The Road to Shinnecock: ‘June is coming at us at full speed’

The Road to Shinnecock: ‘June is coming at us at full speed’

Shinnecock Hills Golf Club superintendent Jon Jennings describes the final weeks of U.S. Open preparation in an exclusive diary.

May 22, 2018

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first installment in a diary series in partnership with BASF describing the people, maintenance practices and agronomic programs at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.  

 

The vibe is extreme excitement. We’re thrilled to be getting ready in our preparation for the championship. The golf course is in great condition. We’re in an excellent spot and the build is in full motion. There are a lot of tents going up right now. There’s also a lot of activity around the outside the ropes area and everything is really starting to pull together and jell. 

The winter was funny – it was up and down. Toward the end of December it cooled down. January was setting up to be a true winter and February was rather mild. And then it has just been unseasonably cool through April and even into early May. It hasn’t really impacted the turf, but typically we are cool out here until the end of May/early June just because the air temperature is predicated on the ocean warming and we’re just in the upper 40s right now in ocean temperature. Overall the golf course came through the winter really well. We have good color and the playing conditions are firm. We’re setting up for some good, fast playing surfaces for the professionals in a few weeks.

We try to arrange a structured day with what we have going on in maintenance. But you end up having unexpected occurrences. For instance, someone will come to us, whether it’s a contractor or a USGA operations person, and they will need a location for irrigation pipe or wires because they will be putting up a tent or fence or doing some type of excavation work. That can throw you off a little bit. You just have to be prepared for it. We have some great assistants, assistant-in-training candidates and interns who have really stepped up and met the challenge for these areas and helped us maintain our direction of maintenance throughout the day.

We have a bigger staff this year. Our staff is presently 40 where normally it would be in the low 30s. On any given day, seven days a week, there are at least 150 contractors moving around, setting things up. The towers are going up, the tents and hospitality structures are going up. Overall, there’s a lot of activity. My sense of it is that it just feels like time is moving extremely fast. I still remember six years out when I started here and our initial discussion about the Open. At that time it seemed like it was just forever away – and now June is coming at us at full speed.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m going to say the overall mood is excitement. With regard to being exhausted or tired, to be honest, we have had longer working springs with projects and course maintenance. It has been a pretty straightforward spring coming out of winter. The covers came off the greens and we have worked on grooming and maintenance, getting the bunkers ready, and getting everything in top playing condition as we move forward. It’s like navigating a large ship through a canal. I see our direction just as a matter of staying on course. 

We have some wonderful experience among our staff. Leading the assistants is Mike Ford, our senior assistant, and behind him is Bobby Bolin. Bobby is our assistant who takes care of all the plant protectants and fertilizer applications. Lindsay Brownson is our newest assistant and she’s in her third season. She’s been organizing the “volunteer experience,” which is everything from arranging the volunteers’ travel and housing, catering and any other incidentals that will be required to make them comfortable during their time at the Championship.

It’s interesting. Some years we have a lot of turnover with our staff and other years we don’t. If I had to throw a number at it, I would say about half of our seasonal staff turned over this year. We have some good core people and other people who joined us brought some experience from other clubs. We have a good, hard-working staff that has really united with each other. One of the interesting factors – and I have spoken with a couple of other superintendents about it – is that we have nine women on our staff helping us achieve our goals.

My methodology is to keep your eyes on the prize. We don’t let up. What I see is that if you drift and your mind starts to wander, you’re not focused on what you’re doing. We’re staying focused on that Championship all the way through.

You just keep reminding them each morning that we are so many days out, not to make mistakes, to be extremely careful with equipment and the operation, and do the absolutely best job you can do every single day. That’s the message we leave our maintenance facility with as we go out on the golf course. People who have never seen a U.S. Open might have not have any idea that it’s going to be something big. But right across the street from our maintenance facility is a 40,000-square foot merchandise tent. Something of that size and scale just lends itself to a message that there’s something big that’s going to happen here and it’s exciting.

As far as industry excitement, the majors always pique interest and we had a number of volunteer applicants who submitted requests to be with us. Unfortunately, we couldn’t select everyone. One of the things I wanted to draw from was having local interest. We really wanted to make sure we had a focus on individuals who were from the area and wanted to be a part of it. That way 10, 15, 20 years from now someone looking back that lives within a 30-mile, 40-mile radius can say, “Yeah, I remember when the Open was at Shinnecock in 2018 and I was part of it.” We really wanted to get some local ownership so we can have that regional pride.

Everything we have done has started to come together and it’s starting to make the golf course shine. All of those little things just add up. When you see a plan come together and solidify, that’s definitely the most satisfying thing.