Scoreboards across the country are empty. They have been for almost four weeks now and, no matter what a variety of golf organizations say, they will be for weeks, probably months, more.
Will the PGA Tour really tee off in June? Will TPC Harding Park and Winged Foot really open up for the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open in August and September? Will azaleas still bloom at Augusta National two weeks before Thanksgiving? Who knows for sure?
No matter what happens the rest of this year on the golf calendar — and on the sports calendar, in general — we do know that plenty of events have been canceled because of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic with no hopes for a return. The WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship, and the NCAA Golf Championships were just three of them.
What were the days like for those superintendents and crews after learning that a year’s worth of work would pass with far less attention and appreciation?
Julio Díaz, the superintendent at both the Corales and La Cana courses at Puntacana Resort & Club in the Dominican Republic, where the annual PGA Tour stop was scheduled for March 25-29, calls that time “a really difficult moment.” Bobby Stringer, the superintendent at Austin Country Club in Texas, where the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play was scheduled for the same week, says everything is “fairly surreal right now.”
“My guys have a job right now, and that’s what’s most important,” says Ernie Pock, the director of turf maintenance at Grayhawk Country Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, site of the NCAA Golf Championships through at least 2022. “The grass still needs to be mowed.”
Díaz, Stringer and Pock all handled their cancellations with similar approaches, allowing the initial disappointment to rush past before working with their crews toward next year, next month, next week, or even just tomorrow. They all searched for potential benefits. They all carried on.
“My assistants, it took them a couple days to get their heads around this,” says Pock, who has prepared for seven televised events during his decades at Grayhawk. “I think they were more deflated than I was. They were preparing to work dark to dark, living here for almost probably a month. They had a hard time. But I would just try to turn it into a positive. We did great things for the golf course, the playability of the golf course, and it’ll be here before you know it next year. We’ll be talking about it December 1 and going, ‘Holy hell, we only have five months.’”
And while all three will have another opportunity to prepare for the same event in 2021, every advance week, every tournament week provides lessons that can be learned not during months of prep but only during days of actually doing.
“For me, it was not so much the agronomy side of it as it was setting up tents, volunteer tents, Golf Channel compounds, all that infrastructure that comes in with these events,” Pock says. “Once you get that in place, you kind of have an idea of how that’s going to work the next couple years and it gets easier. When we did the Frys Open from ’07 to ’09, the first year was a cluster, just trying to getting to know where everybody needed to go with all the extra setup. The second and third year were much, much easier.
“The first one is always hard. You’re recreating the wheel and we were really getting to what we thought was a good spot. I can’t say anything bad about my guys. They busted their ass. I’m kind of a sentimental guy. The golf course will be here tomorrow and we’ll keep making it better day by day. We have 12 months to get it prepared again.”
While the NCAA Golf Championships were scheduled for May 22-27, Díaz and Stringer were both deep in the final days of preparation.
“We started teardown immediately, because we were 95 percent built out for the tournament,” Stringer says. “For me, obviously I was bummed because of all the work we had put in, all the time and effort that goes into setting up and preparing for a televised event. That was very disheartening, but it’s more disheartening because you become addicted to the preparation and the work, the time, advance week is 90 hours, tournament week is 120 hours. It’s hard to believe someone can become addicted to that, but you prepare yourself for that through the buildout and then it just stops. I’m going home at 2:30, 3 o’clock, and I don’t know what to do with myself. My 21-year-old daughters are wearing me out. I was just bummed.”
Stringer laments the loss of the tournament more for his crew, who he called “the guys who really make it work.”
“Everybody understands, but for them, it’s that larger paycheck they would get those two weeks for working that massive amount of overtime,” he says. “And just the fun, they love being able to brag to their friends, ‘We get to be on TV!’ Now they’re just going out there doing basically routine maintenance. I don’t have 10 guys picking up every little twig.”
Díaz, meanwhile, has resurrected courses from the destruction of hurricanes in time for Tour events but could not shut down a pandemic.
“Most of the guys were sad,” he says. “We started talking and everybody said, ‘Next year, or even this year, we will do much better.’ All my guys took the news really well. We were ready to host the tournament, but if we can do it now, we can do it next year. I loved that reaction.”
The biggest change for all three — for now, at least — has been adapting not just their courses but their crews to social distancing. Stringer is sending crew members out on carts solo when he can. When he can’t, gloves are required. Hand sanitizer is pumped out almost constantly. Díaz has been working with fewer crew members but, like Stringer and Pock, has not had to lay off a single staffer, and Puntacana Resort & Club will pay every crew member through at least the end of May.
“Everybody still has a job,” Díaz says. “The less people we can have, just enough to keep the golf course going.
“Right now, it’s difficult to predict the next one or two months.”
And what about after that?
“I was just talking with one our members, a banker, one of the smartest guys I know, just super logical, really gets it,” Stringer says. “He was telling me this is going to change the way people do things for the better, and he believes golf will have a jump after this. It’s an outdoor exercise and you can play it by yourself.
“I think a lot of people are going to realize that.”
Matt LaWell is Golf Course Industry's managing editor.