Five BIGGA members and one GCSAI member from Ireland recently returned from the trip of a lifetime to the TPC Sawgrass course at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. They had won the opportunity to join the maintenance team that helped prepare the course for the 2015 Players Championship, won by Rickie Fowler of the US after a three-way play-off.
In this article, GCSAI representative David Perdisatt from Naas Golf Club in Co Kildare recalls his 'amazing' experiences
Amazing. I feel that is an appropriate word to try to sum up the twelve days I spent away at TPC Sawgrass in Jacksonsville, Florida. I am still trying to come to terms with the sheer scale of the place, and I am sure, long after this article is published, more memories of this wonderful experience will come back to me. I have tried to remember as much as I could!
This opportunity came about last Autumn whilst I was reading through the Greenside magazine and noticed the advertisement about the partnership between John Deere, the GCSAI and BIGGA to send volunteers over to represent their organisations at TPC Sawgrass in May. It required sending in a CV with an application letter detailing why you should be selected to represent the GCSAI and John Deere.
That evening, I tidied up my CV and tried to sell myself as well as possible in the application letter. I wrote about my experience, my education and my future career goals in greenkeeping. I sent the CV away that night and had a long few weeks' wait to see if I had been selected for interview.
I was lucky to be on a shortlist of four interviewed at Westmanstown Golf Club on the outskirts of Dublin in the first week in January. There were two GCSAI committee members and Chris Meacock from John Deere Limited (UK & Ireland), who had flown in for the interviews. I felt it went well and that I got across all I wanted to say about my background and where I saw my career heading in the future. I was absolutely delighted to receive a phone call later that evening to inform me that I was the lucky one to be representing the GCSAI and John Deere at The Players Championship in the US in May.
My first requirement was to attend the BTME 2015 event at Harrogate, at the end of January, for a press photo call with the John Deere managers and the five successful candidates from the BIGGA regions. I met up with Steve Mitchell, who is John Deere's public relations officer. He was great and just asked a few questions and jotted down a few quotes. It was great, as well, to finally meet up with the BIGGA guys who I would be travelling and working with, and I knew, after leaving the show, that it was going to be a fantastic trip.
So, on Thursday evening April 30th, John Deere had a flight and hotel booked for me at Gatwick Airport. I met up with all the BIGGA lads there and we had a couple of drinks and got on really well. Joining us on the trip was Peter Nelder of John Deere who, over the course of the trip, organised everything flawlessly and was brilliant to be around. On the Friday morning, we caught our flight to Orlando. Peter rented a minibus to take us to Sawgrass but, as we weren't required there until the Saturday morning, we stopped off at a hotel a couple of hours drive away. We had some dinner that evening and everyone was really excited about getting started.
On Saturday morning, we drove to 110 Championship Way, Ponte Vedra Beach, the home address of TPC Sawgrass. Driving up the lane, we could see views of the Dye Valley course and then we came through security gates and arrived at the Agronomy Centre. The yards and the maintenance sheds were a sea of green. There were over sixty Gators for the tournament, countless numbers of both ride-on and walk-behind mowers, sprayers, Pro Gators, tractors and everything in between. It was really on an immense scale.
We said our goodbyes to Peter and were very warmly greeted by Lucas Andrews, the Superintendent of the Dye Valley course. Lucas was great with us the whole time and always made himself available to everyone should we have any questions about the course, their maintenance programmes or just general stuff.
We were based at the North Florida University dormitories about twenty-five minutes drive away. We jumped on one of the many shuttle buses provided for the Agronomy teams and headed to the dorms to unload our bags. The dorms were lovely and clean and everyone had their own room and bathroom. We headed back to the maintenance facility in the buses that evening, along with the other eighty volunteers staying at the dorms. The place was packed.
