As the golf world watched The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Florida in May, nearly a thousand miles away the focus centered around preparing for the John Deere Classic, still two months from starting. Long before the field is set, the media arrives and the spectators pour in, prep work commences. Golf courses require immense amounts of equipment and manpower to prepare the stage for the world’s most elite golfers.
Trading in the Twin Cities for the Quad Cities, TPC Deere Run superintendent Alex Stuedemann leads a grounds crew operation whose responsibility focuses on maintaining one of the Midwest’s highest quality courses. The University of Minnesota graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in environmental horticulture is no stranger to the TPC Network, having worked at TPC San Antonio and TPC Twin Cities prior to taking the reins at TPC Deere Run at the beginning of 2014.
While the course is maintained throughout the year, Stuedemann and his team in Silvis, Ill., visit with a PGA Tour agronomist around 60 days prior to the tournament to consider agronomic plans, fertility, water management and other course aspects.
“For the most part, our staff is focusing on inside the ropes,” Stuedemann said.
Spectator stands and suites, video boards, hospitality tents and other temporary structures are erected by contractors beginning six to seven weeks before the first tee shot is hit. An outside landscaping company even creates temporary landscaping around some of the structures using mulch and potted plants.
While the grounds crew may not be responsible for construction, they do have an interest in ensuring all the infrastructure is erected without damaging underground irrigation systems and ensuring workers drive vehicles only on cart paths certain days. Structures sitting on the course for over a month before the tournament and not completely dismantled until two-and-a-half to three weeks after the tournament concludes leads to sodding and reseeding projects during some of the hottest and driest weeks of summer.
With one week left before the tournament, an advance rules official and advance agronomist from the PGA Tour arrive in Silvis. The rest of the rules officials come the weekend prior to the tournament, along with ShotLink operators. CBS, which broadcasts the John Deere Classic, does not reach the site until Monday morning of tournament week.
The week prior and tournament week itself combine for a hectic two weeks, and the crew members are well aware of the importance of this time period. While employee vacations and time off are fine with Stuedemann during other parts of the year, Stuedemann states that the course maintenance members are told “don’t even schedule an oil change for you car” during this time.
“Really the two weeks, we don’t have a work schedule, Stuedemann said. “It’s ‘this is what we need to get done. We are going to do whatever it takes.’”
“We” refers not only to the seasonal grounds crew staff of about 25, but volunteer reinforcements which grow the workforce to about 40-45 individuals, a vast increase from the nine staff members during the off-season stretching from mid-November to early March. While unpaid, the volunteer grounds crew workers have their flight, hotel and some meal expenses covered along with a plethora of snacks during the work day. The volunteers may be searching for a networking and resume building opportunity, but altruism is also a factor according to Stuedemann.
“Without them, my staff would probably not have a high opinion of life by the end of the week,” Stuedemann laughingly said to emphasize the importance of and gratefulness towards the volunteers.
The course is closed beginning Tuesday of advance week and work includes additional maintenance tasks such as clearing out native areas, trimming trees and fixing sprinkler heads. Come tournament week, the focus shifts more towards the turf and bunkers. Manicuring the course prior to each round ensures a consistent playing field for the golfers and an aesthetically-pleasing viewing experience once the television cameras turn on.
“What we do in the morning is we’ll remove the dew from the fairways and the approaches, we’ll mow the green and the collar and rake all the bunkers, take care of any debris, and then in the evening we’ll mow tees, fairways, approaches, the rough, if necessary, and the first cut of rough around the fairway,” Stuedemann said.
The rough is cut at 4 inches at the beginning of tournament week and allowed to grow taller unless weather conditions dictate an additional mowing. The Southshore Bentgrass fairways are mowed to 0.4 inches, while the L-93 Bentgrass greens receive a haircut level of around 0.1 inches. Aside from the mowing, leaf blowers are used to blow off debris, additional watering takes place as needed, and divots are filled.
“We basically run through and clear a hole at a time,” Stuedemann said adding that the practice facilities are maintained once the on-course work concludes.
If mowing and grass does not seem like a science, the TPC Deere Run staff would beg to differ. Environmental factors play an integral role in determining course maintenance.
“It’s not like we have a script and follow it to a T,” Stuedemann said. “We’re literally collecting data off the putting surfaces morning and evening starting in the middle of advance week all the way through the tournament that tells us moisture, firmness and speed.”
These readings determine whether hand watering certain areas of greens is necessary and the number of times greens should be rolled or mowed. Greens are typically mowed twice in the morning and rolled once in the afternoon.
The weather is perhaps the most unknown variable, but forecasting still aids in decision-making.
“We could be seeing a forecast that has a lot of rain in it that would make the greens more receptive. Well, does that mean we have the ability maybe to speed them up a little bit more to offset that?,” Stuedemann explained.
Moisture in the forecast can mean more than needing to roll a green to raise the Stimpmeter readings. In 2018, rain and lightning forced a delay in Friday play. Workers finished the morning tasks and play began, but the rain poured at approximately 11 a.m. Crew members raked bunkers in preparation of continuing the day’s round, but lightning and rain delays ultimately postponed the remainder of the round to Saturday. According to Stuedemann, Friday ended up being about an 18-hour day for the entire grounds staff, which generally works 4:30 a.m. to 8 or 8:30 a.m. Preparing the course for the next day’s round starts around 3:45 p.m. to 5 p.m. on average during tournament play.
Thanks to the grounds crew and better weather, the tournament concluded on time with Michael Kim posting a tournament record 27-under total on his way to an eight-stroke victory. Golfers returning next year should see consistency with the course architecture.
“There’s been very few changes since its inception,” Stuedemann said. He added that while “we all love to play in the dirt” and complete projects, “it’s also good to see a golf course maintain its integrity.”