Behind the scenes of the Farmers Insurance Open with Superintendent Devin Cullen

By |  April 25, 2024 0 Comments

Although La Jolla, Calif.’s Torrey Pines Golf Course doesn’t encounter the extreme variations in temperatures that some other United States-based championship courses do, agronomy staff members face a variety of difficult challenges.

First, according to Devin Cullen, senior golf course superintendent, the property is predominantly kikuyugrass, while its tees and approaches are comprised of bermudagrass. As a result, during the winter months, growth tends to decline and off-coloring occurs.

In response, prior to hosting the PGA Tour’s annual Farmers Insurance Open, staff members scalp out and overseed the entire property, except for the North and South Courses’ greens. By doing so, they’re able to offer PGA Tour professionals consistent and more predictable playing surfaces on both courses — after customers play nearly 160,000 rounds of golf on them between each Farmers Insurance Open.

Impressively, they complete these tasks in less than a week, as the North Course is completely scalped out and overseeded in three days, as is the South Course, roughly a month apart.

“We must bear in mind that each property has different maintenance requirements,” Cullen says. “The putting greens alone require different agricultural practices, as the North Course has bentgrass greens, while the South Course has Poa annua greens.”

Despite these differences, Cullen’s staff strives to ensure every approach, fairway, green and tee box is as consistent as possible once the television cameras start rolling.

As Cullen has discovered over the past eight years, it’s certainly no small task to ensure 36 holes will peak simultaneously, in order to guarantee that PGA Tour professionals have championship golf conditions. To do so, he must be surrounded by the right team members.

“A key part of our success is having the right people in the right position who can execute when needed, as needed,” he says. “We are constantly doing everything we can to be proactive in every aspect of our facility. Although we’ll have moments that force us to be reactive, by planning for the worst — and having an entire team that understands this key objective — we can get across the finish line each year.”

Torrey Pines’ South Course has hosted a pair of majors, including Tiger Woods’ last U.S. Open win in 2008 and John Rahm’s first major victory in 2021. (Photo courtesy of Devin Cullen)

Torrey Pines’ South Course has hosted a pair of majors, including Tiger Woods’ last U.S. Open win in 2008 and John Rahm’s first major victory in 2021. (Photo courtesy of Devin Cullen)

Opening doors, looking ahead to the future

Alongside his full-time agronomy crew, Cullen receives assistance from 26 agronomy volunteers prior to each Farmers Insurance Open. Typically, they aren’t local either, as some are from countries like Canada, France, Morocco, Scotland and the United Kingdom, while others are employed at courses around the United States.

“Each year, we aim to create an agronomy program that provides individuals with educational and networking opportunities that open doors,” Cullen stresses. “We hope to encourage people to find it within themselves to take the next step in their career and demonstrate how far our industry can take them.”

To further inspire golf industry professionals, Torrey Pines has also been renovated in various ways the last few years. For instance, when Cullen joined the property as assistant superintendent in 2016, the North Course was being renovated. At the time, the City of San Diego, which owns and operates both courses, was focused on challenging the world’s best golfers, while also offering amateurs playing opportunities they could enjoy, too.

Shortly after the North Course renovation was completed in December 2016, the South Course was restored from February to December 2019, in preparation for the 2021 U.S. Open.

“We updated the irrigation system and moved and re-shaped each bunker, while lining every single one with Capillary Concrete as well,” Cullen states. “We also found and restored the original green shape.”

He adds, “Finally, a few holes were altered to challenge players and bring our canyons into play. This renovation was fun too, as we kept the course open throughout the project since we only worked on two holes at a time.”

In 2019, a Rees Jones-led renovation of Torrey Pines South Course extended the length of the course to up to 7,800 yards. Jones also helmed a renovation/redesign in 2001. (Photo courtesy of Devin Cullen)

In 2019, a Rees Jones-led renovation of Torrey Pines South Course extended the length of the course to up to 7,800 yards. Jones also helmed a renovation/redesign in 2001. (Photo courtesy of Devin Cullen)

The voice of a golf course

As Cullen reflects on the last eight years and his involvement with the Farmers Insurance Open, along with the 2021 U.S. Open, he believes that superintendents must truly understand their courses, especially as they prepare to host professional golf tournaments.

Although he recommends that superintendents talk to other superintendents and tournament hosts — in order to determine what worked or didn’t work for them — they must fully know their particular courses. The primary reason? What may work for one superintendent, may not work for someone else, and vice versa.

“Understand your property and listen to it. At the end of the day, no one should know your course and how it responds to certain inputs better than you,” Cullen emphasizes. “After all, we, as superintendents, are the voices that golf courses don’t have.”

This article is tagged with , , , and posted in Current Issue, From the Magazine, Tour Guide

About the Author: Chris Lewis

Michigan-based writer Chris Lewis specializes in reporting on golf in the U.S. He wrote about White Pine National Golf Resort for Golfdom in 2013, and part two of the magazine’s annual Plant Health Series in 2014.


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