Making the Cut: Part 2

Making the Cut: Part 2

Big crowds, famous holes and acres of prized turf. An inside look at a trio of unique tournament venues. Part 2: TPC Sawgrass

March 18, 2019

Tim Barger is the longest-tenured employee at a facility known for launching the modern tournament golf movement. On a damp, turned delightful morning 44 days before the 2019 PLAYERS Championship, the lore associated with longevity becomes apparent as Barger sits in a utility vehicle parked along the 17th hole and revisits TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course memories.

A Greensboro, N.C., native, the Navy brought Barger to north Florida in the 1970s. He later enrolled at Lake City Community College, a once robust supplier of turfgrass management talent to the booming Florida golf market. Details about the PGA Tour building a tournament-caliber course in a swamp in nearby Ponte Vedra Beach intrigued Barger and a few classmates. The Lake City contingent helped an eclectic team led by Pete Dye, Alice Dye, Dave Postlethwait, Alan MacCurrach Jr. and Vernon Kelly construct a golf course where only PGA Tour visionary Deane Beman and optimistic developers thought one should be built.

The crew averaged 68-hour weeks, working continuously through the spring, summer and fall of 1980. Walking the course shortly after it opened, Barger and a friend spotted the rarest of critters, a Florida panther, darting between the 16th green and the 17th tee. In his 39 years working at TPC Sawgrass, where he parlayed the construction opportunity into a golf course maintenance career, Barger has seen Michael Jordan, Lawrence Taylor, Gene Hackman, Larry Bird, Kenny Rogers, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, along with every elite pro golfer of the last 40 years, enjoying the same spot as the panther.

More startling than the celebrities, champions, crafters and critters are the changes within Barger’s own department. When the Stadium Course opened in 1980, the entire TPC Sawgrass crew could “fit around a picnic table,” he says. The Stadium Course has gone from being reviled to rejoiced and another layout, Dye’s Valley, was added seven years later. Barger now has more than 80 co-workers. Director of golf course operations Jeff Plotts and top assistant Lucas Andrews stage pre-tournament motivational staff meetings in a hospitality tent behind the 17th green, one of several massive structures surrounding the photogenic and perplexing hole. Close to 100 agronomy volunteers representing 17 countries converge in north Florida this month to assist one of the most scientific and data-driven operations in turf.

Crew members and PLAYERS Championship volunteers conduct tournament week meetings in a large tent behind a majestic agronomy center built as part of a $50 million renovation completed in 2017. The tent is adjacent to a research nursery akin to something found at a land-grant institution. Everything about TPC Sawgrass has become bigger than Barger, Beman or the sunniest of Florida’s land development optimists imagined.

The18th hole on the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course.
© photos by guy cipriano
Tim Barger is the longest-turned agronomic employee in the TPC Network.

‘Our Disneyland’

TPC Sawgrass boasts a sizable economy of its own within the $9 billion golf maintenance industry – and it’s positioned for continued growth. The scope and splendor of the operation enthralls anybody interested in high-level agronomy.

“I don’t know what it’s like behind the scenes at Disneyland,” says PGA Tour senior vice president of agronomy Paul Vermeulen, whose department oversees the maintenance of TPC Sawgrass. “I’m sure it’s impressive. We call this our Disneyland just because it’s so impressive and so far-reaching.”

Plotts and his team maintain a pair of golf courses next to the current – and future – PGA Tour headquarters. Beman still lives in the area and frequently plays the Stadium Course. Imagine former Disney CEO Michael Eisner dropping by Disneyland to ride Space Mountain.

The PGA Tour owns and operates TPC Sawgrass, and an 80-year-old who halted a successful playing career in 1974 to become an administrator still motivates, inspires and challenges the agronomy team; Beman’s presence and legacy overshadows all others at TPC Sawgrass.

“Even to this day, when he comes out and plays, his expectation is for it to be higher and bigger,” Plotts says. “Lucas and I are always asking: Is that gold standard? Is that PLAYERS standard? Is that worthy of TPC?”

