The paved path from the Plainfield Country Club maintenance facility to the first tee rises to 160 feet above sea level and measures around a quarter mile. As they ascend to their workspace, turf employees gaze right and see members practicing shots off a ryegrass tee, children learning the game on a 9-hole course and a distant mountain where George Washington observed British troops in 1777. A modest — at least by New Jersey private club standards — and perfectly-painted white clubhouse fronted by a pear-shaped green sit atop the hill.
Rough provides a buffer between the green and the pavement. A restored cannon declaring the site “Hallowed Grounds” occupies a corner spot next to the green. The same year Washington scouted for British troops from the nearby mountain, a Revolutionary War tussle called the Battle of Short Hills passed through the rolling ridges.
Employees continuing past the green and around a standalone pro shop with a plaque honoring Leighton Calkins, a former club president who devised the USGA handicap system, encounter a first tee surrounded by red brick and ornamentals. Now a descent into a delightfully preserved Donald Ross design begins.
Plainfield Country Club oozes history, although superintendent Travis Pauley and team are typically too busy preserving Ross to ponder what happened on the 18 varied holes before the Scottish architect’s arrival. Pauley’s team is responsible for maintaining 178 acres, including 140 on the “Ross” side of Old Raritan Road. The remaining 38 acres are allotted for Plainfield West, a semi-private, 9-hole course housing a First Tee chapter. Plainfield West represents the final remnants of a Tom Bendelow-designed course the club debuted in 1898.
Pauley and his team spend most of their time on what Ross called “these gently flowing hills where golf holes can roll across the property.” Ross started working at Plainfield Country Club in 1916. The private course opened in 1921 following a construction interruption because of World War I
A well-used copy of a second master plan created by architect Gil Hanse in 2014 sits on Pauley’s desk. “It’s falling apart,” Pauley says, “and that’s a good sign because that means you are using it.” Hanse created his first master plan for the club in 1999. The club’s decision to host a pair of PGA Tour playoff events — the 2011 and 2015 Barclays — altered what Pauley calls “Master Plan No. 1.” The final items on “Master Plan No. 2” are nearing completion, meaning Plainfield Country Club boasts a layout with striking similarities to the one Ross intended.
That intent becomes obvious upon completing the 432-yard descent from the first tee to the first green. Glimpses of nearly every hole emerge while standing on the green thanks to layers of tree removal. A property-defining ridge flows through fairways, a blend of hazards, including cross and diagonal bunkers, wide approaches, and greens with dramatic slopes make for interesting golf and meticulous maintenance.
“All of the decisions are made in what Ross would have done,” Pauley says. “That’s as important as anything around here.”
Modern equipment helps Pauley’s team produce a golf experience reflective of Ross while satisfying the demands of members expecting elite conditions. The Toro fleet distributed by New York Metropolitan area-based Storr Tractor Company contrasts anything Ross used a century ago.
The low-cut turf requires unwavering attention, because Pauley, who first experienced links golf while touring the United Kingdom during a college internship at East Sussex National in Uckfield, England, strives to incorporate Ross’s ground-game philosophies into daily play by providing fast, firm and disease-free conditions. Integrating the Toro Multi-Pro 1750 with GeoLink GPS Sprayer into greens, approaches and tees treatment programs elevates the golfer experience.
Before pitching the technology to club leaders, Pauley wanted to see how the sprayers handled Plainfield’s terrain, so he coordinated an onsite demonstration with Toro representatives. Pauley had been reading about GPS-guided spraying in agriculture since his Ohio State University classes in the 1990s and 2000s. But feature-laden, compact sites such as golf courses include less acreage, and yet more variables, than vast and open crop fields.
“Expensive technology is much easier to justify when you have open fields and big acreage, because of economies of scale,” Pauley says. “When you are spraying 40 acres of fine turf, it’s harder to justify the expense, especially because it was more expensive when it first came out than today. The big thing was that I had to know it worked. With Toro bringing the equipment out here and us doing a really thorough demo in areas that we had concerns about, I knew it was going to work when we bought it.”