If you take into account the whole course, the Stadium Course has the following staff:
- a Director of Agronomy
- a Course Superintendent
- two Assistant Superintendents
- three Assistants in training
- twenty crew members
- two irrigation specialists
- two spray technicians
And the Dye Valley Course has:
- one Course Superintendent
- two Assistant Superintendents
- two Assistants in Training
- three College interns
- sixteen crew members
So, all in all, there were nearly 140 people contributing to the course maintenance operations. The atmosphere was electric that evening and all the head guys spoke brilliantly. The general manager was first up, then Head of Agronomy Tom Vlach, the Stadium Course Superintendent Clay Breazeale and Lucas. Every speech really got everybody motivated to bring everything they could to the week ahead. We had some dinner and then it was back to the dorms for some rest before our first day of work.
Sunday morning we woke up at 3:30am. We were picked up outside the dorms at 4.00am and shuttled to the sheds for a meeting at 4:30am. There were pastries and coffee placed out for a quick bite to eat before work. On entering the tents each morning for the meetings, you were greeted with rock music blaring out of speakers and cold air being blown into the tent to wake everyone up! Clay then said a few words about the morning's setup, how the course was looking and what he expected from everyone. If anyone was tired coming in that morning, it soon left you as it was all clapping, singing, high fives, fist pumps, slaps on the back and all other sorts of crazy stuff. It really was such a positive and inspiring place to be every single morning.
We were all given our duties for the day and, as it was the first day, everyone started on the 1st and worked through to the 18th. It was organised chaos in a way. From the moment I stepped onto the course, the sheer beauty of the place was a sight to behold. It was simply amazing. This was a very busy day as we paid great attention to detail on every job, and had a lot of supervisors overseeing our work and calling lads back if needed. I guess, looking back, it was the day that we finished a lot of the more detailed work, as the course had been closed for two weeks beforehand to do a lot of the main tournament preparation.
We broke for lunch around 1.00pm and then it was back out again until about 9.00pm that night. It was an amazing feeling getting on the bus that evening, knowing that I had just worked a full day at TPC Sawgrass.
Monday morning was the same 4.00am pick up outside the dorms. Clay said his few words, got everyone buzzing and then it was start time.
We were split into groups of front nine, back nine, practice facility and landscape. I felt that extra bit lucky to be on the back nine crew. I think it would have killed me had I not been able to stand on the majestic 17th every morning with the sun coming up.
My duties on AM setup were backpack blowing tees, bunkers, greens and paths with three other guys. The back nine AM crew usually had two TPC staff transporting floodlights around for us to see, two staff taking data collection (moisture, stimp, firmness), four cutting greens, four moving boards for mowers to turn on, two on hole cutting, two rolling greens, two mowing tees, four mowing fairways, one on a Buffalo blower and collecting mower clippings, one on the semi-rough, two hand mowing approaches, four on backpack blowing and fifteen on bunkers. The front nine crew did the same thing with the same number of people.
I was travelling each morning with a South African superintendent called Nikki. We got on really well and had a fantastic time. We usually finished up about 8.00am, and we would then fall back and give the bunker crew a hand to finish raking. We used double rakes on the bunkers which left a superb finish.
It was usually around 9.00am when we had breakfast, and then we had the option of going back to the dorms for some rest until the evening shift, or hanging around, heading to the beach or whatever we wanted. I volunteered on a couple of days at the Dye Valley course with two of the BIGGA lads as Lucas was looking for some help over there. We hand cut greens and tidied up bunkers. It was great to see the other course and it was absolutely beautiful. I nearly hand cut an alligator that was lying up just off the collar of one of the greens I was mowing!
The evening shift started at 4:30pm. We would have some dinner and then Clay would say his few words again. The atmosphere in the maintenance facility every day was brilliant to be a part of, and everybody mingled and wanted to get to know each other. It was usually after 5.00pm when we left the sheds. My job, most evenings, was to hand cut the rough with
rotary mowers. It usually took about ten of us to do this every evening. We would cut out to about 80 yards from the green on either side and all around the green surround. You had to be pretty careful as there were so many television wires and fibre optic cable everywhere.
All the other jobs stayed the same as the AM shift, apart from the bunkers, which weren't raked in the evenings. We usually finished up between 8.30 and 9.00pm, and then it was a quick bite to eat and back to the dorms around 10.00pm.