Something as seemingly repetitious as dispersing seed receives constant scrutiny. Preparing for The PLAYERS Championship’s return to March required overseeding more than 200 Stadium Course acres for the first time since the 2006 PLAYERS Championship. Only three members of the crew had experienced an overseed at TPC Sawgrass. Only a few more had experienced an overseed anywhere.

A veteran of the process from his TPC Scottsdale days, Plotts understood the tactics and patience associated with overseeding. His vision involved being “really good” this cycle, becoming even better next cycle and developing an “exceptional” overseed in three to five years. The defined vision helped train a staff to execute individualized tasks such as pushing a drop spreader over a green to create straight lines without overlap.

“We are getting there through brute force this year and we’re looking forward to bringing some finesse to our execution next year,” Andrews says. “The one thing I did learn about overseed is that it does not allow you to have any weakness in your game. You have to prep it perfectly, then you have to apply it perfectly, then you have to water it in perfectly.”

Overseeding has sparked changes in mowing practices – and more training. To prepare fairways blended with ryegrass and fine fescue for tournament striping, managers started painting directional lines on surfaces in early winter. When Bermudagrass covered fairways, TPC Sawgrass had two feasible mowing options: a one-directional or 50-50 cut. Neither cut requires the same precision as striping. “Now everything we mow has a purpose,” Plotts says.

Equipment manager Mark Sanford started his TPC Sawgrass tenure in 1983. His team maintains more than 500 pieces of equipment.

Equipment everywhere

There’s no shortage of equipment available to mow the Stadium Course and Dye’s Valley turf. Like Barger, equipment manager Mark Sanford has observed the enormous transformation over the last three decades. His TPC Sawgrass tenure started in 1983, and he recalls working long hours to extend the effectiveness of every mower. “I couldn’t talk to the superintendent about getting new equipment unless it was five years old,” he says.

Higher stakes requiring lower cuts resulted in an increase in equipment and support. The 1983 PLAYERS Championship featured a $700,000 purse, with winner Hal Sutton receiving $126,000. The totals for 2019 swelled to $12.5 million and beyond $2 million, respectively.

The tournament staff mowed greens at .125 inches in the 1980s. Greens are now mowed at lower heights for resort play, Sanford says.

Sanford oversees a six-person staff responsible for maintaining more than 500 pieces of riding, walking and handheld equipment. Besides the nearly six-dozen walking greens mowers, TPC Sawgrass also deploys 11 2500E E-Cut triplexes, nine 7500A fairway mowers, five 2653B trim and surrounds mowers, and 52 Gators. The size of the fleet has increased by “six or seven times” since 1983, Sanford says. The new agronomy center tripled the size of shop space, Sanford adds. Once viewed as gluttonous for a 36-hole facility, the building storing Gators and riding mowers is approaching capacity. “When we were building this building, nobody thought we would have enough equipment to put in here,” Plotts says. “This building is huge. It’s silly big. But we are almost at capacity. If we get something new, we will find space for it.”

Equipment deliveries are common. TPC Sawgrass operates on a three-year lease, with John Deere dealer Beard Equipment dispatching a mobile technician multiple times per week to assist Sanford’s team. John Deere innovations are tested at TPC Sawgrass because of the spacious turf plots. The nursery also provides space to study emerging turfgrass varieties, including zoysiagrass at tournament-level green heights. In addition to the two courses, the agronomy team maintains professional and resort practices areas, turf and landscaping surrounding the clubhouse, and a revamped entryway. Hundreds of PGA Tour employees roam the grounds every day.

“I never thought it would evolve into what it is today,” Sanford says. “I remember going to Christmas parties in the clubhouse, and there were 100 of us between the PGA Tour and TPC Network. I used to know just about everyone who worked for the Tour.” The number of managers on the agronomy team, Sanford adds, is comparable to the size of the crew when he arrived in 1983.

Director of golf course operations Jeff Plotts leads the TPC Sawgrass agronomy team.

