He breathes Bethpage

Features - Q&A

Andrew Wilson found a career – and a lifetime of incredible turf memories – by staying close to home.

April 16, 2019

Bethpage State Park director of agronomy Andrew Wilson, right, and his wife, Delphine Tseng.

Andrew Wilson grew up in a mixed borough household. His father hailed from the Bronx; his mother was a Brooklynite. Wilson started his life in a middle ground: Queens. He doesn’t remember much about the bustling borough life, though.

Jim and Louise Wilson drifted from the city in the early 1970s and moved to Bethpage, a Long Island hamlet bordering a 1,500-acre state park. The move shaped the direction of Wilson’s life.

The family recreated at public sites, with Jim introducing his son to golf on Long Island’s municipal courses. “Once in a blue moon,” Wilson says, his father would take him to Bethpage State Park, which supported five golf courses. A.W. Tillinghast designed three new courses and renovated another one for the park in the 1930s. A fifth course was added in 1950s. A young Wilson noticed stark contrasts between Bethpage, especially the challenging Black Course, and Long Island’s other municipal golf facilities.

“The conditions were probably equal to the other courses,” says Wilson, the park’s director of agronomy since 2010. “But I could tell the difference with the layout in about a minute. A lot of the other courses in the area were flat tracts. Bethpage had bigger bunkers, the undulations were more distinct, and you could see the structure of the whole park. The whole facility was awesome.”

When he searched for a job as a teenager, Wilson applied for a clubhouse maintenance position at Bethpage. He started working at the park in the summer of 1989. He has never left and now oversees the maintenance of the park’s five colorfully named golf courses. His 30th anniversary at Bethpage coincides with the Black Course hosting the 101st PGA Championship in May. The park near Wilson’s childhood neighborhood amazingly morphed into one of golf’s premiere championship venues, hosting the U.S. Open in 2002 and 2009, and PGA Tour playoff events in 2012 and 2016. The state’s agreement with the PGA of America will bring the 2024 Ryder Cup to the Black Course.

Above all, Bethpage remains a facility open to the people of New York and beyond. The park supports more than 225,000 annual rounds, meaning around 7 million golfers have played the Black, Blue, Yellow, Green and Red Courses since Wilson arrived at Bethpage the summer before he enrolled at Fairfield (Conn.) University. An English major turned turf savant who later earned a turfgrass certificate from Rutgers, Wilson now leads a highly trained and educated 60-employee department.

Why did you decide to apply for a job at Bethpage as a teenager?

I guess I liked the golf courses. It was close to home, it was outside. I was mowing some lawns around the neighborhood before that. Even when you cut the grass – as silly as it sounds – it’s shaggy and unkempt looking. You give it a haircut and it looks a little bit better. It’s just that immediate satisfaction. You’re making something look good. And it always seems like the public enjoys parks. You’re dealing with people who are coming to have a good time and hopefully we can provide that to them.

What do you remember about the first time you stepped on Bethpage’s courses as a member of the golf course maintenance crew?

It actually took a little while. I started clubhouse maintenance, where I was working on the tennis courts. We had clay tennis courts, so we would sweep them, roll them and put down calcium chloride. I was doing general park maintenance for a while. In the mid-90s, Dave Catalano took over as park director. I had just finished up at Fairfield University and had my English degree. I wasn’t too sure what I wanted to do with that. Dave and I would talk here and there. He would give me some office-type responsibilities such as writing displays for Women’s History Month and Black History Month. I think some of those displays are still in the clubhouse. I even sold greens fees tickets for a while. Then, in 1997, the USGA made the announcement that we were going to host the U.S. Open. At the time, the superintendent had a turf degree and that was it. It was a second career for many employees. Coincidentally, it just happened the superintendent retired the same year. Craig Currier came on board. The day Craig started, I think I was one of the first people he met. Dave had told me you’re going to go on the golf course when Craig gets here. I was looking forward to it as a new challenge. I was familiar with the golf courses and some of the basics of grass cutting. I was excited, but I had no idea what I was getting into. The first day or two after Craig came in, I was seeing these weird spots all over the grass. It was dollar spot. Craig is a force of nature and he’s a great superintendent. I think I was spraying the Black Course greens within two weeks of him starting. It was trial by fire. It was basically a five-year sprint to that U.S. Open in 2002.

When you were working on the clubhouse grounds, how aware were you of what the golf course maintenance team was doing?

I’d see the guys out there. I would see the machines. There were a few triplexes, but a lot of what they were mowing they were still mowing with gang mowers – even into the early ’90s. I knew they used reel mowers for the short grass and rotary mowers for the rough height grass. I would kind of see what went into it. To me, it was all physical labor. There was no art or science into how to water the golf course or how the irrigation system works. That was beyond me at that point.”

What was your reaction when you learned the USGA was bringing a U.S. Open to Bethpage?

