An East Lake thing

Features - Value of Volunteering presented by AQUA-AID Solutions

The final event of the PGA Tour schedule attracted a diverse group of turf managers to a historic venue within a bustling city.

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November 5, 2018
© Guy Cipriano

tlanta boasts the world’s busiest airport and serves as the headquarters for 28 Fortune 1000 companies, making it a hub for domestic and global commerce. For one week each year, the city’s most historic golf facility, East Lake GC, resembles a terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport as a diverse contingent of competitors, workers and volunteers gather for the biggest golf event played within an urban neighborhood.

This year, The TOUR Championship, the final event of the PGA Tour’s loaded calendar, brought 30 players competing for more than $36 million in FedEx Cup bonus and tournament purse money to Atlanta. The limited field comprised players ages 22 to 48 representing seven countries.

On the eve of the tournament’s opening round, Aaron Dobson and Eric Nordmeyer mowed the 18th green, a MiniVerde bermudagrass surface guarded by two bunkers tucked beneath the tudor clubhouse. Strangers three days earlier, Dobson and Nordmeyer glanced at the setting sun after completing their work, relishing a surreal and shared experience few industries provide.

Dobson hails from Perth, Australia. After his internship at Shoal Creek, a famed club in Birmingham, Ala., ends he will return to his home country to begin a full-time job at the Sandhurst Club in Melbourne. Nordmeyer is the assistant superintendent at Westwood CC in his native northeast Ohio.

Without a carefully constructed agronomic volunteer program to support a lucrative tournament in Atlanta, the Australian and Ohioan are strangers. Because of the program, they spent a week swapping turf and life stories while obtaining a glimpse of maintenance at the highest level. “You just have to relish that opportunity,” Dobson says.

Dobson and Nordmeyer were two of the 70 volunteers who converged in Atlanta to assist director of agronomy Ralph Kepple and superintendent Charles Aubry’s team with polishing East Lake for its annual appearance on the global stage. Volunteers hailed from 11 nations, ranging from golf-enthused spots such as England and Australia to places such as Peru and Brazil, where the game and business rarely reach the masses. “It’s humbling to believe that people from all those parts of the world would give us a hand,” Aubry says.

© Guy Cipriano

Corey Finn devoted a week-in-a-half to volunteer at East Lake, making a transatlantic trek from Abu Dhabi, a thriving United Arab Emirates city where he works as a senior assistant superintendent at Saadiyat Beach Golf Club. Finn saw an announcement on a turf-themed Facebook page about East Lake’s TOUR Championship volunteer program. He applied for a spot and forgot about it for a few months, figuring an overseas turf manager wouldn’t receive serious consideration. But since its rebirth in the mid-1990s, inclusion has been an important element at East Lake and international volunteers developed into a staple of TOUR Championship week when Kepple pursued a robust volunteer program after one of his assistants returned the 2014 PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass.

Earlier this year, Finn received an unexpected email: there was a spot for him in Atlanta if he could make the trip. The choice proved easy, as Finn booked flights from Abu Dhabi, including a 13-hour leg to New York City, to Atlanta. Traveling to obtain experience is no big deal to Finn, who has worked in Fiji, Qatar and his native New Zealand along with American resorts Kingsmill and Sea Island as part of an international internship through The Ohio State University. “I get my buzz off working tournaments,” he says.

Having a volunteer from Abu Dhabi, which receives less than 3 inches of annual rainfall, aided an intense TOUR Championship water management effort. After a soggy spring, Atlanta turned dry before and during the tournament, making volunteers critical components in producing PGA Tour-caliber putting surfaces.

Bland Cooper was among the seasoned agronomists watching Finn and other volunteers hand water East Lake’s greens. A PGA Tour competitions agronomist, Cooper works closely with Kepple and the East Lake team throughout the year to ensure a smooth competition. Wearing a button-down shirt and khakis, Cooper scurries from hole to hole in a cart during tournament maintenance shifts. His tools of choice include a small notebook, putter, sleeve of golf balls, soil moisture meter, communications radio and stimpmeter. Cooper, though, understands people are more important to meeting tournament expectations than tools or equipment.

Aaron Dobson and Eric Nordmeyer
© Guy Cipriano

“The volunteer component of these tournaments cannot be overstated,” says Cooper, who spends the year traversing PGA Tour sites. “The PGA Tour model does not exist without volunteers, not just on the maintenance side, but the entire tournament itself. From the agronomic side of it, you are trying to cram two-and-a-half, three weeks of maintenance into a week and then you’re trying to cram it even further into a real small, tight time window in the early morning and late afternoon/early evening. Simple math tells you that you have to have two-and-a-half, three times as many people out there as you normally do for normal maintenance.”

