Under the water tower

Features - Cover Story

You have seen it on TV. But how much do you really know about Firestone Country Club? Learn what happens when cameras and golf greats aren’t roaming the sprawling grounds.

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February 2, 2021

About that water tower

The most well-known feature of Firestone Country Club doesn’t rest on any of its 18-hole golf courses. The club constructed a 125-foot water tower in 1959, one year after a fire destroyed the original clubhouse. The lack of a nearby water source was a major reason the clubhouse couldn’t be saved.

The tower held 50,000 gallons of water before being drained in the 1990s. Possessing vivid red and white paint, the tower no longer operates, although it remains an omnipresent part of the club and can be seen from various parts of the South, North and Fazio courses.

Courtesy of FirestonE Country club

Two courses surround the 18 holes everybody knows from TV. They are equally charming — and more congenial on scorecards — and provide totality to the golfer and turf employee experience at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.

Perhaps no golf course north of Augusta, Georgia, deserves more credit than Firestone South for launching professional golf into the television era. The Bert Way design toughened by Robert Trent Jones Sr. might be the pound-for-pound champion of archived televised golf inventory. The club has hosted touring professionals every year since 1954, when combustible Tommy Bolt won the Rubber City Open. Three PGA Championships were contested on Firestone South from 1960 to 1975. The course’s tree-lined fairways, steep bunkers and slick greens received more airtime than Mary Tyler Moore in 1974, hosting the NEC World Series of Golf, American Golf Classic and CBS Golf Championship.

Televised tournaments remain part of the Firestone Country Club brand. Stars who propelled the South Course onto the global stage now visit Akron each summer for the Bridgestone SENIOR Players Championship.

But understanding Firestone requires spending time on the 600-acre grounds when cameras and major champions aren’t around. It requires stepping off the South Course and observing the volume of activity on the North and Fazio courses. Anywhere else, the lakes and strategic trees of the North Course and the wide playing corridors and panoramic views of the Fazio Course earn starring roles. At Firestone, they are akin to the producer and director: vitally important to the overarching goals of a large-scale operation.

Firestone is the largest golf facility in Ohio, a state responsible for Jack Nicklaus, the Powell family, the GCSAA and Pete Dye, the centerpiece of the ClubCorp portfolio, and a scenic slice of rubber innovator Harvey Firestone’s legacy. The staff responsible for grounds and operations also oversees the Raymond C. Firestone Public 9, making Firestone a 63-hole facility supporting private, corporate, overnight package, international tournament and everybody-is-welcome play. Translation: Firestone is a busy place.

Renee Geyer (Fazio Course), Tim Gruber (South Course), Scott Traphagen (North Course), Tom Keeling (assistant superintendent) and Larry Napora (director of golf course operations) oversee the maintenance of Firestone Counry Club’s 63 holes.
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“You just never get bored in this business,” director of golf course operations Larry Napora says. “I think the superintendents who get complacent are the ones who get in trouble. It will never be that way here.”

Before an inspection of the Fazio Course bunker renovation on a Tuesday afternoon last October, Napora recites what awaits the following day. “Look at what we have going on right now,” he says. “Tomorrow morning we are going to have a company in doing drainage, we have a company in doing bunkers, we have a company coming in for tree maintenance and we have a company coming in for asphalt. And we host the second round of the Ohio Cup. And it’s payroll day. How can you get bored?”

One recreational pursuit spurs the endless supply of tasks and projects. Firestone doesn’t have a pool, fitness center, bocce ball courts or trendy driving range and bar (yet). The club has three 18-hole courses unveiled in different eras — the South in 1929, the North in 1969, the Fazio in 2002 — and they must meet the standard set by what has appeared on television for decades.

Elite course conditions are the durable rubber to the Firestone Country Club tire. The business model flops without them. “It’s the primary driver of everything that goes on,” general manager Jay Walkinshaw says. “People are here for the golf experience. What Firestone is known for, especially the South Course, is having championship conditions all the time.”

Tim Gruber thought he fully understood championship course conditioning. Gruber spent 18 years as a superintendent in Northeast Ohio. He prepared courses to peak for member-guests and other summer events. Then, in 2017, he accepted a job as Firestone’s South Course superintendent. Firestone South hosted its final World Golf Championship-Bridgestone Invitational in his first summer on the job. The course hosted its first Bridgestone SENIOR Players Championship in Gruber’s second summer. But he learned more about Firestone during the weeks and months surrounding the television appearances.

The North Course at Firestone Country Club is a Robert Trent Jones. Sr. design across the street from the famed South Course.
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“Everybody looks at their member-guest — and I always did — and you fall into that trap of let’s get the course as good as it can be for that weekend,” Gruber says. “Here it’s a different story. You have to have it like that all the time.”

Besides two or three inches of additional rough and a few extra rolls and mows on greens required to test touring professionals, Firestone South is a Hollywood rarity. From April to October, and now even stretching into part of Ohio’s increasingly warmer Novembers, the course presents an as-seen-on-TV appearance, thanks to a coordinated effort replicated throughout the property.

