The world paused on March 11, 2020.
Schools and businesses closed their doors, sending everybody home. Every sort of entertainment and diversion followed. Sports disappeared almost literally overnight. One day, we were watching conference tournaments, the end of the NBA and NHL regular seasons, The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, and the next day … we weren’t.
Jeff Plotts and Lucas Andrews remember working on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass late on the night of March 12, a Thursday — a day after the pause — still planning every moment for the second round of The Players. Plotts, the director of golf course maintenance at TPC Sawgrass, was working under the impression that the course would be closed to spectators but competition would continue.
“We had a good night that night,” Plotts remembers. “Our team performed really well in a split shift and had the golf course ready to go for Friday. It was still light. It was probably 8 o’clock or so, maybe even a little later than that. Those are long days for us, Thursday and Friday.”
Plotts conferred with Andrews, the Stadium Course superintendent, then walked to his car and started to drive home.
“He had made it two minutes before he called me and said, ‘Can you talk?’” Andrews says. “I pretty much knew then that it was only when we were calling it.”
After a single round of play, Hideki Matsuyama topped the leaderboard at 9 under. Not long after that, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said that “as the situation continued to escalate, and there seemed to be more unknowns, it ultimately became a matter of when, not if, we would need to call it a day.” Plotts and Andrews were among the first to know.
“I think we all knew deep down inside as we were kind of talking about how things might fold out,” Plotts says. “There were a lot of meetings going on at a very high level that didn’t include Lucas or me, but internally it became evident that once Disney closed, there were going to be some substantial changes here to take place the next day.”
Plotts recognized the similarities between guests at Disney World and patrons at TPC Sawgrass — the sheer numbers, sure, but also the outdoor physical distancing — and he knew that however Disney acted, everybody in the hospitality industry would follow. Once Disney closed and TPC Sawgrass followed, attention turned almost immediately from the course to their crew of 100 volunteers.
“Our focus really became the volunteers,” Plotts says. “What do we do with the volunteers? How do we support them? These are young people, men and women, that are trying to find their place in our industry. To go through something like that and be that far from home” — 60 of the 100 volunteers last year were international — “it’s a little bit of a scary adventure. So we had to remain calm and just kind of reassure people that they were going to be taken care of, and that this is kind of part of life — that you’re going to have this kind of adversity and you’re going to have to overcome.”
Many of the volunteers were unable to change their flights to an earlier departure. Even without a tournament to work, their accommodations and expenses were still covered. “The Tour was very understanding,” Plotts says.
After the blur of that Thursday night, Andrews returned to the Stadium Course the next morning with his crew “and just aerated the greens, just to get a jump,” he says. “We knew there wasn’t going to be any golf being played through the weekend so we took the opportunity. We had an aggressive cultural program and targets last year, and those three extra days gave us an opportunity to get a leg up on the year, really get off to a good start for the summer.” More aeration followed throughout the year, with greens aerated three times each month, and tees, fairways and approaches aerated “four or five times” throughout the year. Andrews says his crew also topdressed weekly, “so that kept us really busy.”
In early May, Dye’s Valley at TPC Sawgrass received the first slot on a rescheduled Korn Ferry Tour — Luke List won the new Korn Ferry Challenge by a stroke on June 14 — but the club had served as a host of sorts for regular play throughout the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic: About 90 players from the PGA Tour, the Champions Tour, the Korn Ferry Tour and the PGA Tour Latinoamérica descended on TPC Sawgrass for informal two-day competitions every week from late March to early June. “I think it was pretty smart of them,” Plotts says.
TPC Sawgrass never closed, Plotts says, and the club was able to avoid furloughing any crew members in part by not filling internships after the last round of interns headed home. Like many clubs across the country, the rest of the year was strong.
When the 2021 Players commenced March 11, emotions were in full swing. Plotts and Andrews were leading the crew again. Ten volunteers from last year were among the 75 working on the course. Television cameras caught every blade of grass.
“The closer you get to perfection, the more finite the details that you have to look at,” Andrew says. “I’m really, really, really proud of the team. We really pulled together this year and the guys that didn’t get to finish the tournament last year, they’ve been working with a chip on their shoulder to get it done. This has been really good for us as a team and I think it’s a really good step in the right direction for us moving forward. I’m excited for the new standards.
“We’re just looking forward to getting this one in the books and putting our focus on ’22.”
Matt LaWell is Golf Course Industry’s managing editor.
Who needs a show floor to reveal winners?
After nearly a decade on the floor at the Golf Industry Show, #GCITweetUp presented by Aquatrols turned virtual this year — with the best and brightest of turf social media recognized and honored on March 31, live on Zoom as part of the Super Social Media Awards.
Drew Miller, the program advisor for the esteemed turfgrass management program at Brentsville District High School in northern Virginia and on Twitter at @TurfgrassTiger, accepted the 10th annual Kaminski Award with many of the program’s hundreds of students cheering him on. If you don’t already listen to the program’s excellent Tiger Turf Talk podcast, download an episode or two — and maybe even call in as a featured guest.
A trio of talented superintendents (and tweeters) picked up Best Twitter Feed honors: Dan Grogan (@purdueturfy) of The Sagamore Club in Noblesville, Indiana; Jeff Sexton (@ECCSuper77) of Evansville Country Club in Evansville, Indiana; and Thad Thompson (@TerryHillsMaint) of Terry Hills Golf Course in Batavia, New York. All three manage to blend work and life in entertaining and informative daily doses.
