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An inside look at the people and pride associated with preparing for a course’s big moment. Part 3: CP Women’s Open

October 3, 2019

The par-5 14th hole at Magna Golf Club. The private course in Aurora, Ontario, hosted the 2019 CP Women’s Open.
© Guy Cipriano

The 14th hole at Magna Golf Club slithers west and gradually descends from tee to green, offering views of modern mansions dotted across the Oak Ridges Moraine. Residents are within commuting distance of a global commerce center, yet the 30-mile separation between their community — Aurora, Ontario — and Toronto means escapism from tussles for living and recreation space.

Courses such as Magna in places such as Aurora were built to provide enthralling escapism. The sensation permeates near the 14th tee box on a comfortable late-summer morning. The sun lifts, creating a collection of colors — blue, white, orange and yellow with drops of red and purple — directing eyes focused on defined tasks upward. A colorful sky makes one forget artistic eye-level hues: swaths of verdant bentgrass, blends of bluegrass and ryegrass, and fiery fescue.

Left photo: Wayne Rath, right, is the only superintendent in the history of Magna Golf Club.

Magna International, a global automotive supplier founded by businessman Frank Stronach, owns the exclusive private club. Corporate offices are adjacent to the second hole, a par-3 playing over water. The second hole, like the 14th, offers abundant color and visual inspiration.

Outsiders experienced the escapism this past summer as the volume of activity at Magna escalated Aug. 19-25, when the club opened its gates for the CP Women’s Open, the only Canadian event on the LPGA schedule. The presence of LPGA players, including homegrown megastar Brooke Henderson, and fans provided escapism from regular maintenance for the unique crew assembled by longtime superintendent Wayne Rath. While numerous grandiose clubs are tournament mainstays, 18-year-old Magna existed as a secluded recreational haven for its members and guests.

“At first, I didn’t even know Magna had a golf course,” veteran crew member Austin Muongchanh says. “My parents had been working in a Magna plant for over 20 years and they didn’t even know Magna had a golf course.”

When Golf Canada announced Magna as the 2019 site for one of its signature events – the organization also stages the PGA Tour’s RBC Canadian Open — it surprised many Canadian golf enthusiasts who figured the club preferred operating outside the limelight. Rath and senior assistant superintendent Terry Magee emphasize a culture of excellence in discussions and demonstrations to a 50-worker crew. They just never envisioned melding excellence with bleachers, ropes and global television coverage.

Rath started his relationship with Magna via turfgrass management reports he conducted as part of the permitting process in the late 1990s. He served as the project manager during construction and remained with the club as superintendent. Rath spent 10 years as the superintendent at Toronto’s Islington Golf Club before his involvement with Magna. A superintendent since age 25, Rath had never led a team responsible for hosting a televised tournament until the CP Women’s Open.

Tournament volunteer Lesley Thomas and Magna technician Kendra Kiss.

“For a lot of our staff, it’s the only time they are going to ever to do this,” he says. “It’s probably going to be the only time the golf course ever does this. The stars lined up with the properties around our property for support. That might not happen ever again.”

Rath’s team received a little more than 13 months to prepare for the event, as Golf Canada announced Magna as the 2019 tournament site on July 9, 2018. The opportunity to work the CP Women’s Open represented one reason Shaemos Campbell left a job he enjoyed at nearby Pheasant Run Golf Club for a technician position at Magna. Early in his Magna tenure last fall, Campbell observed the tidying of phragmites near a pond on the first hole. “I was like, ‘OK, this is a bigger venture than you think,’” says Campbell, who was raised on a farm in Uxbridge, a rural community less than 20 miles from Aurora. “You don’t want to be rushing around at the end.”

Beyond timing fertility and spray programs around the tournament, Rath downplays how the event changed 2019 expectations. His team, after all, has provided tournament-caliber conditions since the course opened. Until the CP Women’s Open, the 2013 PGA Championship of Canada represented the biggest outside event hosted by the club. The event featured a match-play format, lacked live television coverage and Rath’s team prepared the course for just two competitors on the final day. “It was a good event, but it was a small event,” he says. “The spectators were family and friends.”

Seeing Henderson, who won her first major as an 18-year-old, appear at Magna for a pre-tournament media day July 2 elevated internal buzz for the CP Women’s Open. Employees then received daily reminders of an altered workspace as contractors started building grandstands and fan zones around the 17th and 18th greens.

The scene stunned seasonal employee Alyssa Point when she returned to Magna during an August break from school. “They were setting stuff up and I was like, ‘What the heck is this?’” Point says. But the crew quickly adapted to the advance and tournament-week hustle. The LPGA reserved Tuesday for full-field practice rounds and Magna’s televised tournament rookies had all playing surfaces mowed by 7:15 a.m. Rath offered succinct messages to employees in a pre-shift meeting: repeat Monday’s efficient performance, don’t fret when players aren’t putting to cups and avoid giving rides to spectators or non-turf volunteers.