The superintendent at Montauk Downs State Park, Charlie Reidlinger, and I are sort of the same story. We started working at the park the same summer and we were still working at the park in 1997. I was in a phase where I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I had to make a decision on what I was going to pursue, whether it was something like publishing or writing, or was I going to stick with where I was. I was working but wondering if there was potential to move up here. Word of the U.S. Open coming to the golf course obviously changed my life. It was a whole new horizon.

What is the crew like at Bethpage now and how has it evolved?

Every course has a superintendent. They all have turf degrees. We have four or five assistants on the Black Course with turf degrees. We have a super mechanic right now, Sean Brownson. For the first U.S. Open, we had good mechanics. They could fix anything, but if you ask them to do inventory or keep an Excel spreadsheet on how many times a piece of equipment has been in the shop, they had no idea. Now our mechanic has iPads in the shop. It’s kind of night and day in that regard. It’s been pretty satisfying to see what has happened to some of the guys who have stayed here.

You have roughly 60 people on the crew, you have five golf courses and you’re pushing out over 225,000 rounds per year with extremely early tee times. How do you get it all done?

The earliest tee time we have is 5:24. When I first started, we had some 5:08. At least we are at 5:24 now. It’s really just about diligence. I think most golf course superintendents would agree that you have your plan the night before and maybe the next day you can implement 75 percent of it depending on the weather and other factors. It’s good that we can mix and match the crews. If the Yellow Course has an outing, we can take a few people from the Blue Course and help out, or we can take a person or two from the Black Course to help out. And when the Black Course has a tournament, we will pull somebody from each course to help with bunkers or something like that. That helps with economy of scale and what we can pull off.

What is it like operating golf courses within the New York State Park System and how much consideration do you give to the greater mission of the parks?

More and more. When Craig first started and I first started, the knowledge base wasn’t there on the golf courses, which didn’t help, and the budget wasn’t there. The parks really stepped up after the USGA invested in us. The park system felt a need to invest in us as well. Because the golf courses are in good shape, I can now concern myself in some of our environmental efforts. We have a retired biology teacher who monitors our hawks and owls. We have pollinator gardens that we started building 10 years ago. Once we had the base down of having the golf courses in fairly good shape, we could start worrying about those things. It was really like a pyramid where we had to establish a solid foundation and then we could get higher and higher. We have a relationship with SUNY-Farmingdale, we host the local Girl Scouts here several times a year, gardening groups come to visit our horticulturist and we have beekeepers now. For a while, you were afraid of what the public was going to think. And then we started reaching out to people and people really started enjoying some of those extras that we do. They will come and say, ‘We never even knew that you guys did this.’ Part of the reason they didn’t know we did things like that is because we never told anybody.

How fortunate have you been to do all of this at one place?

Very fortunate. It’s pretty incredible. I have been lucky to work for good people, work with good people and have good people working under me. I’m in a defined benefit pension system. When there’s a posting for a superintendent job, I will check it out. But I have 25 years in on my pension. Something that non-golfers don’t quite understand are some of the pressures superintendents are under. By the time superintendents are 55, a lot of guys are looking over their shoulder. I kind of have a good safety net underneath me. I think that’s why some of the other guys have stuck around, too. It’s a good place to work. We have a talented superintendent, Mike Hadley, on the Black who has done an incredible job getting the course prepared for the PGA Championship. We have a good relationship with major golf organizations and our local organizations. Having those guys around every year keeps us on our toes. We get to work with good people.

Have you wondered what day-to-day life is like at a golf course other than the ones at Bethpage?

Sure. I talk to some of the guys who left. Craig stopped by the other day. We’ll talk about differences. You hear stories. Some guys have good stories. Bethpage might have a smaller budget, but we get a little bit left alone. If you’re at a private club with a small budget, you might have expectations that people don’t quite understand. Some guys will say they really like the private course compared to Bethpage. They don’t have to worry about things like getting three quotes if they want to spend $5,000. They don’t have to go through a cumbersome purchasing process. They can move with a little bit more fluidity. If you have a great membership, some guys can’t say enough good things about working in the private sector. There are pros and cons to every situation. But parks have been great to me. It’s been a great career.

You’re not just dealing with the 1 percent. Anyone can play Bethpage at almost any time. What is it like providing enjoyment to so many people?

It’s pretty cool. Our crew likes the ‘People’s Country Club’ label. Golfers feel like they have ownership of the place. It’s their golf course. It’s their facility. Anybody can play the Black Course. I live in Farmingdale, and I’ll be going home and see people with golf clubs at the train station who are going back to the city after their round. It’s a diverse crowd. We have different ages and shapes and sizes and races. It’s nice that we are a welcoming facility. Sometimes as a municipal facility we might have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. We want to be as good as the private sector and some of the most storied clubs in the world. Maybe we don’t have all the amenities, but we make up for that in character and other ways.

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s editor.