18 Sep 2020 | Clubs & Facilities | Feature stories |

Ode to golf's supermen

by Mike Clayton

Golf superintendent image
Superintendents 'work in all manner of weather'. Photo: Getty

First published in Golf Vic magazine 2018

When I started playing golf, the men who looked after golf courses were known as curators. It has always been a 24-hour, seven days a week job, an often thankless one and always open to, mostly uninformed, scrutiny and criticism.

Merv Humphries was the man at Eastern in 1969 and one night, just after I had started caddying but before I was old enough to join, he caught me sneaking in a few holes before dark. He could have been angry and kicked me off but instead it was a more than kindly, “just stay out of the road of the members and you will be fine’’.

Claude Crockford was the doyen from decades of caring for Royal Melbourne and few anywhere in the world did it better, even if he was an extremist when it came to the speed of the greens in the many big events where he was charged with arranging the golf course.

At some point, the curators became greenkeepers and now all are universally known as superintendents. Presumably it’s all a part of the Americanisation of the language of golf, and not something we should be blindingly following. A two on a par five is an albatross and not a double eagle, the place for practice is a practice fairway, not a range, and it’s a pin position as opposed to the infernal American television affectation, “hole location”.

Either way, they are now superintendents and it’s a job with a thousand bosses, most of whom could grow grass at least as well and who want, with unceasing certainty, to know why the bunkers aren’t ‘consistent’ or as good as the ones they played down the road last week. Normally the ‘members down the road’ think the same of their bunkers, wanting to know why theirs aren’t as good as the ones up the road.

For the vast majority of members, the measure of the job is the quality of the fairways and the greens.

So long as there are no bad lies and the ball runs purely on putting greens, the job is safe.The superintendent’s job, however, involves working with all manner of weather and climates and committees, often with at least one person who thinks they know more about how to do the job. Then there are those pesky things called budgets, something only the man at Augusta National never has to worry about.

Augusta is itself the bane of the lives of many because its ‘perfection’ has led to an expectation of unreasonable standards, which don’t really add much to the game. ‘Perfect’ is fine and an admirable goal but 70 percent of ‘perfect’ is often just as fine and no detraction from the golf. And, not one super in Australia is working with remotely close to 70 percent of Augusta’s budget.

Unquestionably, the standards of the playing surfaces in Melbourne, the Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas and generally around the state have significantly improved in the past 35 years and it’s been largely superintendent-driven.

Until the late 1970s in Melbourne, the fairways were a mix of cool season grasses, mostly poa-annua.

It thrived in the winter, was beautiful to chip off around the green because it had no grain and as the weather warmed up in the spring and early summer, it would ‘drought out’ to be replaced by the running couch grass.

In the late 1970s, Graeme Grant, a protege of Crockford, transformed the fairways at Kingswood by adopting the policy of ridding the course of poa and replacing it with ‘santa ana’ a new form of couch grass offering better lies than the earlier generation of ‘common couch’ grasses Crockford and his contemporaries managed.

All the sandbelt courses eventually followed Kingswood’s lead and Grant, his reputation enhanced, headed down the road to Kingston Heath and set about establishing its reputation as one of the best-conditioned courses in the world.

His brother Bruce was the keeper of the greens at Victoria, then The Lakes in Sydney, before spending more than 20 years managing The National’s courses as well as Portsea.

Never once did anyone go to a course Bruce Grant was managing and find it anything other than faultless. Unless, that is, he was in the process of smashing poa in the greens and replacing it with the bent grasses he and Crockford so revered as a putting surface.

The superintendent’s job, however, involves working with all manner of weather and climates and committees, often with at least one person who thinks they know more about how to do the job.

"In this game", he would often say, "you are measured by the quality of your greens." Grant also understood the difference between ‘perfect fairways’ and fairways that were ‘perfect for golf’.

As long as the ball bounced, the lies were good but not necessarily the same or always ‘perfect’, and they reflected something of the weather and the season, he was happy. The fairways at Portsea didn’t have to be the verdant green of Augusta and he didn’t have the water anyway.

His measure was how well they played and his knowledge came from an abiding understanding of how to play the game and how it was best played. Crockford had taught the two brothers well and they, in turn, passed their knowledge down to the generation following.

The ‘condition’ of the course is almost always assumed to be the condition of the playing surfaces – the fairways, greens and the bunkers – and their state is so often how a course is judged. For every person commenting on the architectural merits, or demerits, of a course, there are dozens who comment on the condition as if it’s a more important measure of the worth of a course.

Of course the ‘condition’ is important, especially if it impacts on how the ball bounces and rolls, but it’s the architecture which creates the abiding interest, or lack of it, and superintendents have a critical role to play in maintaining the architectural standards. As Gil Hanse, the American architect of the Olympic course in Rio, has often said: "I can only do so much but after we’ve left, it’s up to the superintendent to maintain what we’ve built. They are the ones who can make it or break it."

The ‘mowing lines’ or where the grass is cut short and how the edges of the short grass meld into the rough and the hazards are so important to the look and play of a course. In Melbourne, the superintendents have nearly always got them right.

The fairways run all the way to the fairway bunkers (as opposed to the curious habit of Americans where so many of the bunkers are surrounded by rough) and the fairways themselves are kept as wide as the original architects intended. None of them, in an attempt to mitigate the effects of the modern ball, have narrowed the fairways and grown more rough, something many Americans see as the solution to the problem of the technology.

Short grass is used beautifully and elegantly around the greens both as a hazard, sweeping the misdirected shot away from the green, as well as offering good lies to play a multitude of chips and pitch shots.

The other part of maintenance most members never consider is that it’s the job of the staff to manage everything inside the fences and not just the playing surfaces. Crockford was the master of managing the vegetation, both the trees and the beautiful heathland plants so abundant at Royal Melbourne.

The condition of the playing surfaces comes and goes a bit like the form of a player but the managing of the off-fairway areas is critical to the real condition of the property and the best superintendents understand it and set their courses up for generations to come, just as Crockford did all those years ago.

And lest you think superintendents aren’t an important part of ‘growing the game’, reflect back to Merv Humphries and the incredible kindness he showed a small boy almost 50 years ago.

Edited and republished with the approval of Golf Victoria

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