For a rookie volunteer, tournament maintenance scenes are initially overwhelming. On the 180-mile drive from Abraham Baldwin Agriculture College’s Tifton, Georgia, campus to East Lake, students Brady Hester and Hunter Hodges listened to a pre-tournament podcast with Kepple and Aubry. Midway through the podcast, Hester turned to Hodges and said, “Oh my goodness. What have we gotten ourselves into? This is going to be massive.”

Sounds became images when the pair noticed close to 100 East Lake crew members and volunteers gathered for the week’s first morning meeting. Their classmate, Logan Rush, had previous PGA Tour volunteer experience. But even Rush experienced early week jitters. The ABAC trio spent the week helping rake, groom and tidy East Lake’s 74 bunkers.

“It really hit you when Charles was talking about the money,” Rush says. “If we don’t do our job, there’s over $30 million on the line. That bad lie in the bunker could be the difference.”

Bunker crews featured a collegiate flavor, with the ABAC trio working alongside students from Penn State and Horry-Georgetown Technical College. Not many majors allow students to abandon campus for a week to participate and observe the aspirational level of a chosen field.

Members of the East Lake agronomy team before the third round of the TOUR Championship, the final event on the 2017-18 PGA Tour schedule.
© Guy Cipriano

Penn State student Alex Panzenhagen worked at Erin Hills in 2017 when the fescue-lined course became the first venue in his native Wisconsin to host a U.S. Open. His exposure to televised golf continued this past summer when he served as an intern at Edgewood Tahoe, site of the American Century Championship. Spending a summer in Reno, Nevada, also allowed him to volunteer at the PGA Tour’s Barracuda Championship. Volunteering at East Lake, regular site of the TOUR Championship since 2004, further expanded his zest for tournament golf.

“Ever since I worked at Erin Hills I have had a real passion for tournaments,” Panzenhagen says. “This week is another stepping stone that reminds me that I want to end up a course that hosts tournaments.”

Five classmates served as TOUR Championship volunteers alongside Panzenhagen. Their respective backgrounds epitomized the diversity at East Lake. Pennsylvania native Tim Kline operated a lawncare business before landing a job at Lehigh CC and embracing agronomy; Raul Iurk hails from Brazil; Aaron Cabanaw, whose father worked for The Toro Company, resorted to turf after taking business classes; Marcus Lounello served in the military, moved to Colorado to fight wildfires and then decided he wanted a career related to his golf passion; Nathan Wattier left his hometown in the French Alps to pursue a turf career.

“It’s really interesting to hear everybody’s story here: how they got into the industry, where they are going to school, what courses they have been at,” Lounello says. “You can learn a lot from other people and their experiences.”

The Penn State students are scheduled to graduate from the university’s two-year turf program next year. Their immediate career paths could resemble what Richard Brown has recently experienced. Brown, the senior assistant superintendent at Orangeburg CC, volunteered at the TOUR Championship to “broaden” his turf horizons. A supportive boss, Alex Tolbert, allowed Brown to leave the central South Carolina club during the busy September season to volunteer his first tournament since 2013.

Between mowing collars and approaches in mornings and filling divots in evenings, Brown enthusiastically exchanged ideas and business cards with East Lake team members and fellow volunteers. The quality of East Lake’s surfaces, including its 23 acres of zoysiagrass fairways, dazzled Brown. East Lake’s history – Bobby Jones learned the game on the course – further enthralled Brown.

“Being a golf fan, having seen East Lake on TV for so many years, hearing the stories, it was unreal being here for the first time,” he says. “It was a lot to take in and a bit overwhelming when you think about who’s been on the grounds. As turf majors, we all got into it for different reasons. I didn’t start out as a huge golfer. I got into this business because of grass. Some people have a love for golf. I love grass. That’s always been my thing. That’s what got me into this industry. To see what these guys have done here and to hear all the stories … ”

Brown turned the key in his cart and started driving to the par-3 2nd hole to collect and fill divots. Brown passed Albin Persson, a Swedish superintendent, hand watering a green. He then passed the Brazilian Iurk hand watering a fairway as Roger Tenorio, an assistant superintendent at one of Peru’s 12 golf courses searches for fairway divots. Just another a tournament Thursday evening in Atlanta.

“We are a big compilation of people who have a big passion and love for producing the best conditions we can,” he says.