Editor’s notebook: They all know each other
Sewickley Heights Golf Club assistant superintendent Corey Cheza, left, golf course architect Jim Cervone, center, and superintendent Randall Pinckney discuss the course during a recent project.
Guy Cipriano (3)

Editor’s notebook: They all know each other

Continuity and renovations are concepts that often don’t go together in the private club world. Guy Cipriano returns to Sewickley Heights Golf Club to observe what happens when the same group combines for another big project.

December 6, 2021

They skipped the introductions and went right to the business of renovating bunkers.

In a private club world often filled with design and construction turnover, Sewickley Heights Golf Club in suburban Pittsburgh represents a laudable exception. When a team arrived to begin work Sept. 7, five key figures in the project had already worked together to improve playing surfaces on the 60-year-old club.

Sewickley Heights successfully executed a complex greens renovation in 2016 that involved stripping Poa annua off putting surfaces, rebuilding the subsurface elements and placing the removed Poa annua sod on the rebuilt greens. The effort was orchestrated to ensure the club had the proper infrastructure to support elite Poa annua greens. Members who demand ultra-slick Poa annua greens are as Pittsburgh as black, gold and sandwiches topped with fries.

When Sewickley Heights leaders started pondering a bunker renovation late last year, they entrusted director of golf David Malatak and superintendent Randall Pinckney to handle planning and logistics. The pair turned to Western Pennsylvania-based architect Jim Cervone and Aspen Corporation, a West Virginia-based company with a major Pittsburgh presence, for the design and construction. Aspen assigned Justin Chapman as project superintendent. A former mine ventilation engineer, Chapman joined the Aspen team in 2016. His first golf project? The greens renovation at Sewickley Heights guided by … yep, Cervone.

Pinckney and Malatak were in their same roles in 2016, too. And another sign of the continuity at Sewickley Heights: assistant superintendent Corey Cheza has been with the club since 2016.

“A lot of Aspen’s work is niche and we do have a lot of repeat customers,” Chapman says, “but when we come back to a club, it’s never the same team. I think it says a lot about Randall and Dave.”

Pinckney and Cheza worked together at Treesdale Golf & Country Club, where Pinckney led the maintenance of 27 holes before arriving at Sewickley Heights. Pinckney reports to Malatak, who started working in the pro shop in 1990 and has worked as the director of golf since 2015. Pinckney’s first head superintendent job was at Piney Branch (Maryland) Golf Club, where Cervone guided a renovation in the early 2000s.

Even the writer who covered the greens renovation is the same. Five years after visiting Sewickley Heights for the initial story, I returned to club in October to see the construction. I stood in a semi-circle with Pinckney, Cheza, Malatak, Cervone and Chapman on the putting green discussing the project before we toured the course. Trust and continuity represented themes of our conversation.

“We all know each other well enough to have a heart-to-heart if there’s something going on that we don’t like,” Pinckney says. “We just had one recently. We have to trust each other and getting that upfront to the start the project off is big for the club.”

Cervone is a deeply knowledgeable and omnipresent figure on project sites. He visited Sewickley Heights more than 40 times during the greens renovation and he was approaching 10 visits in the first month of the bunker project. During those occasions he can’t be at Sewickley Heights, he relies on the familiar quartet to provide candid updates and feedback.

“We all make each other look good,” Cervone says. “That’s the trust factor. I’m not out here hoping they are going to get something right. It’s always right.”

Unfortunately, architect, contractor, committee and even superintendent ego are part of the industry. Sometimes the consequences of renovation ego negatively affect the morale and finances of a club. Malatak succinctly says me-first attitudes don’t benefit anybody involved with club construction: “What’s the purpose of that? What good would that be?”

The bunker renovation at Sewickley Heights should make a Jim Harrison-designed course tidily maintained by Pinckney, Cheza and team further stand out in the crowded Pittsburgh private club market. Sewickley — population 3,761 — supports three private clubs constructed in different eras, giving it one of the best private club-to-resident ratios in the country.

Cervone’s plan addresses maintenance, playability and strategy. Softening severe noses and raising floors will allow Pinckney’s team to use mechanical rakes more frequently for daily maintenance. A few bunkers will be surrounded by fairway on the low side, while an approach bunker on the par-3 13th hole will be surrounded by fairway on all sides. Sewickley Heights will have 66 bunkers when work is complete.

The Aspen crew reconstructed the bunkers around play this fall. Thoughtful communication such as weekly updates from Malatak and digital messaging on carts alerting golfers as they approached a hole with active construction benefited all parties on the course. Work also includes the addition of 10 new tees.  

“One thing we had to tell people is that this is not a greens project, this is a bunker project, and we won’t be as invasive as that project,” Malatak says. “That made a lot of people comfortable with what we were doing.”

Construction, golf-friendly temperatures, and maintaining mature and new turf meant a hectic fall for Pinckney and Cheza, although the pair seems wired to handle continual activity. “To keep doing these projects and to raise the level of this club … we take pride in that,” Cheza says.  

Being busy, especially when you’re surrounded by quality people, beats the alternative. 

“The monotony of doing maintenance every day can be boring and I don’t want to be bored,” Pinckney says. “It’s one thing when you’re just maintaining, but when the club wants to put money into something and put it together right with the right people, it’s fun to see it come together.”

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