Michael J. Brunelle talks hosting the Cognizant Founders Cup for the first time

By |  May 8, 2023 0 Comments
Graphic: Golfdom Staff

Graphic: Golfdom Staff

In December 2021, Upper Montclair Country Club in Clifton, N.J., was first notified that it might host the LPGA Tour’s Cognizant Founders Cup the following May.

Michael J. Brunelle, CGCS, director of grounds, and his team determined how to lay out 18 of the club’s 27 holes. They also discussed where fans would park and where the main entrance for the tournament would be.

Some of the tournament’s on-property parking would be on the club’s driving range fairway, creating the need for a temporary driving range.

In the past, when the club hosted the LPGA Tour’s Sybase Classic, the club still utilized parallel fairways not in tournament action, such as the East Course’s fairways on No. 1 and No. 9. But, due to technology advancements and LPGA Tour professionals’ length, this would no longer be the case.

The club opted for Brunelle and his team to build a tee at the bottom of its driving range fairway, which provided enough space on the East Course’s first hole to serve as the landing area. The tournament contestants would have 315 yards to work with before their balls reached the green.

Time was of the essence as they began construction on the tee and completed it during Christmas week. This was all despite no official confirmation from the LPGA Tour concerning its status as a tournament host.

The hard work throughout the holiday season paid off. The club hosted its first Cognizant Founders Cup from May 12-15, 2022, and will host its second consecutive event this May.

Collapsed walls and catkins

Brunelle and his agronomic team encountered a variety of challenges last year. In particular, heavy rain events undermined a few walls along the course’s waterways, causing them to collapse. Worst of all? They collapsed on 10th and 12th holes — where the tournament would soon take place.

“We also experimented with regrassing four fairways to establish some new varieties of grass and test how they would work on our property. So we were still growing turfgrass in two fairways that were going to be used in the tournament — on No. 4 and No. 5,” Brunelle says.

Despite these challenges, Brunelle and his team overcame them and hosted a memorable and relatively subdued — from a superintendent’s perspective — Cognizant Founders Cup.

“We have a great staff,” he stresses. “And the volunteers and sponsors from all over the New York and New Jersey metropolitan area showed up in large numbers, enabling us to easily achieve our agronomy goals throughout the tournament.”

One week prior to the tournament, Brunelle and his crew encountered a new challenge, as all of the trees began to leaf out. Ideal timing from an aesthetics standpoint, but certainly not idyllic for the agronomy team. Due to the leaf out, every oak tree littered the property with catkins a few days later — during the third and fourth rounds of the tournament.

Thankfully, Brunelle and his crew had a plan.

“We had four or five holes in which the putting greens were cleaned in between every few groups, and then eventually in between every group,” he says. “Finally, we had to blow catkins off of players’ putting lines in between each of their putts.”

As Brunelle recalls Upper Montclair’s first year as the host of the Cognizant Founders Cup, he is especially thankful for the efforts of the volunteers that assisted him and his team throughout the event.

“We had about 40 people assist us in all,” Brunelle states. “So many of the volunteers had previous tournament experience, which removed a lot of pressure from our staff members. This was especially important since Upper Montclair hadn’t hosted a professional tournament since 2009 (the Sybase Classic), and only five of our team’s current members were employed at the club back then.”

Michael J. Brunelle, CGCS, and his crew at Upper Montclair CC in Clifton, N.J., worked on short notice to get their course ready for the 2022 Cognizant Founders Cup. This year, they’ll have a much longer head start. (Photo: Upper Montclair CC)

Michael J. Brunelle, CGCS, and his crew at Upper Montclair CC in Clifton, N.J., worked on short notice to get their course ready for the 2022 Cognizant Founders Cup. This year, they’ll have a much longer head start. (Photo: Upper Montclair CC)

Preparing for what’s to come

While looking ahead to the future, Brunelle anticipates the club will continue to host the Cognizant Founders Cup in mid-May, as is the case this year.

Brunelle says hosting a tournament in northern New Jersey in mid-May is a challenge as the course’s turfgrass may still be coming out of dormancy.

“One positive of hosting the tournament in May is that we can allow the course to really dry down as much as Mother Nature will allow without losing grass,” he says. “That doesn’t mean we aren’t checking moisture with a Pogo Turf Pro system or a FieldScout TDR 350 Soil Moisture Meter. But we definitely have less stress, with regard to dryness, than we would if the tournament was hosted in the summer.”

In preparation for what’s to come, Brunelle — who has been employed at Upper Montclair CC since 2009 and previously employed as a superintendent at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster — believes all superintendents must be able to adapt, just as he and his team members adapted to the various challenges it has faced the last few months.

“Be prepared for everything, whether you’re preparing for a tournament, new technologies, government regulations, staffing or even the demands within the game of golf itself,” he says. “The more you’re able to adapt short and long term, the better off you, your staff, your course, and your customers or members will be.”

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