Grandiose Continuity

Features - Construction and renovation

The bigger the project, the more apparent stability matters at a leading Houston club with a turf leader well-schooled in construction.

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October 9, 2020

River Oaks Country Club’s 14th hole following a renovation guided by Fazio Design.
© photos courtesy of River Oaks Country Club

River Oaks Country Club, a storied and stately private club on the banks of the Buffalo Bayou in the shadows of downtown Houston, doesn’t change superintendents often.

Morris Johnson has held the desirable position since 2001. He has just four predecessors since 1923.

Leading a turf team at a club such as River Oaks requires the mindset of a project manager. The job responsibilities are reflected in Johnson’s formal title: director of golf course operations. The course changes — for the better — more frequently than the people responsible for maintaining it.

The 97-year-old club whose design history includes a rare Donald Ross Texas assignment and once employed golf legends Jackie Burke Sr., Jimmy Demaret, Claude Harmon and Dick Harmon as professionals recently completed a project considered massive even by its grand standards, repairing and armoring a nearly half-mile section of the Buffalo Bayou along the north end of the property. The 53-mile Buffalo Bayou flows through densely populated and commercialized sections of Houston, the nation’s fourth-most-populous city.

The bayou adds serenity and seclusion to the club grounds. Significant parts of seven holes border the bayou. River Oaks was left with no other choice but to pursue the project in response to the devastating impact Hurricane Harvey had on the property in August 2017. Club officials are hopeful the work that commenced in 2019, with the full 18 reopened this past spring, will also minimize any future erosion.

A construction veteran whose stepfather and mentor is legendary golf course architect Bill Coore, Johnson uses trucking metrics to describe the scope of the project. The access road constructed by the club supported the passage of 2,500 concrete trucks needed to install 3-foot-diameter piers at a depth of 62 feet. Close to 20,000 semis entered the grounds during construction.

“It was an engineering feat,” Johnson says. “It was completely different than golf course construction, because this was all just hardscape, concrete and barrier construction.”

Carefully studied capital improvement projects are a River Oaks staple. The club hired an engineering firm in 2005 to begin studying the feasibility and logistics of a bayou restoration effort. A committee formed and additional studies ensued before work commenced last April. COO and general manager Joe Bendy, who arrived at the club one year after Johnson, says that patience, flexibility, shared visions and having “the right people in the room” from the start are requirements to executing major club infrastructure projects. At River Oaks, Johnson is a key person in every short- and long-term grounds discussion.

“He’s a great leader of his team,” Bendy says. “He has a strong following of loyal, long-tenured employees, which is consistent in the club. If he can get it done to make a group of members happy, he’ll go out and do it. He also stands his ground when and where he should. That’s really encouraged in our club. He’s very good at taking the interests of the many and incorporating that into the management of the golf course to provide a really good product every day.”

For the past 15 years, Johnson learned as much as possible about waterway restoration and erosion by speaking with engineering experts and studying the successes and failures of similar projects, continuing a career-long trend of self-education. Johnson is a golf industry rarity: a turf leader at an elite club without a college degree.

A longtime Texas resident who attended high school on the same street as River Oaks — “River Oaks Boulevard is a mile long and it dead ends at both ends,” he says. “At one end there’s a country club, at the other end is the high school I graduated from” — Johnson spent a year at the University of Houston and planned on transferring to Sam Houston State to finish his degree, then transfer to pursue his medical degree. Between his freshman and expected sophomore years, he received a summer job at Waterwood National in Huntsville, Texas. The superintendent who hired Johnson happened to be married to his mother, Sharon.

“I met Morris when he was 15,” Coore says. “He was so bright that you knew he could succeed at whatever he chose to apply himself to.”

When Johnson now assigns jobs to employees, each one is likely on the lengthy list of tasks he performed during his ascent through an industry he never expected to enter.

Johnson

“He started at the very bottom, I mean the very bottom, with a weedeater and cutting grass and running mowers,” Coore says. “You can tell that he actually enjoyed it. He was inquisitive, which is such a great attribute. You could just see he was taking it all in. I wasn’t thinking about Morris being in the golf business in those early days and I don’t know if he was either. As he progressed through the different phases, doing different types of tasks on the maintenance crew, he obviously took a liking to it. As we say, I guess the rest is history.”

