Golf evolution in the city

Features - Spotlight

A well-named learning center, gritty maintenance staff and plans to modernize a quirky layout intersect at one of America’s enduring urban golf sites.

February 2, 2022

Golf has been played since 1897 on the urban Pittsburgh land where the Bob O’Connor Golf Course at Schenley Park sits.
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the Arnold Palmer Learning Center becomes noticeable before the turf it overlooks.

Because the new facility occupies a very public part of Pittsburgh, a place that adopted Palmer as one of its own although his hometown of Latrobe is 40 miles outside city limits, the name attracts attention. Palmer died in 2016, yet his legacy still resonates in western Pennsylvania. The name helped the First Tee-Pittsburgh raise millions to build the 14,000-square foot clubhouse and learning center.

The building serves as the microchip for the First Tee chapter, which uses the golf facilities at Schenley Park, a 456-acre plot of urban greenspace, as its home. A version of golf has been played in the park since 1897, a full 32 years before Palmer’s birth. Renamed the Bob O’Connor Golf Course at Schenley Park for a golf-loving mayor who died less than a year into his first term, the 55-acre, 4,620-yard course provides meaningful recreational space within an evolving city. Denizens and employees affectionately refer to the course as “The Bob.” Views of soaring structures, including the U.S. Steel Tower and Cathedral of Learning, are omnipresent from the hilly grounds.

Understanding where the city — and potentially the golf course — are headed requires stepping off the northern boundaries of the property and walking onto the Carnegie Mellon University campus, where research projects involving microchips will change the city, country and possibly the world. The University of Pittsburgh, world-class museums, a conservatory, and diverse streets, boulevards and alleyways are among The Bob’s other neighbors. Combined, the recreational, cultural and academic offerings are endearing elements of a city and region “that punches above its weight,” says Eric Kulinna, First Tee-Pittsburgh director of golf and player development. The Arnold Palmer Learning Center, which includes classrooms, offices, a 1,500-square-foot putting green, two simulators and Palmer memorabilia, demonstrates what’s possible when those who care deeply about making an underdog rise collaborate. Lives will change because of lessons imparted in the building’s classrooms and training spaces.

Now on to the turf …

The present

The same against-the-odds mentality describes what happens outdoors at The Bob. Superintendent Jeff Duxbury leads a team that includes three regular and, at most, two part-time/seasonal employees. Duxbury, assistant superintendent Wayne Bair and John Krista are mainstays. Duxbury arrived more than two decades ago just as the First Tee-Pittsburgh, led by executive director Bruce Stephen, started assuming management and operation of the course from the city. Duxbury previously worked at Maplecrest, a now-defunct 9-hole course in nearby Monroeville and knows not all maintenance operations are funded the same.

“I came from a place with a small budget,” says Duxbury, standing outside the maintenance facility on a sunny, 70-degree October morning, “but this was 18 holes. It was still the same challenges, because there was basically no crew, no equipment, no money. Back then, we sprayed greens only when we had to. We put down Daconil. That was it. We sprayed it because it was cheap and it worked.”

Fairways and rough were maintained using a gang mower attachment propelled by an aging Ford tractor, which remains in the maintenance facility. Progress arrived in the form of a Jacobsen triplex mower. Today the equipment is neither sterling nor primitive. Duxbury calls a fleet consisting of four riding mowers, including two triplexes for greens, “solid,” and the current budget includes funds for fertilizer and biweekly plant protectant applications on greens.

Synergy among Duxbury, Bair and Krista keeps The Bob functioning and allows it to overcome an erratic irrigation system and the challenges of maintaining turf on a property with no drainage and bulky clay soils. The Neill Log House, the oldest existing structure in the city, represents a relic of the past above the turf. Relics of the past also remain below the surface. “Somebody told us underneath No. 11 there’s actually cobblestone down there,” Duxbury says.

Asked how his team gets everything accomplished, Duxbury responds, “I have no idea.” He reflects for a few seconds. “What it is are three guys that have been here that long and everybody knows what to do. We come in, this guy starts here, this guy starts there. If we get a rain day, it becomes, ‘OK, that just means you have to do more the next day.’ None of us went to college. I have been in the industry the longest. I probably forget more stuff than I remember from being out on a course for all those years. When we didn’t have money, you couldn’t do half the stuff we do now. We think back and it’s like, ‘How did we do that?’” Bair is the veteran of the group, having arrived at The Bob six years before Duxbury.

The trio wields enormous respect for preserving a tough-to-maintain course with minimal resources. The First Tee introduces golf and life skills programming to children.

