Which is all sort of ironic. Because after rising so far, so fast, Roberts is looking after a golf course that is pretty darn playable right now — but won’t open for play until July 2022.
“Yeah, we have 16 holes pretty well grassed and complete,” says Roberts, noting how the course looked in November 2020. “We sprigged 14 and 16 fairway a bit later than we wanted, but they’re filling in well. Obviously, we have a long time before we open, but that presents a whole different type of management challenge. You don’t want to waste resources over that type of period.”
“The bunkers. You don’t want to rake them every day, just to rake them,” he adds. “So we do them once per week. We had a little algae bloom in there due to the high nitrates in our irrigation water. So we’re going through and touching them weekly, depth checking them, stirring up the faces, getting the sand turned over and promoting air flow to combat the algae. Maybe we’ll start getting a bit more hands-on come the summer of 2021. We’ll probably ramp things up to two or three times a week.”
At which point, the grand opening will be only 11 months away …
The development schedule here is unique, like most everything else on this sprawling parcel, 40 miles north of Dallas. PGA Frisco stands to be the fanciest, most ambitious municipal facility in America: the city of Frisco owns both courses; the PGA of America has a long-term contract as the course operator. When it does finally open, the East Course will serve as centerpiece to a 36-hole, 600-acre, $520 million mixed-use property that will serve as the PGA’s national headquarters. The West Course, designed by Beau Welling, is looked after by superintendent Kyle Bunny. Roberts and Bunny both report to Bryce Yates, the director of grounds and operations.
The development will eventually feature a massive practice area, a 100,000-square foot putting course, a 10-hole short course, and a 500-room, Omni-branded resort. An adjacent 2,500 acres are slated for further development under a master plan from Hunt Realty.
The East Course underwent final grassing in September 2020. The course builder, Houston-based Heritage Links, was scheduled to complete all of its work by the close of 2020. Normally that would mean a 2021 debut. But the East course will not open until June 2022.
The obvious question is Why? Is this the mother of all COVID-19 precautions?
“No, no. The client wants an entire year — not to grow things in necessarily, but to fully establish the course, the maintenance practices and its tournament preparedness down to every last detail,” says Jon O’Donnell, president of Heritage Links, a division of Lexicon, Inc. “We’ve been involved in projects where the attitude was similar, but frankly those were very private clubs, in quite remote locations. This is essentially a resort project, in a major metropolitan area that has been very visible from the get-go. Everyone’s eager to see it, to play it, to observe how it handles tournament play. But they’re all going to have to wait.”
“It’s a great luxury to be working a timeline like this one,” adds Hanse, the course architect. “But it’s not every day that we get the chance to create a golf course that we know will host multiple major championships and potentially a Ryder Cup. Opening in 2022 will allow us to get the details and conditioning exactly right.”
Eighteen months before opening, as many as 20 championships are already on the schedule, once amateur events are figured in. The Senior PGA Championship is set for PGA Frisco in 2023. The first of two PGA Championships arrives four years later. Two KPMG Women’s PGA Championships are scheduled. And while The PGA of America has yet to announce a Ryder Cup for north Texas (the first available slot is 2041), one can more or less take that commitment to the bank. There has even been speculation the AT&T Byron Nelson will move to Frisco once its five-year contract with the TPC Craig Ranch expires in 2025.
That’s an unprecedented tournament schedule and Roberts has been handed an unprecedented amount of time to get it ready and gather an understanding of the soil, the water he’ll be dealing with (which ain’t great), and the management challenge inherent to being a cog in the one of the most ambitious golf operations ever undertaken on North American soil.
Roger Meier, senior director of golf maintenance operations for the PGA of America and PGA Frisco, put it best: “Championships are what we do,” Meier told the Dallas Morning News in October 2020. “But day in and day out this place is going to be pretty special. When you step onto this place in 2022, we want you to feel like it has been here forever.”
Hustling up the career ladder
Growing in Walpole, New Hampshire, Roberts had no conception that golf course operations could be so big. He played his golf at Hooper Golf Club, one of the finest 9-hole layouts in the world. He didn’t know anything about the golf business at all, really. He worked for a landscape company while attending Fall Mountain Regional High School. He liked that pretty well, but didn’t know anything about that industry either. One thing he was sure about: the idea of going to college right out of high school made no sense to him whatsoever.
But if you talk to Roberts, one thing becomes clear pretty fast. When he doesn’t know something, he finds out who does, tracks that person down, identifies the information he needs, then sets about devouring it. About two months before he graduated from Fall Mountain, for example, he had a conversation with Riley Tewksbury, another Walpole kid who was doing the turf management program at Penn State University.
“That sounded interesting to me,” Roberts recalls. “So I got a hold of John Kaminski.”
That would be Dr. John Kaminski, director of the Golf Course Turfgrass Management Program at Penn State.
