Bill Irving considers himself the turf pro equivalent of a player’s coach.
Now in his seventh season as the director of agronomy at Wolf Creek in Olathe, Kansas, about 30 miles southwest of downtown Kansas City, Irving (top, middle) provides his superintendent, assistants, mechanics and dozen fulltime crew members with as much freedom and respect as possible. Have scrap wood at home that needs to be pitched? Bring it in for the burn pile. Need equipment from the maintenance facility for some yardwork? Take it with you after your shift — “just know,” he says, “that you’re responsible for it when it leaves.” Celebrating a wedding or an anniversary? Or a birthday? Perhaps a big one like a quinceañera or a sweet 16? Go ahead and treat it like the big deal that it is.
Treating people like adults — like human beings, with full lives outside their professional work — seems like a simple and straightforward idea. But it remains an idea worth sharing because so many work environments still seem to think of the people they trumpet as their most important resource as unable to think and act for themselves. Culture is key and developing that culture can spark incredible results.
At Wolf Creek, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with a significant clubhouse expansion project, those results include the sort of work environment where superintendent Sean Berger (top, left) assistants Clayton Schwarz (bottom, second from left), Nick Reedy (bottom, second from right) and Austin Banzet (bottom, middle), and longtime crew members like Mike McClelland (top, right) Edwin Carillo (bottom, far right) and Antonio Calva (bottom, far left) are provided with the freedom and trust that everything the course needs will be accomplished.
“It’s big, whether people want to think it is or not,” says Irving, whose player’s coach ethos extended to renting a mechanical bull for a recent holiday party. “Resources like that are few and far between, and we’re lucky to have them.”
For as fun as Irving can be, Wolf Creek can tend to feel like a serious place. Tom Watson lives just minutes away and considers it to be his home course, and Irving estimates that more than half of the 260 members carry single-digit handicaps. Irving weighs every potential shot whenever walking or driving the course — before ever-so-slightly altering it. He removed hundreds of trees over six years in an effort to open the corridors between holes. He purchased 150 ball pit balls to better determine how wind was blowing in certain areas, then presented his findings to the board.
“It’s interesting to see the evolution through the years — projects here, projects there — but for the longest time, they didn’t do much,” he says. “In our region, from St. Louis to Kansas City on down, if you got asked to play Wolf Creek, it was a treat. You were out in the middle of nowhere, widely regarded as the best greens in the region. A lot of that was because of Marvin Ferguson” — a soil scientist who designed course in the late 1960s and early ’70s and carried encyclopedic knowledge of turf.
On an overcast Monday morning earlier this year, a quintet of crew members was hours into hunching over that same turf, fitting sod cut from the 12-acre Meyer zoysiagrass farm on site. This is one of so many jobs this day, this week, this month, this season that Irving trusts them to do, do well, and do on time. He doesn’t micromanage because he doesn’t need to.
The player’s coach trusts his incredibly talented team.
Matt LaWell is Golf Course Industry’s managing editor.