The better The Bob does financially, the more money it produces for programming. The number of rounds increased from 12,286 in 2019 to 18,799 in 2020, with 9-hole play accounting for around 65 percent of rounds both years, according to Kulinna. A new configuration debuted on select days in 2021 and The Bob supported 19,398 rounds, with 9-hole play accounting for more than 70 percent of the play. Green fees are modest: $12 for 9 holes; $18 for 18.
The Arnold Palmer Learning Center features 14,000 square feet of teaching, learning and administrative space.

“Everybody here looks at that whole big picture and what their role is in that big picture,” Kulinna says. “Jeff’s role is to keep the golf course in as good of shape as he can with the staff that he has and a shoestring budget. And he’s amazing at that.”

Duxbury and Bair are both in their 60s. The summer of 2020 demonstrated the fragility — and grittiness — of their maintenance operation. For a significant part of the golf season, Bair and Krista were working without a close friend.

While relaxing on the evening of July 25, 2020, at a property he owns along the Monongahela River with his wife, Caroline, Duxbury suffered a heart attack. Duxbury recalls just two details from the evening: being lifted over a railing in the house and seeing lights inside a helicopter. His awareness returned on Monday morning in a Morgantown, West Virginia, hospital room.

The ordeal started when Duxbury thought he was experiencing flatulence as he stood near a fence outside the house. “I can remember my wife kidding around, because I went like this,” says Duxbury, placing his right palm on his chest. “I said, ‘No, it’s just gas.’ She said, ‘You better not be having a heart attack.’” Here’s what Caroline and others later told him about the ensuing scene:

“We went inside and I started throwing up in the downstairs bathroom and then went upstairs,” Duxbury says. “I was throwing up upstairs and made a mess. We went downstairs to get stuff to clean up the mess that I made. My wife said, ‘You need to go to the hospital. We’re calling the ambulance. Finally, I was sitting on the top of the steps. She was on the phone with 911. They asked, ‘Well, is he breathing?’ She said, ‘I don’t know. He’s not yelling at me, so I’m thinking not. She came up and started CPR. The fire company was there and they came with the machine, and they hit me three times. Then, when the paramedics came, they hit me another time, I sat up and said, ‘I’m fine. Everybody can go home.’ The paramedic said, ‘No, you’re not.’”

What triggered the heart attack remains a mystery. “We don’t know what caused it,” Duxbury says. “Am I in great shape? No. But even after the heart attack, my wife will go, ‘You can outwalk me.’”

Bair and Krista, who are cousins, were among Duxbury’s first thoughts when he regained his senses. Duxbury wanted to return to work almost immediately. Medical orders required him to spend three months away from daily work, but he made an appearance at The Bob a week after he left the hospital to see Bair and Krista. Duxbury couldn’t drive, so Caroline gave him a ride to the course. “I told those guys, ‘I trust you. I’m not coming here to check up on you.’”
First Tee-Pittsburgh director of golf and player development Eric Kulinna has extensively studied the history of the Bob O’Connor Golf Course at Schenley Park.

Duxbury communicated with the pair daily. Bair and Krista received help from members of the First Tee Pittsburgh operations and programming staff. “The biggest problem was that I wasn’t allowed to work and I knew everything was going to fall on Wayne and John now,” says Duxbury, with tears welling in his eyes because of the bond he shares with the pair. “Instead of the three of us, it was just them.”

Besides having a defibrillator placed in his chest, Duxbury’s life has been mostly normal since he returned to work late last year, and he spent the entire 2021 season alongside Bair and Krista. He’s trying to eat more vegetables and less red meat, but admits, “I’m never going to turn into a vegetarian,” and he sometimes struggles to find energy for post-work walks with Caroline on hot days. Now 61, Duxbury says the ordeal has changed his views on an eventual retirement, although he says he can envision working a few more years. “I still enjoy doing this,” he says. “I like being outside and I like cutting the grass.”

The future

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kulinna, who returned to Pittsburgh after spending portions of his career in Arizona and Michigan, purchased a subscription and plunged into studying The Bob’s history. The course sits on land donated to the people of Pittsburgh by Mary Schenley. In 1897, the private Pittsburgh Golf Club built the first formal golf course on the land, and maintained the site until the city assumed full control of the course in 1911. In the first two decades of the 20th century, members of Pittsburgh Golf Club sparked the creation of multiple private clubs in the area, including the famed Oakmont Country Club and Fox Chapel Golf Club. The Pittsburgh Golf Club still operates from the opulent clubhouse behind The Bob’s 17th green and 18th tee.