“He suggested that because I was new to the idea of golf course maintenance, why not consider an apprenticeship somewhere — a place where I could see what the job is about and gain some background knowledge and technique,” Roberts says. “He introduced me to Mark Kuhns at Baltusrol. So I graduated and went down a week later. I spent four months there and went straight to Penn State.” So began one of the swiftest ascents you’re likely to find in turf circles. The Penn State turf management program requires a six-month internship, so Roberts did his at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, where he worked for Meier and Yates. After graduating from Penn State in 2015, he did another internship — at Gozzer Ranch Golf & Lake Club in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho — before taking an assistant’s position at Louisville Country Club under Ric Kehres. When a position opened at Valhalla, Meier and Yates called him back.
Mind you, in addition to these various assistant gigs and internships, Roberts was volunteering at tournament venues all over America: at Muirfield Village Golf Club during The Memorial, at Erin Hills for the U.S. Open, at Baltusrol and Valhalla for a pair of PGA Championships, at Victoria National Golf Club for a Web.com Tour stop, at Liberty National for the Barclays. Nevertheless, by 2019, Roberts felt as if he was “at a standstill.” “I had two more assistants above me at Valhalla — but a position opened up at Idle Hour Country Club in Lexington, so I did eight months there as lead assistant. But I stayed in touch with Roger about this PGA Frisco project. He thought I’d be a good candidate for one of the courses here and sure enough, I interviewed with Omni and Roger and accepted this position in April 2020. “I always had a pretty strong drive to get involved in construction — from growing up, and from being involved in so many projects at Valhalla and other places. Seeing how things go into place, having an understanding of what’s underneath the surface — that just seems so important for a superintendent to know. To be part of such a massive build as my first proper build and grow-in? What an opportunity.
“Working closely with Heritage Links during construction — with project managers Blake Smith and Augustin Sanchez — has been a true pleasure. The detail and passion these men and their crews bring to the job site day after day is incredible. The timelines the Hanse team gave Heritage Links were always aggressive, but they pulled it off every time. I mean, they are one reason we have so much time to grow in the golf course.”
More time to learn the growing turf
The scale of the construction operation at PGA Frisco is difficult to put in context. According to Smith, the lead Heritage Links project manager in Frisco, “We averaged 90 trucks a day bringing in material — seven different types of aggregate material and 90,000 tons of sand capping materials for fairways alone. And that’s just for the East Course.”
And while Hanse is perhaps the most in-demand architect on the planet, the East Course at PGA Frisco is new ground — what he calls a “ranch-style” design, something his firm has never before attempted.
“The property here reminded me a bit of Southern Hills — the topography, along with the creek so prominently featured,” says Hanse, citing his work on the 2030 PGA Championship site in Oklahoma. “Of course, Southern Hills is now surrounded by Tulsa. But when Perry Maxwell built it, Southern Hills probably looked a lot like our site in Frisco does today.
“This used to be a ranch, so we focused on that, along with what is some really interesting topography, good rolling ground. But everything has been done in proportion to the broad expanses we’re dealing with here. In that context the bunkers are the calling card, the most visible feature out there —and they are dramatic.”
Those bunkers, with their once-a-week maintenance schedule, are the exceptions at this early stage. Most of the agronomic and logistical challenges are still being discovered and addressed. For example, the water.
“What we’ve learned is, there is high pH in that water and we’re going to be injecting acid in there — at some point,” Roberts says. “We have incorporated three 750-gallon tanks into the pump station where we’ll treat the water before metering it into the irrigation system. We just haven’t started that yet. We’re still doing a lot of soil testing. We’re going to ramp that up and see what we need to apply — that’s true for all inputs.” Those soils are the subject of more agronomic strategies to be finalized later.
The East features Northbridge Bermudagrass on the fairways, tees and immediate rough areas, and TifEagle Bermudagrass on the greens.
“On the East, it’s a great medium for us to firm up— to topdress more aggressively,” Roberts says. “We’ll solid tine to match that organic growth and smooth out the surface. We’ve been doing that on greens already, to smooth and even them out. (In 2021), we’ll start smoothing those fairways and tightening the edges of the natives a lot more.
“We went with several varieties for those native areas. It’s going to be playable, low-grow blue stem with buffalograss at the bottom, so the ball should sit up. Some oat grasses, too. You should be able to find it and play it but aesthetically, we want the long, golden waves as if you were in a field — on the ranch.”
When he mentioned the West Course and its distinct growing medium, Roberts inadvertently touched on another still-evolving operational strategy. Roberts and Bunny are working side by side, out of a single shop, trying to stay within their preliminary operating budgets, and make do with 19 shared staff, where 80 are projected for summer 2022.
“Eventually, we will have our own distinct staffs for East and West, our own teams. But, for now, we have to be creative on the sharing of staff and resources,” Roberts says. “Just coordinating meeting times with all the COVID precautions is a challenge. Heritage had 150 guys here at one point and they took everyone’s temperature every morning and made it work. We’re trying to follow their lead.
“You have to be strategic with all your planning. We’re working all that out now and we’ll be fine-tuning it for the next 18 months. Time trials, for example. It’s important to me to get through the morning maintenance efficiently — getting holes in front of the resort done first, so no one sees us in the morning. Well, the East Course here is so spread out. The West is not. We’re figuring it all out, how to get it all done — because come 2022, we want to fire on all cylinders.”