Each guest we spend time with on the Wonderful Women of Golf podcast has their own unique history in the turf industry, but Wendy O’Brien’s story stands apart.
A United Kingdom native, O’Brien plies her trade at Jurmala Golf Club and Hotel, a 27-hole facility in Riga, Latvia. She was hired to complete the grow in at the Jack Nicklaus design in 2017 and has been the superintendent ever since. The course opened for play late in 2018. The course is approximately a two-hour drive from the Russian border to the East. O’Brien’s interview with Rick Woelfel was recorded on March 1, five days after Russia launched its invasion of the Ukraine. “At the moment, life is almost normal,” she says, “apart from mostly watching the news and being a little bit more concerned.”
O’Brien got her start in turf at a small club in her native northwest England where her parents were members. She volunteered there as part of her requirements for a sports turf management degree from Myerscough College in Lancashire, where she studied turf management. Even after completing her work-experience requirements, she continued to work at the course on weekends and during school holidays.
In 1998, she took a position at De Vere Carden Park, a golf resort in Chester, United Kingdom, with 45 holes, including a championship course designed by Jack Nicklaus. She spent most of 9½ years there and eventually became the deputy head greenkeeper.
In spring 2001, however, O’Brien took a sabbatical from her job at DeVere Carden Park upon being accepted into the International Internship Program at Ohio State. She spent seven months at Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Virginia. From there, she spent a year at Augusta National Golf Club. She has volunteered annually at the Masters since 2002 (besides 2020 and ’21). She also volunteered at the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris.
In the summer of 2007, O’Brien was hired as the superintendent at the La Torre Golf Resort, a Nicklaus design in Spain. She then returned to Myerscough College and spent most of six years tutoring students with aspirations of becoming greenkeepers. O’Brien returned to Carden Park for a season before being hired at Jurmala.
One of the challenges O’Brien faces regularly is building a team in a nation that is not a golfing hotbed. There are only five golf courses in the country. “Golf isn’t a big sport here,” she says. “(The challenge) was to find staff that could actually get to the golf course at a time you needed them to; an early start for example. Not too many people have cars and public transport can be a challenge.”
Because of bus schedules and the fact that the closest bus stop and train station are a 30-minute walk from the golf course, O’Brien’s crew doesn’t start work until 6:30 a.m. Not surprisingly, her team is smaller than those at many facilities in North America. Last year, the roster was around 12 during the peak season and reduced to six during the winter. O’Brien hopes to have 16 or 17 on her crew this year for a season that should begin in late March or early April depending on weather. The courses will stay open until there is snow, which last year was late November. There have been seasons when the course did not close at all, including its first. O’Brien often finds herself recruiting a new team every season.
“We have to train them,” she says. “Some of them don’t even drive, so even just training them on utility vehicles can take some time, never mind training them for mowers.”
O’Brien takes pride in her training/buddy system, which pairs experienced staffers with newcomers. That training often begins with imparting some very basic facts.
“Most (new crew members) have never seen a golf course before,” O’Brien says. “They have no idea what golf is. So, they don’t know what a green is when you say ‘Go to the ninth green,’ never mind ‘Where is it?’ So, we have a lot of maps in the building.”
O’Brien estimates it takes four to six weeks to get a newcomer to where they can handle basics such as cutting greens and tees. The task of overseeing her crew can be complicated by a language barrier.
“I’ve tried to learn Latvian,” she says. “I can understand it but can’t speak it very well.”