The 92nd PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Haven, WI had more than its share of challenges. Mother Nature let everyone know who was in charge the first two days with fog and rain. Stifling heat and wind followed for the weekend. As a result, the elements occasionally played havoc with the world's finest golfers.
Staging a successful major takes experience and planning
The 92nd PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Haven, Wisconsin, had more than its share of challenges. Mother Nature let everyone know who was in charge the first two days with fog and rain. Stifling heat and wind followed for the weekend. As a result, the elements occasionally played havoc with the world’s finest golfers.
The one constant was the magnificent course conditions, which were achieved despite the unique set of challenges presented to the maintenance staff. They answered the bell, and then some.
Responsibility for these world-class conditions rests on the shoulders of manager of golf course maintenance Michael Lee, superintendent Chris Zugel and their staff. Nothing was left to chance when preparing for this year’s final major. The staff at Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits is supported by a proud history of success. Besides this year’s event, the facility hosted the 2007 U.S. Senior Open, 2004 PGA Championship and the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open, as well as several other top tournaments.
“We used all the resources available to us to get the job done despite the weather challenges,” Lee says. “It required a team of very dedicated people and a lot of cooperation. The team proved itself in both of these areas.”
For Lee, who has been with the Kohler Co. for 17 years, nothing takes the place of preparation and starting early. And, being with an industrial company, everyone is exposed to metrics. Finding the bottom line for any issue means the task must be measured, whether it’s labor hours or the cost of chemicals and equipment.
For example, there is a program called “Pro Greens Group” that focuses solely on getting the correct green speed. During tournament week, a team of expert volunteers monitors green speed. They go out with greens mowers, Stimpmeters and radios. A green is measured before and after it’s mowed. It’s Stimped again after the second cut and then again after it’s rolled. This is a critical process because some greens gain speed quicker than others, and the crew needs to adjust accordingly.
“If we had not conducted a championship previously,” Lee says, “we would not have known how to match resources with the demands of a major. If we get this part wrong, then it’s not likely we will keep up with the numerous last minute demands. Then we’re starting championship week behind the eight ball. Add all that up and include our experienced staff, and we can handle all the last minute things that come up because hopefully we’ve taken care of them before.”
Zugel returned to the facility last year from a one-year stint as grounds manager for the Milwaukee Brewers. He had interned at the Straits and was an assistant at the River Course at Blackwolf Run and the Straits for three years.
“Based on our experience from the 2004 PGA we make sure we’re on a schedule, knowing where we want to be and how we want to get there,” he says. “That takes a lot of planning. We can’t just take new people and place them in any job. We pair them with someone who has been here a while. It can take someone months just to figure out the layout.”
Following the 2007 Senior Open Lee and his staff identified an area for improvement for the next championship.
“We wanted to improve on the depth of experience at the operator and crew leader levels,” he says, “so we put together a two-year internship program. We recruited 10 ‘championship’ interns to give us that depth. They have a year under their belts here, so that by the time we get to the championship they’ve got experience and familiarity. That’s something we’ve done differently under the category of lessons learned. We are trying to better develop our team. We have people who just started working here 30 or 40 days ago, so we’re pairing them up with someone who has worked here at least two years.”
Zugel adds, “We break up the teams into specific tasks, but at the same time we don’t want to get lost in the shuffle with a guy who is really good at one thing so we get lazy and keep him on that task. We want to do some amount of cross training, so if something happens we can move people off one area and into another. For those who just started, we focus their energy on greens, tees and fairways. I’d rather build a perfect greens mower in four months than an average guy who can do three things. They’ll be good at everything, but I want to make sure they understand exactly what I’m talking about when it comes to mowing greens or turning on a tee. Some people are good at short distances on tees, but they struggle on greens.”
Then comes time for the championship, when the staff triples in size with volunteers, many who are superintendents or assistants at high profile facilities.
“When we bring a really talented superintendent in for the championship,” Lee says, “he probably hasn’t mowed fairways in a while. He can pick it up quickly, but we really don’t want him on a mower because he won’t know the nuances of the fairways. For example, he doesn’t know how the machine handles on the approach at No. 13. Superintendents and assistants may be great machine operators, but they don’t have local knowledge. They need to know our equipment and our fairways. Generically, someone can come here and do the basic things, but this is a complex piece of property because of the topography and knowing how to get around it.”
