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The Country Club crew prepares to host 2022 U.S. Open

By |  May 5, 2022 0 Comments
Dave Johnson, director of grounds at The Country Club. (Photo: Jason Paige Smith Photography)

Dave Johnson, director of grounds at The Country Club. (Photo: Jason Paige Smith Photography)

If the greens at The Country Club could talk, boy, they’d have some stories to tell. With a name like The Country Club, the historical significance of the course stands on its own.

“This place is so rich in history,” says Dave Johnson, director of grounds. “I love when you pull into the property. It feels like stepping back in time. I never take it for granted.”

Founded in 1882 and located in Brookline, Mass., The Country Club is one of the oldest clubs in the U.S. and is one of five charter members that founded the United States Golf Association (USGA) in 1894.

It has played host to 16 USGA national championships, including the 1913 U.S. Open, won by amateur and Brookline-native Francis Ouimet, which began the golf boom in America and inspired the book and film “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”

The 1999 Ryder Cup featuring the U.S. team’s gripping Sunday comeback and three U.S. Opens (1913, 1963 and 1988), all finishing in playoffs, were also played at the historic venue.

Set to write the next chapter as host of the 2022 U.S. Open, the team at The Country Club, led by Johnson, nods to the club’s storied past while keeping an eye on the horizon for what’s to unfold for the 2022 championship from June 16 to 19.

The Country Club will host its first U.S. Open in 34 years. (Photo: Jason Paige Smith Photography)

The Country Club will host its first U.S. Open in 34 years. (Photo: Jason Paige Smith Photography)

Back up to par

Of course, a lot of work has gone into restoring the course to its former glory.

“I know some of the golfers were probably there for the 1999 Ryder Cup, but a lot of these players have never even stepped foot on this property,” says Adam Bennett, grounds superintendent. “A lot of the undulations, the blind shots, are probably going to be pretty challenging to them. The routing is completely different than anyone has ever played or seen.”

Johnson tapped into his past experiences and passion for the industry to make it happen. He served as superintendent at Wianno Club in Osterville, Mass., from 2014 to 2018, which immediately followed a 10-year stint in the same capacity at Whitinsville (Mass.) Golf Club and work as an assistant at Wachusett Country Club in West Boylston, Mass.

He always harbored a love for the outdoors, but a passion for the game of golf began in seventh grade when his parents bought a house that happened to be across the street from a course.

“The third green was literally right across the street from my parents’ house, so in the evenings and on rainy days, I was always over there playing golf and started to work there my junior year in high school,” Johnson says.

With just four short years to get the bulk of the work done at TCC, Johnson says the team revamped nearly every aspect of the course: greens, bunkers, tees and roughs.

“We are focused on the greens being consistent, smooth and firm, but also a premium has been put on the condition and health of the fairways and rough,” Johnson says. “We’ve been overseeding into the rough and treating it like shortgrass with aeration, verticutting and fertilizing. We had a practice run (last summer), and the saying was that ‘the rough was real.’ When this golf course has 3-inch, dense, thick rough … It is a true championship golf course.”

The Country Club worked with Gil Hanse, stripping the edges and expanding 17 of the Championship Course’s 18 greens out- ward to improve surface drainage and create added hole locations. This process led to rebuilding or modifying all the bunkers that surround the greens. The team has also modified most tee boxes to improve surfaces and to add a bit more length, so the course will play around 7,263 yards.

“The green expansion was just phenomenal to have these additional areas,” says Andrew Updegrove, former 2022 U.S. Open director of operations and projects, now golf course superintendent at Baker Hill GC in Newbury, N.H. “It doesn’t look like anything was forced here. They truly fit in.”

The Bunkers were all updated or rebuilt with proper drainage and liners — the majority of them in-house under the leadership of Updegrove and Adam Bennett, superintendent.

“When we first started work on the bunkers, we worked closely with Gil and his team,” Bennett says, adding that the team made use of a Kubota mini-excavator and the Better Billy Bunker System. “We used historical photos, and Andrew spent a lot of time in the archive room digging up photos. I think most of them were from the 1930s. I remember being down on the 4th hole, and we started digging and found the old sand line of an abandoned bunker. We put that bunker back to the exact location using the historical photos and carefully excavated to the sand edge of the original bunker that had been filled in at some point in time.”

