During a round of golf, you’ll likely be exposed to a specialized vocabulary that is exclusively found out on the course.
Fade. Draw. Slice. Hook. Duck-hook. Gimme. Jarred. Up-and-down. Chunk. Flyer. Pure. Shank. Skull. Flush. Duff. Yips. Tipped-out. Chili-dip. Dormie.
However, one term you aren’t likely to hear during your round is agronomy.
Agronomy may not have a common place in golf vernacular, but it is a practice that affects every golfer, whether they play at their local muni or a private country club.
Behind every great golf course is a great superintendent who devotes their career to agronomy—specifically golf course maintenance. But as the Head Superintendent at Oak Hill Country Club, Jeff Corcoran, explains, superintendents need to wear many different hats to deliver the immaculate playing conditions that all golfers desire.
“Our main focus is always on agronomics. Then there’s also staff building, budgeting... some days, you may be an electrician, the next day you're talking about irrigation systems, and the next day your talking about constructing a building.”
- Jeff Corcoran, Oak Hill Country Club
Jeff entered the world of golf course maintenance at the age of 13, working summers in an effort to play free golf. Since then, he has held various maintenance-related positions, including an internship at Oak Hill and the head superintendent job at Westin Golf Club outside of Boston, before he ultimately moved back to Rochester, NY to take over the head superintendent job at Oak Hill in 2003.
CONDITIONED FOR CHAMPIONSHIP GOLF
Oak Hill Country Club has a proud history of hosting several significant championships, including two U.S. Amateurs, three U.S. Opens, the 1995 Ryder Cup, and three PGA Championships, with the fourth coming back to Oak Hill’s famed East Course in 2023.
With this kind of legacy, it only makes Jeff and his team work even harder to maintain—and build upon—Oak Hill’s major-caliber conditions year after year.
“From Day 1, we hammer home the idea to “be the best.” To do that, we hone in on all the day-to-day details as much as possible. Our sole focus is to provide our membership and their guests with an unforgettable experience. When they step up to the first tee of Oak Hill Country Club, we want them to know that they're going to have amazing conditions. That's our focus, and I think it shows when you go out and play.”
THE SUPERINTENDENT’S MINDSET
The concept of a 9-to-5 workday goes out the window when you are in charge of maintaining a golf course (let alone two courses at Oak Hill). During TV coverage of major golf events, we’ve all seen footage of the grounds crew working tirelessly to get the course ready for competition, especially after a weather delay. But for Jeff, that sort of mindset sticks with him all year long.
“Being a golf course superintendent isn't too far from being a farmer. The weather is always a huge factor—it's our biggest variable, whether it ties into playability or budget.
It's not uncommon for us to be here at 4:00 AM. Given the weather conditions, we're usually here until 6 or 7 at night. It's nothing for us to work 70, 80, 90 hours a week. Saturdays and Sundays are huge golf days, so we're here 7 days a week... I haven't taken a summertime holiday since I was 13 years old.
In Rochester in particular, we also have to work within the length of the golf season. We try to put 10 pounds of nails in a 5-pound bag—we cram a lot into a narrow golf calendar.”
GOLF COURSE AERATION
As golfers, many of us have arrived for a Saturday morning foursome only to be disappointed that the greens had been recently “punched.” The immediate impact of aerated greens is that they will have small puncture marks across the surface, making putting seem like you’re rolling the ball across a plinko board.
While aerated greens will certainly put a damper on your weekend round, it is a vital aspect of maintaining the course’s health throughout the season.
So, what is golf course aeration?
“Aerification is the physical removal of organic material, which is typically combined with the replacement of some sort of sand medium back into that hole. It is probably the most important cultural practice that we do year in and year out on the golf course.”
Jeff also indicated that there are different types of aeration, such as solid-tining and hollow-tining. There are also differences when it comes to aerating greens versus aerating fairways or tee boxes—the primary difference being that you do not fill the fairway or tee box holes with a sand amendment.
DRAINAGE, DRAINAGE, DRAINAGE
“People will tell you that the three most important things when it comes to maintaining a golf course are drainage, drainage, and drainage. Water management in general, whether it's irrigation or drainage, is mission-critical to having your golf course perform at a very high level. Being able to move water and provide oxygen into the root zone of your playing surfaces... it's huge.”
