One night in March, Chad Mark, director of grounds at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, couldn’t sleep because his mind was racing with a singular question: was The Memorial Tournament going to happen? As it turns out, Muirfield Village Golf Club is hosting both the Workday Charity Open (July 9-12) and The Memorial (July 16-19). On July 20, the crew will welcome LaBar Golf Renovations and celebrate with some major changes to the course – mostly greens, but some tees and fairways. Leibold Irrigation will mobilize and start irrigation work and TRW will run the installation of the PrecisionAire system. It’s go, go, go.
Mark knew a few weeks before the announcement that back-to-back events were a possibility. He met with Dan Sullivan, executive director of the Memorial Tournament, and Nicholas LaRocca, general manager, to discuss the risk of hosting back-to-back events. “The fact that the renovation occurs immediately after the Memorial made this more palatable,” Mark says. “It would have been hard to host back-to-back events and turn it over to the members without signs of stress.”
With the pandemic, more than the dates of the tournament have changed. Fans will be in attendance for the first time since The Players Championship at The Memorial. It will just be a smaller crowd than normal. There will also be a reduced number of volunteers. “To provide space for physical distancing, single-person hotel rooms, reduce shuttle needs and so forth, we had to cut our volunteer numbers in half,” Mark says. Careful planning and the way the Muirfield crew normally performs has made world-class execution possible.
All year, Muirfield Village operates a captain-based system that is formal, efficient and “will be more critical than ever before,” Mark says. “We will stagger our starts and avoid large meetings by using 15 captains,” he adds. “Those employees will meet with James Bryson (superintendent), Adam Daroczy and Greg Benz (assistants), and myself to review instructions for the shift.” The captains will communicate detailed instructions to their teams.
Mark works with the COVID-19 Task Force for the tournament to keep everyone safe. Special preparations include multiple tents for increased social distancing, staggered start times, individually wrapped meals, increased numbers of hand washing and sanitizing stations, and the welcoming meeting will take place via video.
In addition to the continuous captain system, every day, the crew maintains Muirfield Village’s iconic design as close to championship conditions as possible to challenge members and guests. “We don’t have to reinvent ourselves for tournament play,” Mark says. “But one difference between tour and member play is the concentration of divots and ball marks.”
Extra attention will be paid to landing areas, teeing locations will be altered, and hole locations will be varied between events to help address this stress. The rough will be higher for the Memorial and there will be a slow and steady increase in green speed to ensure that there are fair hole locations for each tournament. Understandably, acceptable hole locations decrease at speeds higher than 13 feet.
Additionally, the course will be closed on tournament week Mondays to allow the team to apply plant protectants, plant growth regulators and nutrition for the playing surfaces. Mark’s main concern is that the course doesn’t peak too early. Muirfield Village needs a healthy stand of turf that can take the pressure of two tournament preparations. “July is usually the toughest month of the year in terms of heat stress,” Mark says. “We will make smart decisions about mechanical stress according to the heat and humidity of those two weeks.”
Right now, “morale is fantastic,” Mark adds. “Our guys are excited. Bryson, Daroczy and Benz have done a great job of rotating our staff out for some days off so that we stay fresh and are ready for the grind of two weeks of 3am wake up calls. The reality of it is that we are going to blow this place up on July 20th and we want a dry week to really push it for the Memorial. That could be a lot of fun!”
Though there have been some sleepless nights, Mark feels fortunate. This is a job he always dreamed about having. Whether he dreamed about leading the agronomy team through back-to-back PGA Tour events and then kick-starting major renovation work the next day is a different conversation. Life can be surprising, but this is a great opportunity for all of us to dream in real time.
Lee Carr is Northeast Ohio-based writer and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.