Super ambassador

Features - Cover Story

A mother of three – and a proud grandmother – Army veteran Jennifer Torres proves it’s never too late to give turf a try.

September 9, 2019

Photos Parikha Mehta

Located just north of Philadelphia, Makefield Highlands Golf Club is renowned as one of the premier daily-fee facilities in Pennsylvania. Earlier this year, it hosted a U.S. Open local qualifier.

For seven years now, Jennifer Torres has made the club her professional home. She’s currently in her fourth season as the head superintendent.

Torres took an indirect route to get here. The road she traveled featured several detours. She was nearly 30 years old before she enrolled in the two-year turf management program at Rutgers University. But her passion for working the land was ingrained in her as a young girl. She grew up on a dairy farm near Corning, N.Y., one of four children, three of them girls.

“Growing up on a farm I was not so much a Momma’s girl, I was a Daddy’s girl,” she says. “I was out with him all the time. We played sports after school, but we made sure all our chores were done before we could play.”

Torres was a three-sport athlete in high school, competing in soccer, volleyball and softball, which was her best sport. There was an open field at the bottom of the family driveway where she would throw pitches to a tire every morning before leaving for school. Over the course of her high school career, she pitched, caught, played shortstop and the outfield.

Torres later played softball in the Army, where she served four years after high school working as a mobile subscriber equipment operator and achieving the rank of E4. She also had her first child, a daughter.

Following her discharge, Torres returned to Corning and worked as a service technician for Time Warner Cable before her husband, Ricardo, got a civilian job at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Following the move, she took a job driving a tractor at Fountain Green Golf Course on the base. Eventually her boss, John Huda, the superintendent, suggested she apply to Rutgers.

Photos Parikha Mehta

“He noticed that I really enjoyed just going out and doing the job,” Torres says, “and paying attention to the details that needed to be done. I loved striping fairways and mowing greens and everything. He took me aside and said ‘Do you know about Rutgers? It’s right up the road.’”

Torres acquired a detail-driven mindset, which is common among successful superintendents, at an early age. “I’m a little OCD,” she says with a laugh. “When my dad needed to go get something, it had better be back in the place where he put it down, so you better learn to put everything back where it was.”

Upon learning that her G.I. Bill funds could be applied to the program, Torres, who by this time was the mother of three (today she also is the proud grandmother of one), submitted her application and enrolled at Rutgers in 2004. The program features a pair of 10-week semesters wrapped around an internship that lasts up to nine months.

Torres soon found herself totally immersed in the program. “It’s intense,” Torres says. “It’s very challenging. The guys in my class (of about 40) would laugh at me and say, ‘You need to come out (for a beverage) with us.’ I would say ‘I’ve got to go home and study.’

“I spent a lot of time studying what I needed to learn. If you want to succeed, you’ve got to put forth the effort. That was my motto. It was my money that was paying for it, not my parents’ – ‘I’m here because I need to learn this so I can provide for my family.’ I think that made a little bit of a difference. I was there because I wanted a career, and I needed to take care of my family.”

When she enrolled at Rutgers, her family included three children, ages 11, 7 and 5. The support of Ricardo has been a constant throughout her career. While Torres works daytime hours, Ricardo works an evening shift. The couple has been married for 21 years. “It’s phenomenal to have that support,” she says. “To be assured that when you go to work, everything at home will be taken care of. … He’s got my back.”

Torres says she felt totally accepted at Rutgers and never felt singled out because of her age or because she was the only woman in her class. But having never worked in the turf industry meant she was playing career catch-up.

Jennifer Torres has balanced raising three children, including oldest daughter Kayla, with the demands of a turf management career.
Photos Parikha Mehta

To accelerate the learning process, Torres spent time between semesters interning at Rutgers, working with the university’s computer network while also continuing to work at Fountain Green. She took advantage of the opportunities she had to interact with, question and learn from her instructors.

“It made me a lot more comfortable at a time when (my fellow students) weren’t really there,” she says. “If I had a question that maybe I wasn’t comfortable asking in front of everybody else, I had to go up to the professors and say ‘Hey, I don’t understand this,’ or ‘Why do you do this?’ Oftentimes, when I did that, when the class started, he would start with my question. It was like ‘If you’re not getting it, then there’s probably somebody else in the class that’s not getting it.’”

Putting passion into practice

Torres earned her degree from Rutgers in November 2006, graduating with high honors. By that time, she was working as an assistant superintendent at Indian Springs in Marlton, N.J., under Mark Peterson. She stayed for five years until her position was eliminated in the fall of 2011.

The following June, she was reunited with Peterson, who by this time was and remains the director of agronomy for Spirit Golf, which manages Makefield Highlands for Lower Makefield Township, the municipality that owns the club. He hired Torres as the assistant superintendent and she’s been there ever since. She was named the head superintendent in March 2016.

The golf course Torres maintains is the work of architect Rick Jacobson. The links-style design opened for play in 2004 and spans 115 acres, maxing out at 7,058 yards. It features bentgrass greens, fairways, and tees, with a smattering of Poa annua. Torres and her staff, which peaks at around a dozen at the height of the season, work to match the conditions of a private club as closely as possible. “A lot of the stuff we’re doing is similar to what they are doing at the high-end clubs,” Torres says, “because (management) wants to offer that private feel at a public course. That’s kind of the model.”

Torres notes that ownership provides her team with abundant resources, but she stresses the importance of making the most of those resources. “The budget is set up so that we can do what needs to be done,” she says. “Of course, we don’t mow every day, we’ll mow (the greens) every other day and then roll every other day. We triplex the greens rather than walk mow. Fairways, we mow half-and-half just because there are 34 acres of fairways and if we try to stripe them, it takes a lot longer. There are little things that we do to try to (save) time.”