While ‘providing oxygen into the root zone’ may not be something golfers think about on a daily basis, drainage has a significant impact on our playing experience.
After a rainstorm, it is crucial for courses to drain and dry as quickly as possible in order to keep the course playable. Once the drainage systems can’t keep up with the incoming water, the ground will become soggy, greens will begin to pool with water, and golfers may be seeing the dreaded “Cart Path Only” signs for days to come.
In the end, golf courses are businesses. The sooner play can resume, the sooner the club can bring in revenue again. Fortunately for the members at Oak Hill, their superintendent has drainage top-of-mind as he works to keep 36 holes of golf up and running as often as possible.
SURVIVING THE WINTER
One of the biggest challenges of being located in the northeast is dealing with a long, harsh winter. Jeff already alluded to the struggle of working within a narrow golf calendar, but as winter approaches, the job of a superintendent is truly only getting started.
“Once we get to the fall, we raise the cut of greens and most of the playing surfaces to give them more leaf tissue, which equates to more photosynthesis. We try to make the plant as healthy as possible heading into the wintertime, which can be very stressful.
From a preventative standpoint, the biggest thing is preventative fungicide applications to prevent snow mold. That's probably number one. Number two is just making sure that the golf course is clean as you head into winter, as far as leaf removal and clearing debris.”
Once the snow begins to fall, many people may think the job of a golf course superintendent is over. However, the winter provides a period of time without golfers—a prime opportunity to handle more significant maintenance projects.
“We also have a full schedule in the wintertime. We keep 20-23 people on staff in the winter. Tree removal, drainage, and other things like that... there's a lot of pressure because we need to get that stuff done before the golf season comes back around. In the wintertime, it usually gears down a bit. We're usually at 50-55 hours a week.”
WAITING FOR GOLF
Those of us who play golf in temperate climates know the pain of waiting for golf during the off-season.
“In the spring, our focus is to get the golf course playable as fast as possible. When you're working on a golf course that has a 12-month season, it's pretty static for the most part. Here, we get into the springtime and we rush to make preparations to get ready for the golf season. Springtime is a race... how fast can you get this place back together and ready for championship golf?”
PREPPING FOR THE 2023 PGA CHAMPIONSHIP
Speaking of championship golf, Oak Hill is set to host the upcoming 2023 PGA Championship. Ahead of the tournament, several major renovations will take place in an effort to bring back elements of the original Donald Ross design.
Jeff has been heavily involved with this process, working with their architect to deliver the much-anticipated renovation.
“It's going to be a new and improved Oak Hill. When we open back up in 2020, you're going to see an Oak Hill golf course that is more representative of Donald Ross, albeit much more modern.
From my end as superintendent, there's going to be a significant amount of tree removal here that will improve the agronomics and playability of the golf course. I also believe that it will re-instill shot values that were part of the inherent design from Donald Ross that have been lost over the last 30 years.”
For now, that’s all the detail Jeff could reveal on the planned renovations… however, he did provide some additional insight into why they will make some of the planned changes.
“For example, a well-intentioned member may have planted a tree 40 years ago, not realizing that the 8-foot tree he put in will grow into a 70-foot monster that puts on two and a half feet of canopy year-over-year... all the sudden you have this tree that wasn't part of the architectural intent that's now affecting ball flight and how you play that golf hole.”
THE GREENSKEEPING COMMUNITY
In speaking with Jeff Corcoran, it was clear that superintendents, greenskeepers, and course managers consider themselves part of a larger, tight-knit community.
For other greenskeepers out there and anyone else starting a career in golf course maintenance, Jeff left with some words of advice that he gives to each of his new employees.
“Always focus your efforts on the playability and health of the golf course. Above all else—no matter what else you have going on—the playability and agronomics are paramount. If you lose focus of that, you lose focus of what you're getting paid to do.”
THANK YOUR GOLF COURSE SUPERINTENDENT
Through long hours, inclement weather, seasonal challenges, and the pressure to deliver, golf course superintendents do their work behind-the-scenes so the rest of us can enjoy the game we all love. It is an underappreciated role—one that undoubtedly deserves more acknowledgment from us as golfers. So the next time you see your course super, take a moment to let them know how much you appreciate the important work they do.
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