The key to hosting a major is a well-developed road map. Here are Lee’s 14 essential steps for championship preparation:
Step No. 1 — Routine rules; add nothing new.
“This is the best way to avoid mistakes,” Lee says. “The main point is that all new ideas and processes work best when they are well tested.”
Step No. 2 — Know your organization’s capabilities and event/player expectations.
There are differences between championships, and an even greater variation in the scale of events.
“Plan to be flexible,” Lee says. “We expand our staff and equipment according to the hours available on the course.”
Step No. 3 — Have a written agronomic plan, and share it.
“The plan should be done one year in advance and reviewed monthly,” Lee says. “Do not include any new practices, products or equipment.”
Whistling Straits has been using four Jacobsen SLF-1880 5-gang mowers to cut fairways for about five years. They replaced triplex mowers.
“We tried other machines on our fairways,” Zugel says, “but none have the quality-of-cut of the SLF-1880. It’s a lightweight mower that leaves almost no footprint. The 18-inch reels adapt very well to the contours in our fairways.”
Step No. 4 — Plan to plan, and start early.
Advance week and championship week plans should be on Excel spreadsheets.
“Think about the timing of information,” Lee says. “We schedule meetings for our staff and the management staff to coordinate communication with our calendar. And, we invite key stakeholders to these meetings.”
Zugel adds, “For example, we needed to adjust mowing lines in the fairways. With fescue, these lines can migrate back and forth. Over the years, the difference could be one to three feet. We work closely with the PGA to establish what they want fairway widths to be, and make sure we’re on the same page with them.”
Step No. 5 — Conduct mock-ups and time trials.
Eighty percent of course maintenance occurs in three hours in the morning.
“The show will start with or without you in some sort of fashion,” Lee says. “Time limits options to change or correct poor planning. Like Sir Edmund Hillary said, ‘The only way to train for Everest is to climb Everest.’”
Last year during the same week that the PGA Championship was held at Hazeltine in Chaska, Minnesota, Whistling Straits conducted its own mock-up week. One of the goals was to put the entire staff under more pressure. Another was to get the interns to understand first hand the concepts that were presented to them.
Step No. 6 — Assign a full-time host and vendor liaison and always watch vendors.
This individual will plan to host functions to block interruptions for the superintendent and maintenance staff. Also, make sure to host functions to create a framework of cooperation, not separation, and gain a positive influence with vendors.
Step No. 7 — Fully delegate, and practice delegation roles in advance.
These areas are divided into the front and back nines, hospitality, maintenance shop, equipment set-up, irrigation and the endless over-the-radio requests. Assign no routine or “must-be-done” work to supervisors.
Step No. 8 — Sleep during the day.
“Remember,” Lee says, “the goal is to start and finish strong. Creating a place for people to sleep is mandatory for a major championship.”
Step No. 9 — Create an environment that celebrates years of course workmanship.
This is accomplished with television coverage, airplane and helicopter rides and aerial photographs. Feature project work in the media and seek out media coverage of the staff.
Step No. 10 — Take care of the staff.
Lee says, “There are basic needs that need to be met such as air conditioning, plenty of good food, a shot of caffeine and things to do during the day. The rush from the championship will do the rest.”
Step No. 11 — Initiate a positive working relationship with the television staff.
Attend television compound staff meetings and eat meals with them.
Step No. 12 — Stay informed of the financial picture and sales figures.
This information is useful for making last minute and unplanned expenditure decisions.
Step No. 13 — Player and media relations.
Make sure everyone understands the plans for championship week. Resist the urge to change your plans based on only a few player comments.
Step No. 14 — Anticipate the post championship letdown.
“We assign post championship roles well in advance,” Lee says, “because more damage occurs after a major than before. In some cases, we give our staff mandatory time off.”
Lee adds a 15th step. A Christian family man who with his wife, Nancy, has four daughters, he advises everyone to include prayer in their preparation.
Despite the enormous pressure of holding an event like the PGA Championship, Lee says it can be fun when all the planning is done in advance.
In an interview with Golf Course Management he explained, “There’s little anxiety about who is doing what when you’ve trained everyone so much, and everyone’s been through so much planning. By the time you get to championship week, you just enjoy the week and keep working the plans.”
Zugel adds, “I like the team aspect of a huge event like the PGA Championship. My goal is to be at the highest level of my profession.”
Lee continues, “Our team was tested in 2010 more than other events and still scored an A plus. It was thrilling to see so many people come together to make this event successful.”