To a turfgrass management major, the Oak Hill Country Club is hallowed ground, especially this year.
The Rochester-area golf course is host to the 2013 PGA Championship. Play starts today and will run through Sunday. Tiger Woods will be there, and Rory Mcllroy, and all of the other big names. It’s an accomplishment for a golfer to make it to the championship, but it’s also a big deal for the grounds crews.
This summer, two seniors in the SUNY Cobleskill turfgrass management program, Chris Duffy and Sean Nolan, are interning at Oak Hill. Duffy is from Franklin, Mass., and Nolan is from Penfield, a short distance from the golf course in Pittsford.
They’re part of a team charged with making the grass perfect so golf balls bounce predictably. Neither student could be reached for comment Wednesday: They’re working long hours in preparation for the championship, mowing the course four times a day in places and flattening turf with power rollers.
“I’ve been trying to connect with Duffy,” said Alex Ellram. “I think he found a dark place somewhere to sleep. Everybody’s been working 100 hours a week.”
Ellram is a turfgrass management professor at SUNY Cobleskill. He taught Nolan and Duffy much of what they know about golf courses.
“Preparing Oak Hill for the PGA is sort of ‘it’ for turfgrass management,” he said. “If you’re doing that, you’ve made it or you’re about to make it.”
Ellram himself was at the course Wednesday, promoting his organization, the New York State Turfgrass Management Association. He described the scene.
“There’s at least 10 acres of tents set up for the players and vendors. The grounds crew alone has over 100 people.”
That grounds crew is hand-chosen from the most skilled golf course mowers, rollers and general landscape artists.
The PGA Championship moves every year, stopping at the absolute best golf courses.
“It’s design,” he said. “They stop at really long courses. The players can hit far these days, but the main thing is upkeep. There has to be an incredible level of maintenance.”
It’s not easy, according to Ellram, to get on the 100-member Oak Hill crew, even in a non-PGA year. It’s a name people know in the industry.
Duffy and Nolan landed internships because of their connections. The grounds manager, Jeff Corcoran, is a SUNY Cobleskill graduate. Ellram said the industry respects the Cobleskill program.
Turfgrass management is more complicated than riding a mower or turning on a sprinkler. Both interns are enrolled in a four-year program designed to prepare them for golf course careers.
“They have to take botany, entomology and soil fertility classes,” he said, “among other things.”
Ellram said there are roughly 35 students in his turfgrass program, most with bright prospects.
“I don’t know a student of ours who wanted a job in the industry and couldn’t get one,” he added.
Now, with PGA Championship experience, Nolan and Duffy have an even better shot at success.
Also working to prepare Oak Hill for the championship are three recent graduates of the Cobleskill program: Sean Charles of Ballston Lake; Ken Gregory of Cattaraugus; and Dave Vastola of Buffalo. One flew back from a recent job in California just to take part, Ellram said.