College golf coaches spend hours every day on their home course — to teach, to coach, to recruit, sometimes even to play. Few, though, spend much time on those courses in the seat of a John Deere 7500 fairway reel mower. The rigors of the position, after all, seldom leave time for maintenance.
But after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down almost every professional and collegiate competition around the globe, NC State University men’s golf coach Press McPhaul says he had “nothing but time on my hands.” So after reading an email from Brian Green, the director of golf course maintenance at the Lonnie Poole Golf Course where McPhaul coaches the Wolfpack, that mentioned almost in passing the course was severely understaffed after student employees left early for the summer and a handful of regular crew members followed, he figured he would help out someone who normally helps him so much.
“I’m a real admirer of the work Brian and his staff do,” McPhaul says. “They do tremendous work. I’m obviously at the golf course every day and I’m particular about conditions, and I’m a big fan of his. He didn’t really ask for help, just sort of mentioned they were understaffed, and man, I thought, ‘That’s perfect. I’ll do some stuff I know I’ll enjoy and maybe be able to express to Brian and his staff how much I enjoy the work they do.’”
Green has worked at Lonnie Poole for almost eight years. He promotes three or four divot days every season, when coaches, players and staff from around NC State volunteer their time, “but this was the first time we’ve had a coach actually come out and work,” he says. “And Press offered to do anything.”
Green scheduled McPhaul to mow fairways the first week, but mechanical problems shut him down after only three holes, so the coach shifted to cutting cups. The next week, all mowers cleared for cutting, McPhaul finished the course atop a finer piece of equipment than he had ever operated during his teenage years on the crew at Sanford Golf Club, his hometown muni about 40 miles southwest of Lonnie Poole.
“The last time I mowed on the golf course I was easily in college,” says McPhaul, who returned to his alma mater in 2017 to coach the Wolfpack after six seasons at Vanderbilt and 11 at East Carolina. “I’m 47, so it was easily 25 years ago or longer. That was a tow-behind mower on a tractor. I had never operated a piece of equipment engineered to mow fairways like that thing was. That was really enjoyable.”
“We just kind of gave him a brief overview of the machine and sent him with a staffer who was experienced mowing fairways and let that guy mow cleanups,” Green says. “We don’t have a whole lot of definition this early in the season so it was kind of hard telling where the edge of the fairway was, so the more experienced operator mowed cleanup. Being short on staff, we were contour mowing, so we were mowing the same shape on the fairway, we weren’t mowing straight lines.”
McPhaul has no immediate plans to return to the course every week, but he does “hope to get back out there and do it again,” he says. “It got my wheels turning a little bit. I think it would be good for the guys, as players, to understand what goes into preparing a golf course every day. I’d like to expose them to more of it so they appreciate what they’re playing on. Those guys do great work and it means a lot to us.”
If his players have worked on a course, he says, they probably logged time in the pro shop or on the operations side, because “they’re golfers and they want to practice, they want to play, they want to compete. The maintenance side is physically demanding. You’re up early, you work hard, it impacts the way you feel in the afternoon when it’s time to play or practice, and that may be a deterrent.”
Green expects Lonnie Poole to log more than 40,000 rounds for the fiscal year ending June 30, about a 5 percent improvement over the previous high, and if McPhaul is so inclined, he would welcome him back any day. McPhaul might even have a future as a turf pro, Green says.
“He did great.”
Matt LaWell is Golf Course Industry’s managing editor.