There are a lot of moving parts to hosting a major championship. In addition to tending to the turf, the host superintendent must deal with the infrastructure that is an integral part of such an event.
Andrew Wilson, who gave a presentation to colleagues at the recent New Jersey Turfgrass Association Green Expo, is the director of agronomy at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, New York. In that role, he oversaw the agronomic aspects of the most recent PGA Championship. That meant not just preparing the Black Course for the event but also tending to the other four courses on the property amidst all the pre-tournament activity.
Preparations for the championship included curtailing the Black Course’s traditional aeration schedule. “Before the PGA we didn’t punch any holes at all,” Wilson says. “The last time they punched holes was right after Labor Day (2018). We had a one-ton roller so we would use that once or twice a week.”
Once the 2019 season began, the Black Course was opened for a two-week period with play limited to 100 rounds per day (two of those days were lost to inclement weather).
When work began on the championship infrastructure, including the building of temporary gravel roads and the construction of other facilities, Wilson and his team, which under normal circumstances numbers between 50 and 60, had to make some accommodations.
“The 10th fairway on the Yellow Course actually got paved over,” Wilson says. “That was the main bus terminal, so we had a temporary tee on that hole. On the 9th hole on the Yellow (the site of a merchandise tent), we had a temporary tee. We had to reduce the yellow to a 9-hole course because of the routing. The first and 18th of the Green Course were compromised, the first hole on the Red (because of the temporary roads).”
Kerry Haigh, the PGA of America’s chief championships officer, was in charge of the course setup but Haigh largely deferred to Wilson and his team on agronomic issues.
“(Haigh) is a pretty impressive guy,” Wilson says. “He’d just sort of lay out his expectations. He’d point to a fertilizer bag, and say ‘Are you going to do a little magic?’ and then he’d leave us alone. He set the right tone and the right direction for us.”
During the week of the championship, Wilson had his usual team on hand, plus a corps of some 100 volunteers. The volunteers focused their efforts on the Black Course while the Bethpage staffers were assigned where needed. The Blue, Yellow and Red Course teams were responsible for the practice facility, including the range, which was constructed on the first hole of the Yellow Course.
With the championship behind him Wilson, who started at Bethpage in 1987 as a 17-year old (he was named to his present post in 2010), will turn his attention to the 2021 Northern Trust and the 2024 Ryder Cup. But he is cognizant of his other responsibilities, which include tending to not only the four other golf courses on the property (the Blue, Yellow, Green and Red), but also a polo field (300 yards long by 160 yards wide) that hosts roughly a dozen matches from mid-June through September and 20 soccer fields.
Wilson works to maximize the effectiveness of his team, in terms of scheduling while also being aware of his workers’ individual talents. “I’d say we have half the crew that does one job, or two jobs, very, very well,” he says, “and we have the other half of the crew that can do a lot of jobs maybe not as good, so we have half the crew that are utility players and then we have a closer, we have a starting pitcher; we have those guys that have certain real particular skills. Some guys have a real innate understanding of electronics or things like that, or even mechanics. So, it’s really just about trying to match up people with their skill set.
“It’s a tight labor market and when you find someone who can do something, whether it’s an equipment operator or some guys do divots really well or just do the tee service really well, that can be a skill,” he adds. “That guy’s knocking it out of the park every time you go by the tees. They look beautiful. That can be just as important as the guy who’s spraying chemicals and gets to decide what’s sprayed.”
Each of Bethpage’s five golf courses has its own superintendent, with Mike Hadley overseeing the Black Course. Wilson speaks to the importance of delegating.
“You’re supposed to let your superintendents make decisions,” he said “and get the same opportunity you had to learn and make a mistake and hopefully learn from it, and to even looking at a problem in a different way. Sometimes, I’ll talk to five guys, five superintendents, and have a couple of different opinions or ideas and then we can hopefully come to a consensus and sometimes I have to be the decision maker, too.”
Most golfers who visit Bethpage will never set foot on the Black Course. Wilson is determined to see that each of them has a quality experience.
“They’re really the lifeblood of the park,” he says, “the people that come to play day after day or year after year. There are plenty of stories where people say have said, ‘I started playing here 30 or 40 years ago’ and you hear something like that, and have that retention as customers, hopefully that means we’re doing something right.
“We might not be perfect all the time, but hopefully we’re giving people consistent, good enough conditions where they see the effort we’re putting in to try and give them a nice day out. That’s why we really want to make sure that all the courses are looking good at Bethpage.”
The Superintendents at Bethpage
Black Course: Michael Hadley
Construction: Vincent Herzog
Red Course: Erik Feldman
Green Course: Eric Newell
Blue Course: Shawn Brownell
Yellow Course: Hamilton Lopes
Rick Woelfel is a Philadelphia-based writer and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.