Cade Cutchen has a tendency to be early.
He wrapped up his high school classes when he was 16. He finished college when he was 20. He was working in the golf course maintenance industry full time by then, too, balancing course work with the real world. Married in his early 20s, he and his wife, Lili, have one cross-country move to their credit — a major accomplishment for any couple — from Florida to California. He was the first turf pro in his state to complete the GCSAA Assistant Superintendent Certification Series. He was the first in his region to apply to be a GCSAA Grassroots Ambassador, lobbying politicians for the industry. Heck, if you forget all about time zones and absentmindedly call him before the sun is rising, odds are good he is already awake, alert and ready to talk.
“I like to focus on what’s in front of me,” he says.
Until just last week, that meant full days at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, where he had worked since May 2019 as a second assistant superintendent, primarily on the Ocean Course with superintendent Andrew Crawford and the 9-hole Cliffs Course. It will soon mean a relocation back east to TPC Sawgrass, where he will start this month. And it also means receiving the 2020 Stanley Zontek Memorial Scholarship presented by Golf Course Industry.
Cutchen edged an impressive field of applicants for the scholarship, an unrestricted $2,500 grant that supports a turf student with a passion for the game and honors Stanley J. Zontek, the former director of the USGA Green Section’s Mid-Atlantic Region, who died in 2012. Cutchen, who already owns an economics degree from Florida State, has balanced the rigors of full-time work with earning a formal green industry education at Florida Gateway College. He's on track to graduate from the advanced horticulture and agribusiness programs in December and holds a 3.33 GPA.
Cutchen was still in high school then, just young enough to have missed out on meeting Zontek. His supervisor, Troy Flanagan, the director of golf maintenance at The Olympic Club, has plenty of memories of the man, though, and passed along some when Cutchen raised the topic earlier this year: When Flanagan was still an intern at DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Delaware, Zontek was called in to provide perspective in advance of an LPGA Tour event. Flanagan remembers Zontek as “calm, supportive and caring, always available and ready to help another superintendent get through a difficult situation.”
“Superintendents form a special community of teamwork and fellowship,” Cutchen wrote in his application essay. “Stanley Zontek embodied that attitude and, throughout his career, inspired generations of superintendents.”
Count Cutchen among those inspired. Now in his fourth year in the industry, he logged stints at Wildwood Golf & RV Resort in Crawfordville, Florida, and Capital City Country Club in Tallahassee, before heading west.
At Wildwood, he originally planned to use his finance degree to “kind of keep track of their books.” That lasted until he started to pitch in on maintenance during weekends. “The first time I got on a tractor,” he says, “I wanted to be on a golf course the rest of my life. I wanted to be outside, working with my hands and working with a team of guys on the golf course.”
At Capital City, he worked with superintendent Chase Brown, who he credits with keeping him in the industry. “He’s a young superintendent who did everything he could possibly do to get me learning,” Cutchen says. “Most guys, if they had a good assistant working under them, will try to keep them. They can be possessive. They want you on their staff because you’re making their staff better. He was completely different than that. He encouraged me to go see something new, to go learn, and to go see what this industry has to offer. I still talk with him every couple of weeks and touch base on what’s going on there.”
Cutchen packed his days at The Olympic Club with more education on and off the course. He sprinted through the assistant superintendent certification before applying to be a grassroots ambassador, for which he was tasked with talking a couple times each year with his local Congressional representative — who happens to be Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. The 2021 U.S. Women’s Open and a course redesign with Gil Hanse are still on the schedule by the Bay — “this is somewhere you can always be learning,” Cutchen says — but so too did an opportunity at another vaunted club. Cutchen announced his relocation back to Florida and his new gig at TPC Sawgrass on Twitter, featuring a photo of the famed Stadium Course’s Island Green.
Who knows what else the future holds for any 23-year-old, even those with ambition, passion and more than a foot in the door. But Flanagan thinks plenty of Cutchen — as he does of his managers.
“I can’t sit here and say he’s cured polio, but he picks things up extremely well, he loves new challenges and he’s just a phenomenal person,” Flanagan says. “That means so much to me when I have good people working for me. He’s one of those guys, you look at him — and I’m pretty fortunate in that everybody on my team has high potential — and you think, some day, he’s going to be in a position like mine if that’s what he wants. That’s the best way I can put it. You can just tell. He has that look in his eye.”