After seven years on the job, Torres is familiar with nuances and microclimates of the property. “We’ve learned (the greens) that need a little extra love and care and we’ll go out and hand water those,” she says. “We’ve trained the crew how to do that. With the number of years I have here, we’ve learned the areas that need a little coaxing throughout the season.”

When it comes to fungicides, she sprays greens every 14 days, and tees and fairways every 28 days. She’ll also utilize a soil amendment, sometimes in conjunction with a fungicide application, sometimes separately. Like any responsible superintendent, Torres works to get the maximum value out of her chemical budget.

“Last year we got a new sprayer,” she says. “It has a GPS unit set up on it. We’re only spraying where we need to now, so hopefully we’ll see a reduction in pesticide usage and fungicide usage.” When it comes to disease/pest issues, Torres contends regularly with dollar spot and the annual bluegrass weevil.

Makefield Highlands is a busy place. The club is open year-round, save for occasions when the ground is snow-covered, and the course averages 40,000 annual rounds depending on the weather. The club has been certified and recertified by the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program.

Peterson says Torres strives to give members and customers the best experience possible. “Her passion has made her what she is,” Peterson says, “her passion to excel at what she does.”

Photos Parikha Mehta

As Torres’s responsibilities have grown, her husband Ricardo’s support has remained steadfast. “My husband has come to understand that there are no summer vacations,” she says. “We plan our vacations in the wintertime. We may take a weekend or so away during the summer if I can get away, but he understands that the weather dictates what I do in this business. He’s always been there to support me. He’s there for our kids if I can’t be. When I’m not there, he’s there.”

All three of Torres’s children, daughters Kayla, now not quite 25, and Cheyenne, approaching 21, and son Ricardo Jr., 19, have worked for their mother at one time or another.

Ricardo Jr. started coming to work with her before he reached his teens. He’s officially been on the payroll for three years now and is considering a career in the turf industry. He’s been taking classes online from the University of Georgia. Ricardo has literally grown up in the business. He was a toddler when his mother enrolled at Rutgers. On the day Golf Course Industry visited Makefield Highlands, he was part of a bunker crew. “I pretty much just went to work with her and pretty much liked it from then on,” he says.

Ricardo adds he’s gained a new perspective on the industry in the wake of his hands-on involvement in it. “There’s a lot more environmental stuff that goes into it,” he says, “and my mom really pushes that a lot. I don’t think you see that quite as much when you’re learning about it, but it’s more so when you’re in the field, hands on. Mom is the boss, definitely. She pushes me to work hard for what I want.”

How does Torres feel about the possibility of Ricardo Jr. following her career path? “It makes me proud to see that maybe the tradition is going to continue, that he has a passion for something,” she says. “He doesn’t have to do it just because Mom does it. Because if that’s the reason you’re going to do it, you’re not going to last in the business very long. You really have to love what you do.”

Jennifer Torres has worked as the superintendent at Makefield Heights, a busy daily-fee course in the Philadelphia suburbs, since 2016.
Photos Parikha Mehta

Industry ambassador and advocate

For the past two years, Torres and Ricardo Jr. have attended National Golf Day in Washington, D.C., a new ritual. Torres was named a GCSAA Grassroots Ambassador in the summer of 2017. This year, they were featured in a video shown at a training session marking the event’s official launch. “For those that don’t know me, they know me now,” she says with a chuckle.

The duo participated with approximately 150 other volunteers in a national community service project, cleaning up flood-related debris from along the Potomac River. Torres and her son also joined other National Golf Day delegates from Pennsylvania and New Jersey and called on a half-dozen federal lawmakers. “I took the lead on environmental issues,” Torres says.

One key objective was realized last December when President Donald Trump signed the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, an omnibus farm bill, into law. The next step for her industry, Torres says, is to see to it that funds are allocated from the bill for turfgrass research.

The opportunity to interact with politicians provides a source of immense professional satisfaction for Torres. “I’m helping represent all of us as a whole, because not everybody gets a chance to go do those type of things, especially when it’s first of May and the season is starting to rock and roll,” she says.

“I am very fortunate and being able to walk in there and talk to these Congressmen and Senators and kind of explain to them that we are educated people, we have to take special tests in order to keep our state licenses. If we didn’t love the environment, we certainly wouldn’t be doing what we do. It’s an honor to go down there and represent my peers and try to (clear up) some of the myths that we’re seeing, especially now with the Roundup issue that’s going on.

“There are certain chemicals that we need to have in our toolbox, but we use them in a way that is smart and we get educational advice from universities. You’re always learning in this industry. It’s not that we go out there and just throw anything down.”

Torres got a late start in the turf industry, but she is more than making up for lost time. She was recently named to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of New Jersey’s board of directors. For anyone working in the turf industry, she exemplifies what is possible. But for women in the field, her accomplishments are especially meaningful.

“I’m happy that I can be that role model they look at and give them that opportunity to realize that being a woman doesn’t stop you from doing anything,” she says. “We can do anything if we put our minds to it.”

Torres believes she’s following in the footsteps of women who came before her, inside and outside of the turf industry. She seeks to leave a path of her own for other women to follow.

“Just like the women that came before me that fought so hard for our right to vote and everything,” she says. “I hope that I am blazing a trail for other young women, or older women that love to do stuff outside and maybe open the doors to an industry that has welcomed us. I’ve never felt like I didn’t belong with the guys. I never felt like the girl on the outside.”

Rick Woelfel is a Philadelphia-based writer and frequent GCI contributor.