“You just go back to the relationships and how close golf is and you start looking back at that,” Kulinna says. “The people who grew the game that time here in Pittsburgh left an enormous legacy. If we can continue to do that kind of work, that’s what I see for us.”

Relationships and the name of the person most responsible for boosting golf in the region helped raise funds to construct a modern learning center. Can those relationships also help modernize the golf course? George A. Ormiston, a twentysomething stone contractor from Scotland, designed the nine original holes in 1898. Nine more holes were added in 1901. The routing hasn’t changed much. But life around the course has evolved.

Parts of seven holes play over a pair of paved roads that didn’t exist in 1901. Duxbury, Bair and Krista cross the roads anywhere from a half-dozen to 20 times each day while maintaining the course. Employees are the only people permitted to drive on a course where customers carry bags or use push carts. On some days, nobody can drive on the course. The city has more pavement and less places to move water than it did in the early 1900s. When it rains, The Bob often becomes The Bog.

A jockey pump inside the pump station hasn’t worked in almost a decade. Numerous irrigation heads surrounding greens are either failing or don’t work. The 18 holes are crammed into space comparable to land used for nine holes on the average 18-hole course. “Everything here is so tight,” Duxbury says. “It doesn’t matter where you are, a ball is always coming at you from some direction.” To his surprise, a ball has never hit Duxbury. “I always catch where they are coming from at the last second and duck,” he says.

The need for functioning course infrastructure coincides with changing golf habits. Quality 9-hole courses, short courses and community spaces such as expansive putting greens are helping municipalities introduce newcomers to the game while retaining time-crunched golf enthusiasts in places ranging from Winter Park, Florida, to Madison, Wisconsin. For some golf consumers, an hour or two on the course each week represents their full health and wellness program.

“Giving someone a place to learn and play, get comfortable, and be able to go out on a regular golf course eventually is so important,” says Jim Cervone, a western Pennsylvania-based golf course architect. “And, quite frankly, from a practice standpoint, not everybody has four, five, six hours to play golf.”

Over the past two years, Cervone has collaborated with First Tee Pittsburgh officials on a plan to transform The Bob from an 18-hole course into a 9-hole, par-33 course on the south side of Schenley Park Drive, with a 9-hole reversible short course, a community putting green and a short-game practice area on the land around the learning center. The routing has been created within rigid confines, because of a directive to avoid tree clearing. The plan further boosts the environmental profile of The Bob, a certified participant in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf since 2012. Cervone’s routing includes native/wildflower plots and a stormwater management pond with natural habitat and sanctuary areas. Cervone and First Tee-Pittsburgh officials have discussed moving away from using city water to irrigate the course and possibly incorporating a pump station and impoundment into the plan.

Superintendent Jeff Duxbury has been leading the maintenance efforts at the Bob O’Connor Golf Course at Schenley Park for more than two decades.

“You try to first figure out a sensible routing that’s going to work,” Cervone says. “We haven’t really delved into Phase 2, which is figuring out all the mechanicals of the drainage issues and irrigation. To me, that’s a huge part of it. I don’t want to be involved in something that’s not going to be sustainable. They’re already in an Audubon partnership and I think we can push that even more to make it something where it becomes a jewel.”

The project requires a massive fundraising effort and must appease numerous stakeholders ranging from city officials to course lifers who treasure playing at a place with a 125-year history. The building where Kulinna conducts his daily business and teaches indoor golf and life classes offers an example of what Pittsburghers can accomplish. The Arnold Palmer Learning Center replaced a clubhouse that originally opened in 1913. Individual donors and philanthropic foundations funded the majority of the $6.5 million project.

“We have already run one race and gotten through the finish line,” Kulinna says. “Now we have all that experience, we have all that training, we have all that know-how. We need to get ready to run the next race.”

Duxbury epitomizes the perseverance and optimism permeating at The Bob. A self-taught superintendent who entered the industry when his brother, Gary Duxbury, informed him of openings on the Alcoma Country Club crew in the late 1970s, Duxbury endured his longest professional stretch away from a golf course in 2020. He missed working on urban land where hawks, turkeys, skunks, deer, runners, bikers, walkers, teenagers playing hacky sack, and golfers of all ages and skill levels can be observed on the same day. Most important, he missed being part of a maintenance trifecta, a small team responsible for keeping golf viable in the most inclusive of settings.

Discussions about modernizing The Bob excite Duxbury. “But,” he says, “I’m getting old. Do I really want that responsibility? Going through a renovation isn’t the bad part. It’s what happens after it’s there.”

Whenever Duxbury decides to retire, he plans on living with Caroline at their river property, a slice of seclusion 45 miles from The Bob. “I can always get in my car and drive back,” he says.