The Firestone team shares a central maintenance facility equidistant to the 18th hole of each course. Napora, who worked as the superintendent at venerable clubs on opposite sides of Pennsylvania — Oakmont Country Club and Philadelphia Country Club — supervised the agronomic development of 27-hole Treesdale Golf & Country Club in suburban Pittsburgh, and served as a ClubCorp regional director of agronomy, has overseen Firestone’s golf course operations since 2008. His biggest triumph involves getting a team averaging 66 employees, many of them with decades of Firestone experience, to efficiently operate as one unit.

The turf management structure is lean. Firestone has a superintendent for each course: Gruber, Scott Traphagen (North) and Renee Geyer (Fazio). Tom Keeling was the lone assistant superintendent in 2020. The department is looking to add two assistant superintendents. Unlike other globally-recognized clubs, Firestone doesn’t employ a cadre of assistants and assistants-in-training, yet it’s continually lauded for producing tournament-like conditions.

“Those in the business will get it,” says director of golf Tommy Moore, an energetic front-facing presence who arrived last year. “When you get to a multi-course facility, there’s always, more or less, a course that shows it’s the third in ranking. There’s always a dog in the bunch. There’s not a dog here. You take the North, South or Fazio out of here, put it anywhere else as a standalone golf course, and you would have a waiting list to join a country club.

“What I’m amazed at as a golf professional is that the care and conditioning of each of these golf courses is the same level. It’s so consistent. You might rank them and say, yes, this is my No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 in the order that you like to play them, but you will never ever be able to rank them via conditioning or say one is better conditioned than the others.”

Traphagen relishes the praise, savors his daily surroundings and might be Firestone’s fiercest advocate. The longest tenured of the four course superintendents — “Scott is our poster child for Firestone,” Napora says — Traphagen has observed everything from golf greats to country music stars performing at nearby Blossom Music Center in his two decades at Firestone. When a new employee joins the team, he drives them around the parking lot, pointing out luxury cars, states on license plates and the joy on golfers’ faces.

“The first week I was here, Mr. Firestone put me in the proper mindset to realize, you have no idea who that guest is coming down that fairway,” says Geyer, referring to Traphagen. “They might have flown in from Europe to be here or they might have come from California and you want to make sure you give them the best possible experience you can, and you want to make sure it’s the exact way you’d want to play it or experience it.”

The newly renamed Fazio Course is the youngest of Firestone Country Club’s three 18-hole layouts.
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Traphagen and Geyer are now part of a management team sharing office space, equipment, personnel, turf knowledge and plenty of laughs, all in hopes of getting courses constructed in three different eras with contrasting infrastructure, soils, grasses and golf settings to play at a similarly high level.

The South Course has undergone numerous renovations and tweaks, but visiting agronomists are always stunned upon learning championship Poa annua greens are produced using an irrigation system without individual head control. The Fazio Course, which surrounds the South Course, possesses a modern and precise irrigation system controlling the amount of water dispersed on bentgrass greens, fairways and tees. The 15th green on the Fazio Course represents the highest point on the property and offers unencumbered views of the club’s famous (and no longer in use) 125-foot water tower and the North Course. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., the North Course features soothing and strategic water hazards at eye level and abundant sand and gravel below the surface. “It’s like these three golf courses could be in different states,” Geyer says.

Napora allows the superintendents to manage the courses as they deem fit, although some uniform practices such as the walk mowing of greens are executed throughout the property. Communication among the superintendents about chemical and fertility programs, staff allocations and assignments, and equipment needs is constant. “There are 600 acres here,” Napora says. “One person can’t do it, five of us can’t do it, it’s a whole team effort. If you give ownership, then there’s pride and then you get quality work out of it.”

Fall represents the most hectic time of year at Firestone, as September and early October often bring fuller tee sheets than spring and summer months. Late-season golfer activity must be balanced with agronomic needs such as fall aerification. For the first time in Napora’s tenure, club management extended the golf season to Thanksgiving weekend in 2020. A renovation designed to reduce the square footage and improve the drainage of the Fazio Course bunkers commenced this past October. Firestone also expanded the marketing efforts around its stay-and-play packages in the second half of 2020, exposing new guests to the course they know from TV and the two pleasant layouts surrounding it. “When we talk about the repositioning of Firestone,” says Walkinshaw, the club’s general manager since 2019, “we are truly opening it up to the world.”

On top of everything else, the club increases utilization potential by offering morning, mid-afternoon and late-afternoon starting waves off the first and 10th tees of the South and North courses, which stay open on Mondays during the peak season. Keeping ahead of morning play on four nines? Daunting to some. Just another boredom-avoiding day at Firestone.

“I have been here for a total of 20 years,” says Traphagen, who moved to South Carolina in the early 2000s before returning to the Ohio land that he loves. “We really need 90 or 100 people, but we run with 66. To get everything done on a daily basis and then to pull off a tournament every year … I’m truly amazed by what we do every day and every week here.”

Guy Cipriano is Golf Course Industry’s editor-in-chief. Please don’t ask him what score he posted on Firestone South.