What do Joey Sindelar, Corey Conners and Jim Furyk all have in common? If you ask Drew Thompson, he’ll tell you that they’ve all played in the International Junior Masters. And Thompson should know: he’s the superintendent at East Aurora Country Club, where the tournament has been held annually since 1953.
The International Junior Masters is the oldest junior golf tournament in North America and East Aurora has leaned into its identity as host over the last seven decades. Although technically a country club with tennis courts, the club’s main focus is golf and the course.
Thompson has been the superintendent at East Aurora since 2004. He understands just how big the Junior Masters is for the course, and much of the beginning of the year goes into planning for the tournament. This year's event was contested June 29-July 2.
Preparation begins as soon as possible. Even though the Junior Masters is held in the summer, Thompson says he and his staff need to be focused on readying East Aurora for an international tournament as quickly as they can. “Right when the snow melts, you start thinking about it,” Thompson says. “We try like any other golf course to maintain as close to tournament conditions as you can. It's always easier, depending on the weather, to keep it firmer and faster earlier in the year.”
Thompson compares working at a northern golf course to a seasonal project. For all the work poured into preparing for the tournament as soon as the spring thaw starts, it has to be done again once the snow returns.
Snow isn’t the only seasonal problem Thompson faces. He also has to deal with a summer-heavy crew: seven of his 17 crew members are in high school or college right now, which means that Thompson will be left with just under 60 percent of his staff from mid-August through the end of the year.
A staff almost half-stocked with seasonal workers is tough enough, and when combined with a labor shortage like many other businesses are facing, Thompson has had to bring in newer and younger faces to the staff. Many of the grounds crew are new to the course — or even to golf course and turf maintenance entirely. In order to be ready for the Junior Masters, Thompson has to train an a new staff that empties out once summer is over.
“We have a lot of new guys this year,” Thompson says. “A lot of younger guys, so the training has been on the forefront. We've been trying to get people accustomed to be on the ball and do things on their own and know their way around a golf course. It's been tough to find people this year so some of them came in a little bit later than I would have liked, but we're getting there.”
Longtime East Aurora Country Club equipment manager Jim Fleckenstein plans to retire in December after 36 years at the club. Thompson estimates Fleckenstein saves the clubs hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
East Aurora has taken a new shape over the course of Thompson’s tenure. One of his biggest projects has been to cut down many of the trees that clog the course and make it feel congested. He estimates that more than 1,000 trees were removed from the course in the last eight years.
The project isn’t so much about removing all of the trees but rather about giving the course some breathing room. Thompson remembers when the trees at East Aurora were so thick every hole was practically isolated from one another. “We don't want to get rid of the trees or jeopardize the character of the golf course,” Thompson says. “It's a parkland golf course. It’s supposed to have trees and it's supposed to be part of it. We’re not looking to get rid of that, but we're looking to make it a little bit more playable.”
Thompson has spent 17 years at the helm of East Aurora and, by proxy, the International Junior Masters. Every year East Aurora gets flooded with players from around the world, and regular round numbers have jumped up in the last year as well. As business booms following the pandemic and summer is in full swing, Thompson is already planning ahead for the next Junior Masters.
Jack Gleckler is an Ohio University senior participating in the Golf Course Industry summer internship program.
NOTABLE INTERNATIONAL JUNIOR MASTERS CHAMPIONS
Ward Wettlaufer (1953), John Konsek III (1954-55-57), Edward Pfister Jr. (1956), Joey Sindelar (1974), Colin Dalgleish (1977), Fred Wadsworth (1980), E.J. Pfister III (1983), Pat Bates (1985), Briny Baird (1988-89), Rory Sabbatini (1993), Matthew Every (2001), Jonathan Clark (2010), David Hanes (2016).
Billy Andrade (1980), Woody Austin (1981), Dominic Bozzelli (2004-05), Tim Clark (1993), Corey Conners (2009), Terry Diehl (1965-66-67), Robert Friend (1981), Jim Furyk (1986), Jeff Gallagher (1981-82), Jim Gallagher Jr. (1978), Dudley Hart (1983-84-85-86), Mike Hulbert (1975), Ryuji Imada (1991), Trevor Immelman (1994-95), Billy Mayfair (1983-84), Tony Mollica (1982), Akio Sadakata (1994), Tom Scherrer (1987-88), Jim Simons (1966), Jeff Sluman (1972-73-74-75), Brian Tennyson (1979-80), Camilo Villegas (1997).
Thompson with his son Brendan, who will start turf school this fall, and their pup Sam (top), and Sam scouting ahead for Brendan (bottom).