Should hosting major events define a career?
Guy Cipriano

Should hosting major events define a career?

Tim Moraghan makes the case for looking beyond big tournaments to evaluate the quality of a superintendent.

May 11, 2021

Editor’s note: A shorter version of this column appeared in the May print edition of Golf Course Industry. This is the full-length version.

Major championship season is here and, as usual, those who care about such things are talking about how the “best” superintendents in the country are preparing their courses and enduring these trials by fire. For some reason, it is assumed that the superintendents who “host” these events are special and should be worshipped. Even more, it is assumed that every other course in America should do whatever it is these “experts” are doing to make their courses “perfect.”

No, no, and no. I’ve been around majors, tour events, international matches, and just about every kind of significant tournament you can imagine. I agree that in many cases the superintendents responsible for these courses are special. But no more than many of you, even if the highlight of your year is the club championship. You’re both working hard to make your course the best it can be for an important event, you’re both putting in extra time and energy, you’re both thinking about how the course will stand up and how the players will react to it.

They just perform on a larger stage. That is not – I repeat, not! – reason enough that these other superintendents are automatically placed on a higher pedestal.

There are lots of reasons being chosen to host will not be the plum assignment you expect. For example:

  • Once chosen, the preparation can last for five or 10 years. The sites for U.S. Opens and PGA Championships have been announced well into the future. Trust me, however, those superintendents are already thinking about it.
  • Host courses may choose – or be required – to close for member/regular golfer play for several weeks both before and after the event. That makes lots of people unhappy.
  • The cleanup and damage repair will require additional money and time, further annoying the everyday golfer (to say nothing of the committees, owners and others to whom you report who just don’t get it).
  • Expect to give up plenty of personal and “off course” time. Sleep, too.
  • Lucky enough to host an annual tournament like a Tour event? The moment one year’s version is done, you need to start preparing for next year. You’ll get better at it year after year, but you may not really get your old life back

Unfortunately, just because your course doesn’t host a big event doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. Here, the culprit is television. Members or owners see a course on television, or talked about on social media, and want to know why their course can’t look like that. This phenomenon has cost many a good superintendent their job, all that without the members/owners having any idea what it takes – and more importantly, what it costs – financially, agronomically, and personally to attain that level of maintenance. It isn’t only the old super, the one who got canned because they couldn’t provide Masters conditions on a municipal budget, who gets hurt. The next person comes in with a target on their back.

I’ve spoken to quite a few superintendents who’ve hosted national championships or other major events and some said they’d rather not do it again. From the Masters to the U.S. Open, state, and regional golf association events, down to club championships, preparation of the playing surfaces is similar – it’s the process, scope and scale that differs.  And, in each case, the pressure.

No matter where or when, events and tournaments put extra stress on the superintendent, while requiring extra work, long hours (in an already full workload), and almost never get as much budget as you know is necessary.

Ironically, it’s sometimes easier to host the big events because they get the most resources: volunteer labor, extra budget, equipment loans and other outside technical support. Those courses close for weeks to get the demanded results. But the stakes are much higher and the scrutiny that much closer. These superintendents walk a thin line between perfection and failure.  And failure is never a good career option. 

Even at the highest level, it’s grinding, stressful work. Consider Brad Owen, “the Man” at Augusta National Golf Club. He had to prepare for two Masters Tournaments within six months in two different seasons. And while he may have made it look easy, rest assured, there were challenges, disagreements with staff and membership, along with disaster and opportunities around every (Amen) corner. 

Brad is excellent at what he does. But he also has an almost unlimited budget, the help of hundreds of superintendent volunteers and a supportive membership. But doing maintenance for “a tradition like no other” isn’t easy, no matter how good you are. Would you want to do it year after year after year?

Frankly, I think the pressure to perform is just as high at a non-tournament site where there’s just as much member pressure, a similar need for customer satisfaction, and the budget is down to earth. All of you who do this year after year at private and public clubs, busting your butts to show your golfers a good time and make them feel important, deserve the lion’s share of praise and attention. And if you’re a young superintendent, just starting out, these are the heroes to model your career after. 

If you want to climb the ladder, preparing for big events at smaller courses can be an important opportunity to gain personal satisfaction and receive recognition in your regional golf community. But preparing your course for a tournament does not, and should not, define your career. The heroes are those who work hard and stay committed day in and day out.

All that said, there’s much to be said for watching other prepare for a big-time event. Volunteer at any event bigger than what you’re used to, and you’ll learn:

  • How to organize and execute a major course project
  • To recognize the finer details of playing quality demanded by the best players
  • How to interact with many different agencies and their requests
  • How to react under pressure and stress
  • The ability to communicate your ideas and programs to a non-agronomic audience

Here are a few of the things I’ve learned from working at big tournaments, and ways I prepare for any event, big or small. I start with a written strategy, something I can present to the stakeholders that shows I’m ready to:

  • Address potential issues early
  • Account for and access volunteers and/or vendor resources
  • Look at weather history over event dates
  • Delineate the course conditioning schedule
  • Identify on-course hazards
  • Outline communication with the hosting entity or committee 
  • Anticipate what will go wrong.
  • Understand the limits of your turf

If you do want to volunteer at another club and see how it’s done, you should do so. There is absolutely nothing wrong with getting exposed to the next level of tournament prep. And never hesitate to reach out to guys who have hosted larger events to ask questions and get pointers. But if you do, remember:

  • You must be willing to take personal time to volunteer
  • Complete any task requested by the host, even if you feel the chore is beneath you
  • It’s not your course, not your methods: Those are dictated by the host organization and superintendent
  • Do not “over volunteer.” Your home club isn’t paying you to maintain someone else’s course  

Volunteering shows a good work ethic. It’s part of networking and going the extra mile will get you noticed and may lead to other opportunities. At the very least, they’re something to add to your resume.

If you really want to work at a club that regularly hosts big events, be aware of this. I recently spoke with a CGCS superintendent who applied for the top position at a club and was told, while qualified, he didn’t have major tournament experience. It was suggested that he “take a step back” and become an assistant at a club where he’d get that experience.

While I think this is just plain wrong, it’s an attitude you very well may encounter. You also may need to take a step back from your career path or become an assistant at a high-level club that hosts big tournaments, and then move into a role where you can assume full responsibility.

If this is your goal, fine. But consider the odds. There are three professional men’s majors a year in the U.S., and one is the Masters. That leaves the PGA Championship and U.S. Open, along with a full schedule of PGA, Champions, Korn Ferry and LPGA tournaments. Additionally, the USGA conducts 14 or 16 championships a year (including international team competitions every other year). Throw in the occasional Ryder Cup, Solheim Cup or Presidents Cup on U.S. soil and you see that the opportunities are limited to fewer than 150 venues a year.