One summer turned into more than four decades working a variety of construction and maintenance jobs in Texas. Extreme heat. Massive storms. Unforgiving wind. None of it mattered to Johnson, as he learned how to operate a bulldozer from Coore and the intricacies of managing a team as an assistant superintendent at Rockport Country Club. Johnson entered the high-end Texas private scene by accepting an assistant superintendent position at Houston Country Club in the late 1980s. He then accepted the superintendent position at Crown Colony Country Club in Lufkin, Texas, declining an opportunity to help Coore and his famed design partner Ben Crenshaw build the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort in Maui.

“Maui or Lufkin, Texas,” Johnson says. “People looked at me like, ‘What are you thinking?’ But I ended up going to Lufkin for my first superintendent’s job. I wanted to prove myself. I wanted to quell any talk of me getting these jobs based on who I was related to.”

Johnson spent 12 years producing consistently elite conditions at Crown Colony. He then received a call from officials at the club he passed by in high school. “Nineteen years later,” he says. “It’s crazy.” Johnson attended an annual international tennis tournament hosted at River Oaks as a teenager, but he never stepped on the club’s golf grounds until he played the course while working at Houston Country Club.

“I’m probably in the 2 percent of superintendents who are at a high-end club with no degree, much less an agronomic degree,” he says. “That drove me more and more to learn everything I could off everybody. I always took that as a challenge.”

River Oaks Country Club completed a project earlier this year designed to minimize erosion along the Buffalo Bayou.

Qualities not easily taught in a classroom such as the ability to navigate major projects while overseeing daily agronomics has led to longevity for Johnson. Construction represents a River Oaks constant. The club worked with Fazio Design in 2014-15 for a complete renovation, also creating space for a nine-acre practice facility with a four-hole short course by eliminating three existing holes and adding three new ones in different locations. River Oaks has completed two bunker renovations using Bunker Solution liner and endured three punishing storms in three straight years, culminating with Harvey in 2017, during Johnson’s tenure. A flood caused by an unexpected storm in 2015 submerged an excavator; Harvey kept the third green under water for two weeks. “As the city grows, our flooding issues grow,” Johnson says.

The cleanup following Harvey involved senior assistant golf course superintendent Junior Schuette, a two-decade club employee, bringing a boat to the course to shuttle employees to submerged greens and fairways. Damage caused by the hurricane expedited the decision to proceed with the erosion work along Buffalo Bayou.

Johnson has worked with two celebrated architects — Tom Fazio and Rees Jones (a bunker project in 2008) — and their talented associates during his time at River Oaks. He has attended hundreds of meetings involving dozens of club committees and officials. Each spring his team must repair part of the grounds following the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship, a professional tennis tournament that counts Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi among its past champions.

Because his job requires oversight of the grounds and major projects, Johnson leans on Schuette and assistant superintendent Heath Wisdom to provide daily agronomic leadership. Perhaps the biggest agronomic challenge River Oaks faces is frequent and unexplainable sting nematode damage on ultradwarf Bermudagrass greens. “On a scale of 1 to 10, my stress level day-to-day is an eight or nine,” Johnson says. “It would be more like a four or a five if it wasn’t for those dang nematodes.”

Thanks to methodical pre-construction work, the club minimized the stress and distraction caused by the bayou project by finding an alternative to using the front gate for deliveries and keeping at least nine to 11 holes open throughout construction. The stakes proved much higher than a typical golf course renovation. While a hassle, a playing surface can be efficiently repaired. Returning to a major waterway because of an overlooked detail or faulty construction reflects poorly on a management team. “It’s a marriage,” Bendy says. “You better get the right people in the room to begin with.”

Few private clubs employ the same superintendent-general manager combination for nearly two decades. River Oaks department heads are reflective of the club, Bendy says. They are continually seeking ways to evolve. That mentality extends to employees.

“To me, what’s important is not just the tenure,” Bendy says. “Anyone can stay in a position for a long time, but these individuals have stayed in their positions for a long time and they continue to be innovative. They continue to be creative, they continue to motivate their teams, and they develop and groom individuals below them to help them find their own positions of leadership.”

At 58 years old, Johnson has devoted nearly a third of his life to ensuring a venerable club maintain its grand status. Through all the renovations, rebuilds and revamps, the serenity and security the job provides remains unchanged.

“When I’m having a cup of coffee in morning and standing on the 18th green and looking at the sun coming up, I go, ‘You know what, I have probably the best office in this entire city,’” Johnson says.

Guy Cipriano is Golf Course Industry’s editor-in-chief.