‘Divide and conquer’

Putting personnel and equipment in proper places represents a daily conundrum facing Plotts, Andrews, Stadium Course superintendent Kyle Elliott and Dye’s Valley superintendent Shannon Wheeler.

Plotts, a TPC Network veteran who shifted from Scottsdale to Sawgrass in August 2015, nine months before the renovation commenced, acts as the liaison between the agronomy department and PGA Tour players and officials. The position demands melding compassion and compromise with advanced agronomics. Asked how he appeases numerous high-achieving personalities, Plotts says, “You put everything 1A.”

Although he frequently observes activities on the courses, Plotts describes his philosophy as a “divide and conquer” management style. He’s the long-term thinker within a department executing a bevy of daily tasks. Following last fall’s overseed, for example, Plotts shifted his attention to this year’s process, which begins in October. Plotts participates in dozens of formal meetings, but the most productive gatherings are impromptu conversations with his staff.

Assistant director of golf course operations Lucas Andrews joined the TPC Sawgrass team as a full-time employee in 2010.

“We need people to communicate,” he says. “When you get into a formal setting, I have found the younger guys get quiet. They don’t communicate or share ideas. But if you’re in an informal setting, they are really quick with popping out ideas and thoughts. That is invaluable and makes us better.”

Plotts speaks with Andrews more than anybody else on the team. They occupy adjacent offices inside an administrative area featuring computers, copiers, scanners, Stadium Course canvases, motivational boards (the phrase “No whining” hangs above Plotts’ door), dry erase calendars with detailed plans and Wall Street-like conference room. Andrews, an Englishman who interned at TPC Sawgrass as University of Guelph student, joined the full-time staff in 2010, advancing from an assistant-in-training to assistant director of golf course operations in less than a decade.

Andrews, Plotts says, must be focused on the “now,” which means knowing every yard of the Stadium Course. Andrews sometimes parks his cart near a restroom behind the 16th tee and walks the final three holes. The walks allow him to seek input from employees while scouting for ways to enhance the closing stretch.

The Dye’s Valley course at TPC Sawgrass opened in 1987.

“Our habitat is out on the golf course,” Andrews says. “The staff’s creative juices are flowing out there. They are seeing things. They are adapting as they go through the morning and the rest of their day. If you can catch them in that moment when their creative juices are flowing, that’s when you get best input.”

Elliott and Wheeler, Plotts says, are responsible for leading “day-to-day” efforts on both courses. Elliott, who previously worked at TPC Boston, finds himself mesmerized by the resources available at TPC Sawgrass, especially the size on the crew. “The amount of stuff we can get done in a day or two here is insane,” he says.

While the management team has stabilized in the last few years, status doesn’t shield TPC Sawgrass from the hiring and retention challenges within the golf industry. And because the property features nuances as such as severe mounding and bulkheads, the training investment is huge. “There are not a lot of things here where you can just send somebody out and they can do it,” Elliott says. “That’s difficult as a manager. It requires a lot of management and guidance.”

The TPC Sawgrass agronomy center includes a pair of greenhouses housing thousands of flowers and plantings.

The scrutiny brings pressure and opportunity. Wheeler, a veteran of the South Florida private club scene who became the Dye’s Valley superintendent last year, stares at the logo when comparing working at TPC Sawgrass to other facilities.

“It’s the flagship of the Tour,” he says. “Anywhere you look, whether it’s merchandising or advertising, you’re front and center. You’re part of something bigger. But it’s still a golf course. If you can compartmentalize, you realize you’re trying to accomplish the same thing as everybody else. It’s just a different scope.”

So, the TPC Sawgrass team pushes forward, awaiting the next audacious move of bosses preparing to relocate into the PGA Tour’s new “global” headquarters. Whatever executives and players decide, it will be backed by significant agronomic brainpower and horsepower. Innovation associated with the PGA Tour’s growth, though, will never supplant memories created through decades of working atop a north Florida swamp.

“I would like to know how many people have come through here,” Barger says. “I should have counted that and how many greens I have mowed since I have been here. Those are the two numbers I would like to know. It’s been fun. There have been a lot of characters come through here.”