill the grounds?

For more about how the Quail Hollow crew handles events of all sizes, enter into your web browser.

The maintenance facility at Quail Hollow Club during Wells Fargo Championship week.
© matt lawell


Jan Bel Jan is the new president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the second woman elected to the position after the late Alice Dye. Bel Jan is a registered landscape architect, certified arborist and former assistant superintendent with dozens of projects in her portfolio. Bel Jan says she wants to carry on the mission of the office: “Thoughtfulness for our clients so we may continue providing the best product, helping show a better economic way to do things and greater recognition for the work of ASGCA members.” She will serve through fall 2020.

The Toro Company recently finalized an 11-year equipment and tournament support agreement with Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., extending a working relationship that started when the club opened for play in 1962. The deal will include support for the 2019 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, 2020 USGA Junior Amateur, 2024 USGA Amateur and the 2028 Ryder Cup. Toro distributor MTI Distributing is also a part of the deal.

More than 300 industry leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., for the 12th annual National Golf Day — a banner event for the industry highlighted by a record-high 244 meetings with members of Congress. “We are here to educate our elected officials that the golf industry is made up of many small businesses that contribute to our national economy,” says Jay Karen, CEO of National Golf Course Owners Association and Chair of the WE ARE GOLF Board. “The importance of fair and good taxation policies is paramount to the success of our businesses.”