Overcoming monumental challenges are nothing new to Van Patten Golf Club course superintendent Craig Cochran.
A year ago, the 45-year-old greens keeper underwent gastric bypass surgery, leading to extreme weight loss. This spring, the never-ending rain cycle has created difficult playing conditions throughout the Capital Region. Cochran and his many colleagues are stressed out trying to keep their courses playable.
“The ground is so soft,” Cochran said. “We’ve had saturated soil from last year around the 4th of July to now. We really haven’t had the opportunity to dry out.”
Cochran explained that trying to keep the fairways cut and the greens rolling smoothly is a difficult task when there has been so much rain.
“From an agronomics standpoint, the grass is drowning,” he said. “We don’t have a solid root structure. The wet summer and wet fall from last year has continued with a wet spring. The grass is kind of weak, and the rooting isn’t great. From an employee trying to get things done standpoint, we’ve spent most of our time this year getting our mowers unstuck.
“There are a lot of scars on the course, because we can’t stop mowing, no matter how wet it is. You end up getting your mowers stuck when it’s so saturated.”
Cochran pointed out that he and his staff have a tremendous amount of grass to cut at the popular Clifton Park layout.
“It’s a pretty big area that we cover. It’s a 27-hole golf course, and a lot of our equipment is big, heavy mowers. It makes it challenging,” Cochran said. “It’s also tough for morale. Not only are the guys working all the time in the cold and the rain, but there is not a lot of people playing golf.”
The number of rounds golfers have played is down throughout the area because of the weather. That hurts every aspect of the golfing industry.
“We’ve gone almost 45 days with some kind of rain,” Cochran said. “We’ve had only maybe two days in a row without rain during this stretch. Any time we’ve gotten a break, it’s been very brief. That’s really hard to catch up. It makes it tough to provide good playing conditions for our customers.
“We’ve wanted to vent the greens and we try to poke little holes in them to help the drainage. When we cut our cups in the greens, the soil is so saturated that the cups fall apart. You have to change the cups every day, but the course is so wet.”
The wetter the conditions, the more Cochran and his crew worry.
“Last year, we planned some drainage projects, like a drain on hole No. 5. We had most of that project finished, and then the rain washed it out. It hasn’t been dry enough to get back there to get the job done,” Cochran said. “We don’t have a private membership paying dues, and we have a single ownership here. Everybody feels the stress of the weather.”
Despite the weather conditions, Cochran loves his job. He was born just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and his first job in the course maintenance business was at fabled Oakmont Country Club, rated among the top-five courses in the country.
“I went to turf school at Rutgers,” Cochran said. “I got into the business because I love golf. I was originally a biology major when I went to Slippery Rock University. But I wasn’t going to class. I was playing golf all the time. When I took a job at Oakmont, it all clicked. The science and biology aspect clicked with the golf aspect.
“I had a great boss in Mark Coons. He had just retired and had worked at Baltusrol, another great course. I learned a lot from him. I didn’t realize that I could have a career in golf. I started taking classes again, and everything started to fall into place.”
Cochran eventually moved to the Capital Region in 2001 and became the golf course superintendent at Fairways of Halfmoon in Mechanicville. He spent 10 years at Halfmoon before landing a sales job at EZ Go, a golf car and utility vehicle company.
“The Van Pattens were one of my customers, and when a job opened up here, I put in for it,” Cochran recalled. “This is my fourth year here.”
Cochran and others like him are the backbone of the golf industry.
“Nobody does what we do for the money, but it’s good to make a living at it,” he said. “Everybody who is a golf course superintendent loves the game. We work long hours. We are dealing with people of all types. Sometimes, we are dealing with chemicals. It’s not always fun, but the positives outweigh the negatives.
“There are times when I wonder why I got out of sales, especially when it’s as wet as it is this spring. I used to love the rain, because it made everything green. Now that I’m older, I’m more focused on generating revenue for the business. I feel the stress of not having enough golfable days for our customers.”
Still, despite the challenges, Cochran feels lucky to be where he is.
“I would definitely say that my wife, Georgia, is a saint,” Cochran said. “This is our 17th year together. It’s a monumental task putting up with someone who is gone well before they wake up and sometimes doesn’t come home until late in the day. Plus, we have a 12-year-old son, Lucas. He helps me pick up the divots and clean up the tee areas. That’s how we spend some time together, along with watching his baseball games.
“That’s one of the reasons I left sales and got back into the golf business. I wanted my son to grow up around a golf course, and I enjoy the time I get to spend with him.
“We have a great staff here at Van Patten,” Cochran continued. “We have a crew of retired guys and some college guys, and we all truly enjoy what we do here. I think I have the best office in the Capital District. I get to be outside most of the time, and I see all the wildlife. I see the sun rise every day, and with this huge piece of property, I see something new every day.”
The annual Schenectady Classic is set for June 14-16 at Schenectady Municipal Golf Course. There are already more than 20 players signed up for the men’s division, and six for the women’s division, which plays June 14-15. Call the Muny pro shop at 518-382-5155 for more information.
The NENY PGA Pro-Senior Amateur was rained out this week. It has been rescheduled for June 17 at Schenectady Municipal Golf Course. The pros’ next event will be a Pro-Pro at Fox Run on Monday. Their next major will be the Donald Ross Classic June 9 at The Sagamore Resort and June 10 at Glens Falls CC.
Robert Trent Jones Golf Course at Cornell University is hosting the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Golf Championships this weekend and concluding Monday.
U.S. Open local qualifying medalist Bryan Bigley, a Rotterdam native, will compete in 36-hole sectional qualifying Monday at Century Country Club and Old Oaks CC in Purchase.
The Saratoga County Amateur Golf Championship will be played June 14 at Eagle Crest Golf Club and June 15 at Van Patten Golf Club. It will be a 36-hole not-cut medal play tournament with open and senior (age 50 and over) divisions. Entry fee is $80 and includes golf and cart both days as well as awards. Applications are available at both golf club pro shops. For more information, call John Peterson at Eagle Crest GC (518-87-8789, ext. 229) or Adam Pangopoulos at Van Patten GC (518-877-5400).
Saratoga National Golf Club will host 120 Capital Region women and girls as part of Women’s Golf Day on Tuesday. Included will be free golf clinics from 2-4 p.m. and rounds of golf beginning at 5:30 p.m. and running until dark. There also will be food and beverage specials at the Prime restaurant.
Amsterdam Municipal Golf Course hosts the next Eastern New York Golf Association Wednesday.
The Northeastern Women’s Golf Association’s Ringers Tournament is set for Tuesday at Saratoga Golf & Polo Club.
The Wolferts Roost Women’s Invitational is set for Wednesday at Wolferts Roost CC.
Three-time Schenectady Classic champion Bill Frutchy aced the seventh hole at The Edison Club recently.
Gary Scott aced the sixth hole at Schenectady Municipal Golf Course.
Also at Schenectady Muny, Mike Masotti aced the third hole with an 8-iron. It was his first hole in one.
Jeremy Dion posted his first hole-in-one with a wedge on the 105-yard second hole at Mechanicville Golf Club.
At Normanside Country Club, Allen Kaplan recorded his second career ace with a 9-iron on the 100-yard sixth hole.
Ryan Keefe holed out a wedge for an eagle on the par-5 14th hole at Schenectady Municipal Golf Course.