Ryan Cummings (@RCummings38) of Elcona Country Club in Bristol, Indiana, and James Bledge (@JamesBledge) of Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club in Deal, Kent, in the southeast corner of England were both honored with Best Overall Use of social media for excellency in blogging and videography, respectively.
Elsewhere internationally, Morgan Creighton (@creighton_mm), a rising assistant superintendent around Calgary, Alberta, was honored with the Best New Program award for her continuing work building up the ever-expanding Women in Turfgrass Management.
Golf course architect Trey Kemp (@TreyKempGCA), who recently joined Kimley-Horn and Associates in Fort Worth, Texas, received top honors for Best Idea Shared for his ongoing #GolfCourseAerialoftheDay, which is exactly what it sounds like — and a welcome burst of color and design into your feed.
Longtime Florida turf pro and environmentalist W. Craig Weyandt (@grsfarmer), superintendent at The Moorings at Hawk’s Nest in Vero Beach, received the Conservation Award for his decades of earth-focused work in the Sunshine State.
Retired turf legend Matt Shaffer (@MattSha20619144, which might look like a bot account but most definitely is not), rounded out the awards. Shaffer, who retired in 2017 after a run at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, took home Rookie of the Year after a spirited 2020 debut on Twitter and LinkedIn — proof that you’re never too old to keep learning.
— Matt LaWell
Not your traditional volunteer program
The upcoming U.S. Women’s Open Championship, which is scheduled for the week of May 31-June 6 at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, will be played amidst an assortment of historical overtones.
It marks the 75th anniversary of the most prestigious event in women’s golf. It will be the first women’s professional event contested at the historic Olympic Club, which has hosted 10 USGA national championships, including five U.S. Opens.
It will also be an occasion for women in the turf industry to come together in support of the game they love and the industry that is their passion.
Troy Flanagan, the club’s director of golf maintenance, is planning to supplement a staff of 43 with 50 outside volunteers, about 25 to 28 of whom will be women.
Flanagan, who has been at The Olympic Club since 2014, began contemplating the idea of a more female volunteer corps around five years ago, after the club was officially designated as the host of this year’s Women’s Open.
“I just started thinking, ‘What a great thing to do,’” Flanagan says. “We have the Women’s Open, it’s our first women’s professional golf championship at The Olympic Club. We’ve had so many great (championship events) over the years. It’s the first women’s event we’ve done. Why wouldn’t we want to do something like this?
“And not just make it a volunteer experience, but make it another kind of educational/networking event. Being able to volunteer and help out, but then during the day do other things as a group.”
When the pandemic hit last year, the concept had to be shelved until the USGA assured Flanagan that outside volunteers would be permitted on site during the championship. With that assurance, Flanagan reached out to Kimberly Gard, a territory manager for Syngenta, with whom he has an existing professional relationship. Gard started making phone calls and in relatively short order Flanagan had all the volunteers he needed and more. Rain Bird is joining Syngenta as a sponsor of the program.
Flanagan is envisioning a week that will see the volunteers not only assisting with the tournament but also taking advantage of educational and networking opportunities.
— Rick Woelfel
Cipriano lands on prestigious writing list
Golf Course Industry editor-in-chief Guy Cipriano is among the top golf writers in the country. Again.
Cipriano landed his second award in three years from the Golf Writers Association of America, this time for his May 2020 cover story, “Driving Through,” about a five-day drive home across the country during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. The story highlighted the importance of golf courses then and always, and provided snapshots of a handful of courses and superintendents well off the beaten path.
The story was recognized with a tie for second in the non-daily features category along with a story published in Golf Digest, and edged only by a feature published in The Golfer’s Journal.
Cipriano, a member of the GWAA, was previously honored with a second-place award in the special projects category in the 2018 contest for his three-part series about the flooding and subsequent rebuilding of The Old White TPC at The Greenbrier.
Trade publications are almost never recognized by the contest’s judges. Cipriano’s two awards are the only such honors for trade publications in recent memory, according to those judges. The annual contest started in 1957.
Tartan Talks No. 57
W. Bruce Matthews III is a lifelong Michigander with deep industry roots in the golf-rich state.
A third-generation ASGCA member, Matthews joined the Tartan Talks podcast to discuss familial and personal longevity, why golf is a big deal in his native state, and working at courses originally designed by his grandfather, W. Bruce Matthews I, and uncle, Jerry Matthews.
The Matthews family has been designing, maintaining and managing courses since 1925 and Bruce is motivated to ensure they reach 100 years in the industry. “One of the fun things about this business is that you don’t have to retire,” says Bruce, who started his career picking and washing range balls and working for superintendent Roger Barton at the family’s Grand Haven Golf Club in the 1960s. “You can pick and choose your work.”
The way Bruce sees it, the family has stayed in the business through numerous booms and busts because it can relate to fellow Michigan golf enthusiasts.
“We’re known here,” he says. “If you look at my name in Mississippi or Colorado, nobody is going to know who I am. In Michigan, they know who we are, and they call us. It has worked out well even in slow times.”
Visit the Superintendent Radio Network Page on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other popular distribution platforms to hear the conversation.
Syngenta has expanded its WeevilTrak monitoring efforts into Kentucky for the 2021 season. The University of Kentucky’s Dr. Jonathan Larson will lead monitoring in the state.
The Rutgers University Board of Governors recently appointed extension specialist James A. Murphy to the Ralph Geiger Chair in Turfgrass Science. Murphy joined the Rutgers faculty in 1991.