|home | subscribe | contact us | advertise with us | feature editorial guidelines | research editorial guidelines | gcsaa.org|
Back in Black
As the U.S. Open returns to Bethpage, this model of public golf shows it is much more than just its world-renowned Black Course.
Sometimes the most trying of days for the men and women of the golf course maintenance industry can also be the most revealing.
Such is the case on a cold and gray March morning at Bethpage State Park, the pastoral monument to public golf carved into the urban heart of central Long Island. This is normally one of the busiest golfing centers in America, with more than 275,000 rounds annually coursing through its five layouts. In less than three months, the park’s venerable Black Course will be the center of the golf world as the host to the
But on this day, the park is fighting a battle with a cold, heavy overcast and is losing. The Black and Red courses are still closed for the season, and only a handful of the most dedicated golfers are playing the three open courses — the Blue, the Green and the Yellow — and they’re almost all walking; too cold to ride.
That’s left the park’s golf maintenance team with a fairly open agenda. Headquartered in a series of wood-shingled buildings atop a hill near the Black Course’s second green, the senior members of that team are finding ways to stay productive while waiting for a break in the weather so final preparations for both the golf season to come and the Open can begin in earnest.
A few tinker with a weary old office computer in an attempt to squeeze a few more days out of it until the state’s IT department can deliver a promised new machine. Others check out the early stages of construction on some of the oversized tents that will ultimately house Open-related hospitality and merchandise areas. Still others roam their respective courses, noting what’s already been done and what still needs to be done before spring.
And one solitary figure wanders the maintenance facility’s blacktop parking lot, armed with a can of spray paint, taking stock of a winter’s worth of potholes and cracked surfaces, marking off areas that will need repair.
In and of itself, checking that final task off a to-do list on a day like today isn’t all that surprising. Pretty good use of time, really. However, the fact that the person doing the task is Craig Currier, the man in charge of all maintenance at Bethpage who in June will serve as the host superintendent for his second U.S. Open in the last seven years … well, that actually is a little surprising and more than a little telling.
Currier is somewhat taken aback when asked why he was handling such a minor task as opposed to some college intern or a part-time laborer. “Hey, we all pitch in around here and do what has to be done,” he says. “We have our titles and our structure just like everybody does, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get in there and get my hands dirty. It’s actually one of the things I love about this place. There’s always something. Keeps it exciting.”
The People’s Open
It also, to steal a phrase from “the kids,” keeps it real for Currier and the five GCSAA members who fill senior leadership roles within the maintenance department. Yes, one of the courses under their watch is considered among the finest in the world (ranked 29th on Golf Digest’s most recent ranking of America’s top 100 golf courses) and this month will play host to its second U.S. Open.
But on the other hand, they also maintain courses with $30 green fees that attract factory workers, little old ladies, kids tackling the game for the very first time. There’s a reason the park has long been regarded as a country club for the everyman and why the 2002 Open — the first ever contested at a public facility — was lovingly dubbed “the People’s Open.” Currier’s crew is mindful of the balance needed to honor both sides of Bethpage’s personality.
“These guys make my life easier; it was a lot harder job when I first started than it is now,” Currier says. “Certainly, having 90 holes and a 1,500-acre piece of property, no one can do it alone. But these guys know the ropes around here as well as I do. And for the most part, they’ve made their way up the ranks. They’ve been here a year or two as interns, moved up the chain to assistants and now into their current positions. Then this fall, once all of this is done, I anticipate some of these guys leaving here to run their own shops. And we have guys right behind them ready to step in. We’ve been able to get a good system in place.”
That approach extends to the story you’re reading right now. Sure, Currier was ready and willing to talk about his career, his management philosophies for the Black and preparations for the U.S. Open. But he also wanted to talk about Bethpage’s four other courses, the clientele they attract, the men in charge of maintaining those courses and the roles they’ll play during the third week of June.
It’s obvious that they not only share the workload at Bethpage, but also the credit.
Finding a home
They don’t throw around nicknames much at Bethpage, but if they did, “The Mayor” would fit Currier as well as any. Spend a day with the tall, 38-year-old native of Utica, N.Y., and you come to find out that Currier knows just about everybody and that just about everybody knows Currier.