Updegrove notes that much of the new construction occurred between 2019 and 2021 during the shoulder seasons, with priority set on keeping the golf course open to members outside of a brief period in 2020 due to COVID-19.

Johnson says the health of the courses’ fairways and rough have been an important part of The Country Club’s restoration. (Photo: Copyright USGA/John Mummert)

Johnson says the health of the courses’ fairways and rough have been an important part of The Country Club’s restoration. (Photo: Copyright USGA/John Mummert)

“We were trying to work on certain segments, manage the traffic and get creative coming up with alternate golf courses, picking 18 holes for members to play so we could get all this work done,” Updegrove says. “When we stripped the sod from green No. 11 to do the expansion work, it was done in the middle of the night because Gil was coming in for only six hours, so we had to prepare, we had light towers and were ready for his arrival.”

The course consists mostly of Poa annua greens, with Poa and bentgrass fairways.

Historically, the course has struggled with anthracnose, bacterial wilt and winter ice damage, so Johnson — who has been dubbed by his teammates as “The Sandman” due to his affinity for topdressing — says The Country Club employs a fairly aggressive cultural program to create a better growing environment and playing surface.

“It all started with testing the soils throughout the property and amending them to ensure the plants had the essential nutrients available to grow healthy,” Johnson says. “Once we did that, the grass got stronger, tougher and healthier.”

Johnson says he’s often overwhelmed when he thinks about how many accomplishments the team has carried out in the four years since he came on board.

“It’s not only about what we accomplished, but how much we accomplished in this small window of time,” Johnson says. “There’s an area I call ‘The Pinnacle’ at the eighth and 10th tee, where you can get a 360-degree view of six holes on the course. You can see a lot of the work we’ve accomplished from there. You can quickly forget about what you have done when you’re moving through things at 100 miles an hour. We could not have carried out all of this work without great leadership, teamwork and buy-in from the entire TCC staff.”

Other preparation for the event has included meeting and speaking with past U.S. Open superintendents, such as Stephen Rabideau at Winged Foot GC, Jon Jennings at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and Rich McIntosh at Torrey Pines and attending the re- cent U.S. Opens to observe and get a feel for how everything runs.

When the time for the event comes, Johnson, Updegrove, Bennet and Howard all say they will be sure to soak it all in.

“Even right now, I’m getting goosebumps thinking of seeing people on this property,” Updegrove says, noting the USGA expects 175,000 people over the course of the week. “As a kid, I remember seeing The Country Club on TV, and I never thought I would end up here. It’s pretty special.”

A project that featured help from golf course architect Gil Hanse expanded 17 of the 18 greens at The Country Club. (Photo: Copyright USGA/John Mummert)

A project that featured help from golf course architect Gil Hanse expanded 17 of the 18 greens at The Country Club. (Photo: Copyright USGA/John Mummert)

Those who made it happen

When it comes to those who got it done — the crew — Superintendent Anthony Howard says everyone treats each other like family. “We’re always joking around having a good time, but we also all know when it’s go time,” Howard says. “It’s that family environment because, let’s face it, we spend more time with each other, so having a solid and trustworthy group around you helps alleviate a lot of stress that this career can throw at you.”

Howard notes that with so many seasoned crew members, he can rest easier knowing he won’t have to check up on their every move.

“The crew we have here right now all know what is expected, and there’s no sense of needing to babysit one another,” Howard says. “I also tell everyone, ‘Be patient and remember that every- one does a little bit of everything. Accept your role, learn as much as you can and don’t just blend into the weeds.’”

Updegrove, who after 14 years at the club moved on as head superintendent at Baker Hill Golf Club, agrees.

“When you pull into that parking lot at 5:15 in the morning, and most of the staff is already here with smiles on their face, it says a lot about the culture,” Updegrove says. “Also, between myself, Anthony and Adam, we have more than 35 years of combined experience here, and it’s because we love coming here. The senior leadership here creates a very special place to work at.”

Johnson adds that one of the most rewarding parts of his tenure has been watching employees learn and grow.

“To watch these young men and women just thrive and take the ball and run is one of the most rewarding things,” Johnson says. “This is what people are being trained to do — to be able to go out on their own to fly.”

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