Mike Brunelle received hints that Upper Montclair Country Club might be called on to host the 2022 edition of the Cognizant Founders Cup. So, when the official announcement came in December, Brunelle was already plotting his preparations. And when the LPGA players arrive the week of May 9, the northern New Jersey club will be ready for them.
“We’ve been fortunate this year,” Brunelle says. “There’s a lot of winter damage around us. Somehow, we were able to escape it, which is good. What I’m trying to figure out is whether our trees are going to to leaf out and whether I’m going to have oak catkins all over the place blowing all over like the Wild Wild West, but most of it is whether everything is going to wake up.”
A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Brunelle has been the director of grounds at Upper Montclair since March of 2009, the last year the club hosted the LPGA Tour. Prior to that, he held the same position at Trump National Bedminster.
Brunelle’s primary concerns prior to this year’s event were less about the condition of the turf and more about the property and infrastructure.
The golf course at Upper Montclair is the work of Robert Trent Jones Sr. and dates back to 1956. It features 27 holes. Over the last six decades, it has hosted all three American-based tours: the PGA (later the PGA Tour), the LPGA and what at the time was the Senior Tour.
The South and West Nines will be utilized for the Founders Cup, with the South serving as the front nine and the West as the second nine. The West Nine will play in a different order than usual. West #1 will be the 10th hole. From there, competitors will play the fourth through the ninth, then the third before finishing at West #2, which will serve as the 18th.
In years past, portions of two holes on East Nine were converted into a range, but Brunelle took a different approach this time around. The first item on his pre-tournament, to-do list was constructing a new range for the pros. “Technology and the players have gotten a lot better than even where we were in 2009,” he says. “The length of (the holes on the East Nine) was not going to be good enough for today’s players.”
The solution was a new driving range tee that was built at the bottom of the existing range. “In order for us to have a driving range tee that would be ready to go in May, we needed to have sod on the ground in December,” Brunelle says. “So, Christmas week we were laying sod on a brand-new driving range tee and I think that was one of the biggest challenges going into it.”
Repairing walls collapsed in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Ida last September was another challenge Upper Montclair faced.
“We had plans of reengineering some wall structures and putting those back up,” Brunelle adds. “That was something we had to make the call on. We were able to get them back up more structurally sound than they ever were. It was more the infrastructure than the grass conditioning itself.”
Brunelle prides himself on the golf course that he and his crew present to the members every day. Upon learning in December that the Founders Cup would be coming to his club in mid-May, however, Brunelle made some adjustments to his agronomic program.
“We changed our aerification process a little bit,” he says. “Instead of going out with a 3/8th-inch tine this spring, we went out with a 1/4th-inch tine so the recovery wouldn’t be nearly as much. We did not do a drill-and-fill, which normally we would do in the spring. We’ll just end up doing a deep tine later in the year, or a drill- and-fill during our August aeration. So, there were some different maintenance practices that we normally get done that we had to change around but that was majority.”
Brunelle will have a crew of approximately 65 on hand for tournament week, including volunteers from other clubs. Upper Montclair Country Club is committed to hosting the Cognizant Founders Cup through 2024.
Rick Woelfel is a Philadelphia-based writer and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.
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