At the park, he’s equally at ease with his direct supervisor, park superintendent Dave Catalano, or talking to the pro shop staff, a golfer checking in for a late morning tee time or officials with the USGA. Over lunch at a bar and grill in Bethpage’s small downtown area, he chats up busboys and waitresses, the restaurant’s owner, the suit-and-tie crowd at the bar eating burgers and watching ESPN. He knows them all.
Of course, a tenure as lengthy as Currier’s will do that. Following stops at a pair of Long Island golf staples, Piping Rock Club and Garden City Golf Club, Currier came to Bethpage in 1997, oversaw Rees Jones’ renovation of the Black Course and then prepped it for the wildly successful 2002 Open. His run at the park has now stretched into its 12th year.
“I think at first I envisioned being here through the first Open, hoping that went off well,” the 17-year GCSAA member says. “I figured a successful Open would open a lot of doors, which it did. But it also made this a really great job with all of the resources we need. I don’t think there is any place I could go that would be as exciting and have as much to do as here. It’s nonstop, and I like that.”
He’s also embracing his inclusion in the select group of working superintendents who have hosted multiple U.S. Opens at the same course, a club that currently includes just one other member — Paul Jett, CGCS at Pinehurst (N.C.) No. 2, who hosted in 1999 and 2005 and will host again in 2014.
“There’s only been 109 of them,” Currier says of the Open. “There are not a lot of guys who can say they’ve done that. And if we’re lucky enough to commit to some more, I’d love to stay here and get four or five under my belt when all is said and done.”
Dialing in the Black
Currier admits to significant differences between the run-up to that first Open back in 2002 and the months leading up to this year’s affair.
The most notable of those differences is an obvious one — no multi-million dollar renovation to worry about this time. When Currier first arrived on the scene at Bethpage, job one was overseeing the facelift of the Black that was intent on transforming an over-burdened, state-run layout — albeit one designed by legendary golf course architect A.W. Tillinghast — into a venue suitable for hosting one of golf’s biggest tournaments. Making sure that process came off without a hitch and then refining those improvements going into the Open occupied a large part of Currier’s time and efforts.
“With the renovation … we had a lot of stuff to think about before the first one,” Currier says.
To be sure, there have been a fair number of tweaks in advance of this year’s tournament (See “Nip/tuck” on Page 51), but nothing like the work that preceded 2002. That’s allowed Currier and his team to focus more on fine-tuning the Black. The results, he says, will be noticeable.
“Personally, I think the course is going to be a lot better this time. I’m not saying the surfaces are going to be better, but a lot of the peripheral stuff will be better. We’ve added some bunkers, changed some fairway contours. I think the course is just going to play better.”
Having been through this experience once before has given Currier at least a semblance of ease as the Open approaches (“I guess I don’t have as much nervous energy as I did last time,” he admits). Of course, that doesn’t do much for those among his right-hand men for whom this will be their first rodeo. That includes two relative newcomers to the industry who focus their day-in, day-out attention on the Black Course — Tim Gravert and Kevin Carroll.
Although his bright red St. Louis Cardinals cap gives him away, Gravert holds the distinction of being the only one of Bethpage’s top managers who’s not a native New Yorker. Instead, the six-year member of GCSAA hails from Morrison, Ill., a town of around 10,000 in northeast Illinois, about 130 miles straight west of Chicago. “You get that many people in a square mile out here,” he jokes.
Gravert made the unlikely jump from rural Illinois to Long Island via an internship at New Jersey’s Atlantic City Country Club, where he met superintendent Jeff Kent (a 15-year GCSAA member who is now the Class A superintendent at Quail Hollow Country Club in Charlotte, N.C.). Kent was a classmate of Currier’s at the State University of New York, Cobleskill and recommended Gravert for an opening at Bethpage. He joined the park’s maintenance team five years ago.
“When my internship was done, I was looking for places that might help my advancement in this career,” Gravert says. “This was one of those places.”
Like Currier and Kent, Carroll is a graduate of the turfgrass management program at SUNY Cobleskill, and the five-year GCSAA member used that connection to land his position at Bethpage, first as an intern in 2004 and later as a full-time employee in January 2005.
