PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — The last thing anyone wants to see in the days leading up to an important golf tournament is the host course getting soaked by more than 10 inches of rain.
But to the four UMass-Amherst students who spent Players Championship week earlier this month with the grounds crew at TPC Sawgrass, the torrential downpours provided an excellent, eye-opening learning opportunity. They saw firsthand the work that’s involved in getting a course ready for championship play in a short amount of time, and without the benefit of ideal weather conditions.
Exactly the kind of scenario they might encounter if they become course superintendents one day.
“Obviously, it’s not ideal to get 10 inches of rain two days before coming down here, but no matter what kind of situation comes your way, you’ve got to handle it, and we’ve done just that,” said Ryan Bell, a recent UMass graduate from Easthampton, Mass.
Bell and three others — Evan Bradstreet, Peter White, and Sean Raposa — earned an all-expenses-paid week at the Players by winning first place in February in the Collegiate Turf Bowl, an annual competition put on by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and sponsored by John Deere. It consisted of a three-hour exam testing students’ knowledge of anything related to turf science, something students in the school’s turfgrass program have excelled in; after coming close in recent years (second place in 2012), the team from UMass finally finished first.
Fortunately for the four students — Bell took the place of Kevin Shewmaker, who participated in the San Diego competition but couldn’t attend the Players — a week spent working at a PGA Tour event was a new part of the winners’ haul, which also includes a monetary prize for the school’s turfgrass program.
They arrived on May 4, and because of the rain immediately went to work, getting picked up at the airport and driven straight to the course, with no time in between to even check into their lodging. A string of long days followed: arriving at 4 a.m., working in the dark, and ending at 9 p.m., also working in the dark. The crew of staff and volunteers, more than 100 in all, went about repairing the extensive damage; days later, players would be raving about the condition of the course, high praise directed at those who typically work behind the scenes.
“Not that I’ll ever have a crew of 100 or 150 guys, but being able to coordinate and plan where everyone is going to be, and how much time things are going to take, it’s been really cool to see how spot-on they’ve been with everything,” said White, a 22-year-old from Worcester. “I think the first two days, because they were such long days, we were like, ‘Man, this is rough.’ But once we started getting into the normal tournament schedule, at least for me, the excitement has really built.
“I’ve been pretty excited to get to work every day. It’s not fun being up that early, but I really enjoy being out here.”
The UMass students spent time before the tournament started working on bunkers at the Stadium Course, removing silt and debris, fixing washouts, and putting in new sand. They also mowed grass surrounding greens, tees, and bunkers, and watched as the greens were brought up to tournament speed, and then maintained. For those accustomed to working on bentgrass commonly found in the North, the aggressive approach to Bermuda grass was jaw-dropping.
“We’ve learned that you can destroy Bermuda grass for the most part and it doesn’t die,” said Bradstreet, a 24-year-old from Gorham, Maine. “They’ve been mowing the greens eight times a day and rolling the greens eight times a day, and they’re still living. You do that once on a bentgrass green, it’s gone.”
Added Bell: “We’re sitting here thinking, ‘God, they’re going to kill the place,’ and look at it now, the greens are perfect.”
All four have been students in the UMass turfgrass science program, which offers a two-year associate’s degree and a four-year degree. Roughly 40 students per year receive degrees: half getting two-year, the other half four-year. The majority go on to work in the golf industry, but other graduates work at stadiums, tennis facilities, or wherever turf work can be found, even opening landscape businesses.
“We have one of the strongest teaching programs in the country, partly because we have so many different disciplines covered: We have a turf agronomist, we have a turf physiologist, we have a turf pathologist, we have a turf entomologist, we have a weed scientist, all on staff,” said Pat Vittum, a professor at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture who has been at UMass-Amherst since 1990 and accompanied the four to San Diego. “We really have a very strong faculty that is able to offer a wide range of courses.”
Bell, Bradstreet, and White have worked at golf courses, all recently graduated, and already have jobs lined up: Bell is joining the staff at Glen Oaks Country Club in Old Westbury, N.Y., Bradstreet at Redding (Conn.) Country Club, and White at Brae Burn Country Club in Newton, Mass. Raposa has worked at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., and had never spent any time on staff at a golf course until the Players. Quite an introduction.
“Being able to come down to such a widely known place and have the opportunity to work, see how things get done, and just be a part of something so great, that’s what I’ll take away,” Raposa said. “We came in and the course was in rough shape, but with everyone working and being part of a team, it turned around overnight. It looked like a golf course the very next day.”
As far as on-the-job training, they couldn’t have asked for a better experience. The free Players gear (jacket, two hats, four shirts) was nice. So were the contacts made. But eight days at TPC Sawgrass seemed to reinforce some career decisions.
“Seeing what you can do when you put a group of guys together that all care, and all want to achieve the same thing, they all want to see perfection, that’s what we’re taught,” Bell said. “It’s amazing to see what you can really do when you put that manpower together, and I’ll take that to any golf course I ever work at from this day on.”
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the student who substituted for Kevin Shewmaker at the Tournament Players Championship. The student was Ryan Bell.