“I have always believed you treat people the way you want to be treated in this business,” Rath says. “When you’re outside, you can’t make people do a good job for you. You have to give them the energy, you have to give them the resources, you have to give them the knowledge and the inspiration to do a good job for you, and that’s what we are seeing this week. This is just the culmination of all the effort and everything they have learned. Everything they have been trained to do … I think we’re reaping the rewards right now.”

Kendra Kiss qualified as the lone veteran of the multi-shift tournament circuit when the week started. Kiss, an enthusiastic, determined and knowledgeable spray technician/administrative assistant who has spent a decade as one of Rath’s confidants, had volunteered for a pair of Waste Management Phoenix Opens at TPC Scottsdale. Hosting the CP Women’s represented a highly personal career highlight for Kiss, who helps hire and train a diverse crew. “We definitely make sure we spend the time with people, making sure they are comfortable and not just being thrown into the fire,” she says.

Nichole Parker has decided to pursue a turfgrass management career after four summers working at Magna Golf Club.

Rath proudly notes his team includes energetic employees in their teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Nearly a third of the crew is female. Magna’s maintenance facility includes locker rooms for both genders and female employees handled every CP Women’s Open hand-mowing assignment.

The presence of all-female mowing teams surprised — and subsequently inspired — athletes representing one of the world’s more diverse sports organizations. LPGA players frequently chatted with crew members during practice arounds and pro-ams.

“We had players stop us and ask, ‘Are all of you cutting?’” says Michaela Point, who split morning collar-mowing duties with her twin sister, Alyssa. Michaela adds, “It’s probably nice for them to see that, because they aren’t used to seeing so many girls cutting.”

This past summer likely represented the final season the sisters will work on a golf course. Alyssa and Michaela, recent graduates of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, are pursuing careers in massage therapy and dermatology, respectively. Their long-term memories of Magna should be pleasant. The duo spent their childhood and college years playing soccer and running track and cross country. Golf course maintenance fulfilled intangible benefits they wanted from a summer job: a chance to move around and moments of solitude. They also absorbed a few enduring lessons while averaging 20,000 steps per day mowing bentgrass. “I have learned a lot about work ethic through this job,” Michaela says. “I didn’t realize how good of a worker I was. Wayne and Terry wanted to have us back each summer. It’s good to see that hard work does pay off.”

Turfgrass maintenance is set to become Nichole Parker’s chosen field, thus her decision to immerse herself in CP Women’s Open week by working morning and evening shifts. Grueling days are the norm for Parker. She worked a pair of industry jobs at contrasting facilities this past summer: maintenance at Magna and operations at public Bushwood Golf Club. At 23, Parker is the same age as Henderson, one of her nation’s more celebrated athletes.

Two jobs are a necessity, because Parker is paying her way through turfgrass management classes at Penn State World Campus. A quartet of fascinating summers at Magna convinced Parker, who earned a two-year landscape management diploma from Seneca College, to pursue turf instead of a career in landscape and horticulture. Despite an active childhood and having a grandfather who holds ownership shares in a public golf course, Parker had never stepped foot on a course until arriving at Magna.

“The most interesting thing about turf is the machinery and the different jobs that you can do within it,” she says. “I like being busy. If they would let me work for 10 hours, I would go out there and work for 10 hours and not say anything. I can’t stand places where it’s like, ‘OK, we have a job for you and it’s going to take an hour and you’re going to twiddle your thumbs for a bit.’ There’s so much to do here.”

From helping execute spray programs to integrating Magna International’s structured employee hiring, training and safety programs into the club’s turf department, constant communication and motion turn many of Kiss’s workdays into sprints. Her path to playing a key part in hosting one of her country’s bigger sporting events started nearly 2,200 miles from Magna. A Calgary native, Kiss relished hiking in Alberta’s scenic mountains as a child and a maintenance position at Kananaskis Country Golf Course satisfied a desire to work outdoors.

Her career commenced at Kananaskis in 2001. Eighteen years later, at 5:30 on a comfortable Tuesday morning in August, Kiss sprayed a putting green surrounded by 26 flags representing the nations of the 156 CP Women’s Open participants. The field included 15 players from her own country, many of whom galloped and gawked when they reached the 14th hole.

“I have put a lot of heart and soul into this place and I really love being here,” she says. “To be able to showcase the golf course on a world stage is amazing. It’s definitely a pride thing for us. We’re showcasing the greenkeeping side of what we do.”