Matt Shaffer Speaks!

Matt Shaffer Speaks!

In an exclusive interview with GCI's Bruce Williams, Merion Golf Club’s superintendent shares his top lessons from the U.S. Open.

July 18, 2013

It has been about a month since the golf/turf world focused on The US Open at Merion Golf Club. With years of preparation and a couple of weeks of superb execution the event is now history. There were challenges with weather but nothing insurmountable. The golf course was an excellent test of the best players in the world.

Matt Shaffer had an outstanding plan and managed an outstanding team of staff and volunteers. Without that team effort it would be impossible to prepare the top playing surfaces and the building of a city in the Philadelphia suburbs. While the cleanup and restoration of the golf course began right after the tournament, I waited a few weeks for Matt to get some rest and reflect back on the lessons learned from hosting the 2013 U.S. Open. As always Matt is quite engaging and gives much of the credit to those around him. That’s what great leaders tend to do.

  • The primary thing I have learned about Matt Shaffer is that he is forever the optimist. During tournament week Merion had 7.2 inches of rain. It set a record in Philadelphia but the Merion team was up to the challenge. Matt said “it could have been worse in that a friend of his, Jim Roney at Saucon Valley, had 2.5 inches of rain one day when Matt only had a half inch of rain.” Cooler temps were a saving grace as well during the tournament. A typical June temperature would have decimated the turf. The weather cup was definitely more than half full. Matt played the cards that were dealt him with perfection.
  • Sometimes being the equipment manager at a tournament site is akin to being a lineman on an NFL team. Nobody notices you until you make a mistake. Matt couldn’t say enough about his equipment manager, Robert Smith, who not only kept things running optimally but also contributed in many other ways. Matt shared “we used Precision fans at Merion and those fans contributed to our success….Robert Smith fabricated trailers for the fans so they could be taken out after play and then removed prior to play.”
  • With the precision cuts throughout Merion, Matt indicated that “Robert Smith was exceptional and played an enormous role in setting up our mowers.” The role of the Equipment manager is often overlooked but they are surely a key member of any team and even more so at a US Open venue.
  • Pundits on the media were talking all week about how the pros would tear up Merion with ultra-low scores. A few said that 15 under was likely. Proud of his golf course and knowing its difficulty Matt had once thought that a final score of -2 to -6 might win. He reserved judgment in his interviews with the Golf Channel but Matt’s comment on the notion of 15 under as the winning score was “Give me a break!”
  • Matt has had a few championship events under his belt and this is the first one that resulted in no dead grass inside the ropes! He attributes that to the 7.2 inches of rain that week. Those that know Matt know his forthrightness and sense of humor so I was not surprised to hear him say “heck I have lost far more grass for a member-member event.”
  • While we think of the Golf Course Superintendent being the teacher and the mentor to all around him it is obvious that Matt is one of the best as he never ceases to learn and be the perpetual student. “I learned so much from Mike Davis during that week, what a treat it was to be able to work with him, Tom O’Toole, and Jeff Hall. Those afternoon meetings and my field notes will reside in our archives someday.” Matt sure gives credit where credit is due.
  • It is often said that prior planning prevents poor performance. The Merion Team went through a variety of scenarios prior to the tournament. A potential Achilles heel was on the 11th green. During the heavy rains there was some sheet water that created flooding. Preventive measures were put in place to keep water flow off the 11th green. It could only be tested with such a massive rainfall and it worked perfectly on three occasions when the water was flowing heavily. The flood water came within ¾ of an inch of the green but disaster was avoided with planning properly.
  • A prior article in GCI discussed fairway rolling and Matt’s being a pioneer in that area. So it is only natural to ask Matt his opinion of them and how they came into play leading up to and during the US Open. “The fairway rollers proved to be extremely valuable not only to help with firmness but also as a squeegee for drying out landing zones. Not an agronomic practice that most would embrace but during a championship where you are trying to avoid mud balls it works to perfection. If we hadn’t rolled there would have been many mows that would have been missed but we never skipped one mowing and we never had a single scalp” reported Matt.
  • Rolling on the greens with the Roll N Go attributed to some very fast speeds. Matt indicated to me that he had a few other tricks up his sleeve that week but will keep them to himself as he hopes to be around long enough to perhaps host another championship!
  • Matt operated on about 3-4 hours of sleep during the tournament and some nights even less. He has been trying to catch up but ultimately thinks that going back to his short sleep routine of 5 hours is what works best for him. He has been known to wake up in the middle of the night and either paint some Adirondack chairs or go into the office.
  • A notable quote from Matt is “You can’t start too early building your championship team. They are all exceptional each and every one of our staff members. They all have common threads, they can grind, they rise to the challenge and are the best when the chips are down, they are characters and each and every one has a sense of humor. Tough times are always easier when you don’t take yourself too seriously, laughing versus whining is a great motivator!” Matt sets the tone by his own example and he is the consummate motivator in my opinion.
  • Volunteers are a lot of work during the event but oh so worth organizing, training and managing. Without them an event of this magnitude would not be possible. It is not uncommon to have 60-70 additional volunteers join your regular staff for the week of the event. Matt shared that “Having area Superintendents that were busy at their own local courses with packed tee sheets leading up to and during the U.S. Open sure put pressure on them but they showed up every day with a smile and lead by their own example and never complaining about the heavy play, flooding and challenges at their own courses. Former assistants at Merion joined in with friends, former interns and many others. Some people I did not know before they volunteered but are now close friends. Digging in and working hard for a championship is never easy but certainly shouldn’t have been as hard as this one as a result of the weather.
  • Hosting a Major is very stressful. Many GCI readers have hosted large events or have volunteered at others. It is not easy to keep one’s wits about them when all others around them are losing theirs. It is a lot of responsibility to have resting on your shoulders. A great piece of advice from Matt is to have one of your mentors around a few weeks before the event and during the tournament as well. Matt said “having private conversations and looking you right in the eye and giving their opinions is invaluable. Walking the golf course with someone that has hosted several championships can settle you down when you are all amped up.” Matt told me that he will ever be able to repay John Zimmers for being that person.
  • There may be many fond memories of hosting a U.S Open but Matt shared one that will last an eternity in his mind. “One of the most surreal moments for me was during one morning on our 18-hole walk when we could actually see a sunrise. Mr. Marucci (our Championship Green Chairman), John Zimmers and Gary Smith (a great friend from Australia) stood on the second green and watched the sunrise. It was extremely special and I was truly moved by all of God’s great work!”

As I had mentioned you get a sense of Matt Shaffer being one who takes little credit but surely doles it out to those around him. A true professional in every respect and thanks to him for sharing his reflections on an event that was highly successful.