Tuesday was the same setup as the previous day and everybody was starting to get accustomed to their roles and things were beginning to run a little smoother. Wednesday morning it rained pretty heavily for a spell, so our AM start time was delayed by an hour. Clay decided to iron the greens first as he thought they'd puffed up a bit with the rain, then hand cut, then iron again. There was also a lot more moisture in the greens (some at 40%), so they ran the sub-air systems which can draw 2% moisture an hour out of the greens. The bunkers were machine raked first as the rain had left them too solid to hand rake.
By the end of Wednesday, everything was in good shape again. This was a special day as most of the golfers had turned up for practice and we could get a look at them up close. I spotted Paul McGinley walking the course and taking notes for Sky Sports. I popped over and said hello and he was very nice. I spent a few minutes talking to him about how I got here and about Naas Golf Club, where he was once a junior member. Wednesday evening dinner was brilliant - everyone was in flying form and then Ian Poulter came into the tent to give us a bit of a motivational speech and a few compliments. It was a really nice touch from him to come over and do that.
Thursday morning was pretty intense as this was the first day of competition and we had to make sure nothing was out of place. We finished up on the blowers and jumped back to rake bunkers with the bunker crew who were just keeping ahead of play. A rules official was unhappy with a few of the bunkers and wanted them raked again. It was great having breakfast that morning as we knew the place looked really sharp.
Thursday lunchtime, we watched some golf and they ran some really good seminars each day on calibrations, spraying and diseases, which we sat in on.
Thursday evening's setup didn't start until around 6.00pm. It was an eye opener trying to get past people in Gators with trailers attached. A lot of spectators at TPC Sawgrass like to have some beers, and don't mind trying to hitch a lift on the Gators. If you left your vehicle unattended with the key still in the ignition, you could be pretty sure someone was going for a spin in it. It happened once and they found the vehicle parked a mile away outside McDonalds!
Friday's morning and evening setup went smoothly and everybody was getting through their work and having a fine time doing so. The crowds at the tournament were massive now and it was great to be able to look out at the course, with the best field in golf playing, and know that I had contributed something to it.
Saturday and Sunday mornings' AM shift changed by an hour because of the cut, so we had an extra hour in bed. The weather was beautiful over the last few days and the course looked immaculate.
The greens were getting cut and ironed in the mornings and evenings and were now stimping at over 13.3, and getting very firm. Tom, Clay and Lucas were delighted with the effort from everyone.
Sunday morning's setup was a bit quieter for everybody. I think everyone knew it was nearing the end of something really special. We had all worked really long hours and got through a lot of work, but I don't think there was a single volunteer who wanted the journey to end.
When the morning setup was finished, the majority of volunteers were heading home or to airports to catch flights. As our group were staying until Monday, we headed back to the dorms to get washed up. We then headed back to Sawgrass to watch the evening's golf. About twenty of us volunteers perched up on the 18th and enjoyed a good supply of beer that we wrangled from the volunteers' tent. It was a great finish to the tournament too - a three-way playoff. What a wonderful evening we had, and one that I will always remember.
Monday morning was time for home, but not before the remaining volunteers, who wanted to, got to have a shot at the famous 17th for a nearest the pin prize. Needless to say, I didn't receive it!
Everyone said their goodbyes and exchanged business cards and promises of keeping in touch. We met back up with Peter Nelder who had us booked into a hotel a couple of hours drive away on Daytona Beach. We went out for dinner that evening and hit a few clubs. It was great to let loose a bit after the days we had just put in. It was a really nice touch from John Deere to give us that treat and something we really enjoyed.
So, to sum it up overall, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. I was the only greenkeeper there from Ireland and I felt privileged to be so. I am so proud to have worked at The Players Championship at Sawgrass, it was such an inspiring thing to be part of. I have met so many new friends and am friends with so many on Facebook now, and we all share our greenkeeping experiences daily.
It was a wonderful networking opportunity and, since I came home, have been offered two new jobs on different continents!
I would just like to say a massive thank you to both the GCSAI and John Deere for giving me this amazing opportunity and helping to progress my career in greenkeeping. I would urge any member of the GCSAI or BIGGA who is even half thinking of applying to do so, as this really is a fantastic opportunity to rub shoulders with top turfgrass professionals from around the world, work at one of the world's best courses and make new friends while doing so.