“It doesn’t get any better than Craig in terms of someone to work for, to learn from,” Carroll says. “You’ve got five golf courses, you’re always doing something different, something unique. The experience … you’re getting it all. Everything from the daily care of the turf to construction to tournament prep. You do it all here.”
Gravert and Carroll will spend Open week as Currier’s field generals on the Black, one overseeing the front nine, the other the back nine. They’ll be hands-on in supervision of the 100 or so volunteers expected to assist in maintenance and will be on-call to work with both Currier and USGA officials as the need arises.
Both Open rookies are excited about the experience to come this month. “This is something I wanted to go through, something I wanted to experience,” Gravert says. “I think it will be good for my career.”
The other Open rookie — Ryan Vogler, the superintendent of the Blue and Yellow courses — is the new kid on the block at Bethpage, with just 20 months under his belt this month. But he is certainly no stranger to tournament golf, and in a slightly ironic twist, is among the most experienced of the individual course superintendents.
The 12-year GCSAA member and graduate of Penn State’s turfgrass program has built a career that has taken him to both ends of the Eastern Seaboard, first at Green Brook Country Club in North Caldwell, N.J., then in Florida at the TPC Tampa Bay before returning to the Northeast at Garden City CC and, now, Bethpage.
Those first two experiences gave Vogler his initial taste of preparing a course for professional golf events (both hosted Champions Tour events during his time at those courses) and whet his appetite for future tournament experiences. “I fell in love with tournament golf,” he says. “And I really wanted to work at places where I could experience tournament golf.”
A U.S. Open should go a long way to satisfying that appetite, and in fact, already has. Vogler has been wrapped up in the early stages of setup for tournament infrastructure, a process that will consume the first hole of the Blue Course with the massive 45,000-square-foot merchandise tent and the 10th hole of the Yellow Course, which will serve as the main drop-off point for buses carrying spectators to the tournament.
“The whole preparation process has just been phenomenal, fascinating,” Vogler says. “Seeing all the roads and the tents going up, helping with some of the construction process on the course itself. I’m sure the tournament stuff is probably going to be a lot like some of the other tournaments I’ve worked, just different in scope, but I think the preparations is what I’ve really enjoyed the most.”
In the land of Giants and Jets, there is one sure way to get on the good side of not only Currier but also one of his most loyal lieutenants, Red Course superintendent Mike Hadley: Talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Both men are dyed-in-the-wool fans of the Steel Curtain — Currier witnessed both of Pittsburgh’s most recent Super Bowl victories (earlier this year against Arizona and in 2006 over Seattle) in person, while Hadley was on hand for the 2006 championship game in Detroit — so any mention of Terry Bradshaw, Hines Ward or Terrible Towels will make you a couple of quick friends around Bethpage.
“That’s one of the reasons I’ve stuck with Craig … the benefits! I’ve got an ally during football season,” Hadley jokes.
The 11-year GCSAA member is also getting a second go-around at preparing for a U.S. Open. A Pittsburgh native and graduate of Penn State, he joined the Bethpage team in 2000, and following the first Open, was promoted to superintendent of the Red after the departure of Charlie Riedlinger to another New York state golf property, Montauk Downs State Park Golf Course.
Although the Red will be largely quiet during tournament week — they’ll still have crews mowing greens and fairways, but little else — Hadley certainly won’t lack for things to do in assisting with efforts on the Black. Having been through all of this once before has certainly helped with preparations for this Open, Hadley says.
“You know what the end result is going to be like,” he explains. “You know what you have to focus on, you know what areas are going to get trashed and what areas are probably going to be OK. You learn where you don’t want to spend too much time because they’re just going to put a bleacher there anyway, for example.”
If there is anyone around Bethpage who knows how far the facility has come from its days as the quintessential public facility to a two-time U.S. Open host, it’s Bethpage Green Course superintendent Andrew Wilson.
