Editor’s notebook: Transitioning to the Travelers
John Deere

Editor’s notebook: Transitioning to the Travelers

Turf hasn’t always been the No. 1 focus at TPC River Highlands this year — yet the Connecticut course finds itself in a familiar summer spotlight.

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June 22, 2020

In the middle of a densely populated state, in the epicenter of a commerce-abundant corridor where everything unraveled fast, sits the one consistent presence in numerous lives this year: a 148-arce golf course.

Outsiders know this course because of its one constant. The PGA Tour has visited TPC River Highlands every summer since 1984 for the Travelers Championship. Through all the changes around it because of COVID-19’s impact in Connecticut and surrounding states during the past 16 weeks, the tournament stayed in its scheduled spot, making it an anomaly on the revised professional golf calendar.

The U.S. Open moved to September. The Masters shifted to November. The Travelers Championship? It will be staged June 25-28 as originally scheduled.

Transitioning to the Travelers Championship, though, presented management conundrums that director of golf course maintenance operations Jeff Reich and his management team will likely never face again. 

“As much as we work on the golf course, our focus has steered away from the golf course to how do we protect ourselves and others around us,” says Reich, a Minnesota native in his fifth year leading the TPC River Highlands agronomy team. “The golf course was the second thing we talked about, rather than the first.”

Connecticut never experienced an extended statewide golf shutdown like neighboring New York and Massachusetts. A private club surrounded by suburban homes, TPC River Highlands represented one of the few available recreational outlets for members and guests. The state initially required golfers to walk. Carts eventually returned under single-rider policies. “Golf was one of the few things you could do,” Reich says. “You couldn’t go out to eat, you couldn’t go to the beach.”

As COVID-19 started changing American life in March, Reich and other managers implemented numerous protective practices. Employees who could perform their jobs from home physically distanced themselves from the club. Even with spring air and soil temperatures slow to warm, Reich couldn’t keep his team away from the course. They always had a valuable asset to preserve.

Inside the maintenance facility, they propped doors open to limit touchpoints, removed tables from the breakroom and wore masks. Maintenance vehicles were limited to one user. Nobody cut a cup until May as golfers putted to flagsticks on raised stands. The club distributed videos to members demonstrating how to rake bunkers using feet. 

Staffing levels started increasing in April when the club learned the Travelers Championship’s place on the revised PGA Tour schedule. College students, including ones pursuing non-turf careers with canceled summer internships, quickly filled open positions and demonstrated the aptitude and eagerness to maintain elite bentgrass, Poa annua, ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrass playing surfaces. “We found that people were eager to work and get out of the house,” Reich says.

The team responsible for preparing TPC River Highlands for the Travelers Championship includes 27 fulltime and season employees supplemented by 25 tournament volunteers. Three AITs and two interns are products of the University of Connecticut turfgrass management program.

While COVID-19 induces management challenges, there’s significantly less pre-tournament commotion around the property. The Travelers Championship — the second most-attended annual PGA Tour event behind the Waste Management Phoenix Open — will be contested without fans. The reduction in tournament infrastructure gives Reich’s team more time to focus on final agronomic assignments such as boosting turf growth of outside-the-ropes areas typically covered by tents or bleachers.

Led by assistant superintendent Jason Connata, TPC River Highlands also has integrated a pair of John Deere ProGator 2020A GPS PrecisionSprayers into Travelers Championship preparations. The sprayers, Reich says, have already enhanced conditioning and saved labor.

“It’s more than just following the edge of your fairways and mapping out fairways,” he adds. “We have made site-specific programs based on grass types. We’re not just out there spraying anymore. We’re also out there scouting while spraying because the technology affords us that ability.”

Turf-centered topics represent a reprieve for Reich and his team. When spring started, some doubted whether their 2020 sprays would be tidying turf for PGA Tour players.     

“Right now,” Reich says, “everybody feels comfortable. This is more of a refuge for our team to enjoy themselves and see the fruits of their labor and know that the work they have done in light of a pandemic has paid off.”

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