Plainfield Country Club has purchased three GPS-guided sprayers since 2018: a pair of Toro Multi-Pro 1750 with GeoLink and a 300-gallon Toro Multi-Pro 5800 with GeoLink for fairways. Mapping capabilities refined sprays on four acres of Poa annua greens and reduced the size of treated bentgrass fairways by nearly two acres. “It very quickly changed the way we spray,” says Pauley, alluding to how eliminating overspraying keeps paclobutrazol, an active plant growth regulator ingredient, within mapped fairway boundaries and off greens.
“It’s an efficiency thing, too,” he adds. “We go from 30 acres to 28.2 of fairways. If we are using 1,800 total gallons of solution to spray fairways, and if you take 6 percent of that, it’s 108 gallons. We’re making less, so it saves us time. These sprayers have an extra nozzle on them. A typical sprayer would have 11 nozzles: four, three and four. So you go to 12 nozzles and you’re getting almost 10 percent extra on every pass. It’s saving time, too. That’s the one thing we aren’t getting any more of in the mornings. Any metric that you can measure, it has helped — time, money, accuracy, playability.”
Pauley considers his management philosophies a combination of data and feel. An increased understanding and tracking of Growing Degree Days led to leaner practices on fairways. “We were overregulating the fairways,” he says. “We have gotten away from that. The turf looks better, it’s healthier and it helps with wear.” Pauley doesn’t track clipping yield, because he’s confident what he sees in a bucket tells the growth story, and he mixes Stimpmeter readings with ball roll observations to determine the quality of putting surfaces.
Prolonged sogginess in a flat corner of the course consisting of holes 13-15 designed by Ross in 1930 called “The Tunnel” and a desire to expand the ground game convinced Pauley to begin topdressing 3½ acres of approaches following the 2011 Barclays. Using a GPS-guided sprayer allows Pauley to make approach-specific applications when needed. “They are as important as the greens to keeping the course firm and fast and how it’s supposed to play,” he says. “There’s no question about that when you look at the design.”
Continuity helps Plainfield Country Club’s turf team operate within the framework of the Ross identity. The club has employed just three superintendents since 1951, with Pauley arriving as a talented 25-year-old in 2005 following an assistant superintendent stint at A.W. Tilinghast-designed Ridgewood Country Club, an hour north of Plainfield via the Garden State Parkway. A northwest Ohio native, Pauley developed a passion for golf and turf while working as a teenager at Ross-designed Mohawk Country Club in Tiffin, Ohio. As a student at Ohio State, he worked at Ross-designed Scioto Country Club in Columbus.
The other key cogs in Plainfield Country Club’s turf team fully grasp the importance of keeping Ross intact. Senior assistant Mike Bowley was hired by Pauley following a 2005 internship, equipment manager Ian Brenly joined the staff in 2007 and second assistant Matt Daubert arrived in 2012. Pauley lauds Bowley for patiently waiting for the right head superintendent opportunity, Brenly for keeping a fleet consisting of more than 30 mowers in solid condition and Daubert for becoming a point person for implementing the GeoLink system into the spray program.
Pauley has embraced everything about holding a desirable job for 16 years and his office includes framed personal and Plainfield pictures, including a 1931 course aerial that Hanse uses to guide architectural decisions. Pauley realized during his first winter at Plainfield, which hosted the 1987 U.S. Women’s Open and 1978 U.S. Amateur, that he was involved in something unique when the club gave him permission to remove non-native white pines from the property. Covering tree stumps required nine acres of sod, a worthwhile investment because clearing the trees revealed more of Ross’s work than any active member or employee had ever seen.
Up the hill from Pauley’s office and inside the clubhouse, Ross’s enduring presence further permeates, as a plaque, bust and sketches add ambience to the club’s Dornoch Grill, named in honor of the architect’s hometown. The work of Pauley, Hanse and many others reintroduced a Dornoch-like feel on the revered New Jersey ground.
“We have been here a long time and we have been trusted as the caretakers of this really special place where a lot of things have happened and it’s really important to a lot of people,” Pauley says. “We don’t want to screw this up.”