A nine-year GCSAA member, Wilson grew up in Bethpage, and his first memories of the courses are of a unique spot where the working men and women of the area teed it up. Years later, after finding a career in golf course maintenance at the facility, he made a host of new memories with his work in helping prep the Black for the 2002 Open as well as his key role in an innovative multi-year research project on the Green.
“They’ve both been great experiences and have really kept me interested in things,” Wilson says. “Especially here, this can tend to be like a factory course, just churning out rounds. But the Open and the research project give us something else that keeps us curious, keeps us learning.”
The research initiative, initially dubbed the Bethpage Green Course Project, began in 2001 prior to the first Open. Led by a pair of researchers from Cornell — Frank Rossi, Ph.D., and Jennifer Grant, Ph.D. — the project was an in-depth look at integrated pest management in practice, focusing on the impact reduced chemical inputs had on the Green’s putting surfaces.
“There was some talk that Suffolk County was going to want to ban pesticides on golf courses,” Wilson explains. “There were a lot of questions about what would happen if something like that had passed, and we knew that state and county parks were probably going to be the first ones to be hit. We had to figure out what we were going to do.”
(Editor’s note: the USGA’s Green Section Record wrote about the project here — www.usga.org/turf/green_section_record/2004/
Over the years, the scope of the research being conducted on the Green evolved beyond the IPM work to include testing of certain organic products and the use of velvet bentgrass as a putting surface, for example.
As for the Open, the Green will get off easier than it did in 2002, when the course was the site of a large VIP parking area. The only major disruption this time will be a much smaller parking area for tournament volunteers. And for his part, Wilson will join USGA officials in setting hole locations and monitoring green speeds.
“Last time, I did a lot of rolling of greens in conjunction with the USGA officials, which meant I was pretty much the last guy on the greens before competition,” Wilson says. “It was a pretty cool experience.”
The Black gets a few tweaks as it heads into its second Open.
While a full-scale renovation of the Black Course at the hands of Rees Jones ushered in the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage, only a handful of tweaks to the famed course will greet championship competitors this time around.
All told, the changes amount to about 225 yards of added length in the form of new championship tees on seven holes, some recontouring of fairways and new or renovated fairway and greenside bunkers on seven holes.
But the most notable changes, according to Bethpage superintendent Craig Currier, will be seen in course setup and the new philosophies introduced by Mike Davis, the USGA’s senior director of rules and competition, which range from varied tee locations to the much-documented graduated rough cuts.
“Although we could potentially play it a lot longer than we did in 2002, I think Mike is really going to switch up tee locations a little more than we did,” Currier says. “I think some of the holes could end up playing shorter.
“And the rough is going to be a big difference, too. In 2002, if you missed the fairways by five feet, you were basically just pitching out. This year, we’re trying to get that first cut of rough (15 or 20 feet), depending on how thick it is, anywhere from 2½ inches to 4 inches. Then we’re going to go from 4 to 6 inches on the stuff outside of that.
“Basically, Mike’s trying to give guys the opportunity to still get it on the green if they hit just a few feet into the rough. That didn’t happen much in 2002.”
Currier also suggests keeping an eye out for the effects of some alterations to a pair of closely mown areas around the greens on the par-5 fourth hole and the par-4 10th hole, each undertaken with a different outcome in mind.
“No. 4 is a great short par 5, but not a lot of guys went for it in two because the collection area behind the green fell straight away from you,” Currier says. “If you hit it long, you were down over the road. We kind of rebuilt that area to hopefully hold shots a little better with the thought (that) guys will actually go for that in two now.
“On 10, we actually added a new collection area behind the green, so now anything long is going to end up 30 to 40 feet from the green.”
Agronomically, there isn’t a much better time of year to host a major tournament on Long Island than mid-June. “Barring any catastrophic weather or a heat wave, it’s ideal,” Currier says.
That doesn’t mean they won’t be on their toes in advance of the Open, most notably in scouting efforts for annual bluegrass weevils, which have been known to wreak havoc on the course’s Poa annua/ryegrass fairways.
“Typically we can see some damage in mid-June if we don’t catch the timing right in getting the adults,” Currier says. “We’re doing that right now (last week of April), flushing them, scouting them out. That’s the biggest thing we’ll be looking for.”
— Scott Hollister