Mornings on the 365 acres between an ocean and lake, southwest of downtown San Francisco, are one-jacket affairs. Sometimes handling the morning requires two jackets. Hats and gloves sit in carts. Packing a hoodie nets body temperature bonus points – and this in the middle of summer.
Guests experiencing the prized turf and admiring the seclusion provided by towering cypress and pine trees for the first time are noticeable. They often arrive in July wearing short-sleeved golf shirts and leave with new jackets purchased from the golf club.
No matter how many mornings one has spent maintaining golf courses, few surroundings mirror what early risers encounter at The Olympic Club. The 45-hole facility offers views of the Pacific Ocean, Lake Merced and Golden Gate Bridge. The foreground equals the background, as numerous spots on the Lake course determined fates of hundreds of golfers participating in five U.S. Opens. Members, guests, touring professionals and employees develop instant and deep connections with the land.
“You are honored every day that you can be out here just knowing that you are not only maintaining this great piece of property that hosted so many USGA championships, but also one that the members love so much,” says director of golf course maintenance operations Troy Flanagan. “I have never seen a membership have this much passion for their golf courses. I have worked at some great places, but the passion they have for The Olympic Club is next to none.”
Flanagan’s tenure started in May 2014, when he moved to the Bay Area after eight years as the director of agronomy at Anthem Country Club in Henderson, Nev. A well-trained staff and frequent fog greeted his arrival. The foggy season begins with what Lake course superintendent Thom Irvin calls a “May gray” and extends into mid-August.
In its thickest form, the fog obstructs almost all views of the 18-hole Lake and Ocean courses and nine-hole par-3 Cliffs course. “I kind of describe it as if you are in the clouds,” Ocean course superintendent Geoff Plovanich says. “The visibility can be less than 10 feet. It’s strange. You hear a club hit a ball, but you don’t necessarily know from where that happened.” In its other form, the fog creates a layer thin enough to yield photogenic moments, adding further allure to an iconic venue.
Summer temperatures rarely dip below 50 or exceed 70 degrees. Last year, for example, Flanagan says he only saw the sun a “handful of days at most,” in June, July and August. “It’s not just foggy,” he says. “It’s drippy wet. When I say I wear a winter coat every day of the year, I’m not exaggerating that much.”
The summer conditions are “right in the wheelhouse of cool-season grass growth,” Flanagan adds. Greens are bentgrass, fairways are primarily Poa. Growth is further accelerated by an effluent water supply possessing nitrogen. More than 90 percent of the water used on The Olympic Club’s golf courses is effluent, according to a Corporate Social Responsibility report the club developed in collaboration with IMPACT360 Sports. To control growth on fairways, tees and approaches, Flanagan and his team apply the plant growth regulator Primo Maxx on a biweekly basis from March through October.
“You have to remember that we are in the middle of the perfect weather for cool-season turf growth,” Flanagan says. “It likes to grow out here. Since we don’t receive rain from May through September, we’re essentially spoonfeeding nitrogen every time we are irrigating with the effluent water. We’re on a very aggressive Primo package to help us control the excessive growth.”
“YOU HAVE TO REMEMBER THAT WE ARE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PERFECT WEATHER for cool-season turf growth. IT LIKES TO GROW OUT HERE. Since we don’t receive rain from May through September, we’re essentially spoonfeeding nitrogen every time we are irrigating with the effluent water. We’re on a very aggressive Primo package to help us control the excessive growth.” — Troy Flanagan
Irrigation, especially during the summer, is one of the biggest challenges Flanagan and his team face. Blame it on the fog, not the five-year drought that ended earlier this year. Flanagan arrived in San Francisco prepared to handle dry stretches because of his experiences in Nevada, and an ample effluent water supply helped The Olympic Club avoid crippling restrictions. Annual rainfall averages between 20 and 25 inches, but the fog often negates some benefits of making data- and forecast-driven irrigation decisions.
“At most places if you are able to look at the forecast and see that it’s going to be sunny the next day or a certain temperature the next day, you kind of irrigate for that next day,” Irvin says. “But you can’t really when the fog is on the horizon and it’s looming, and it can come any day and stick around for days at a time. We get much more reactionary in our watering processes. We try to halt as much overhead irrigation and go with hoses during the foggy part of the year.”
San Francisco’s microclimates are perplexing. Olympic Club members can wakeup, step on dry home lawns, drive 10 minutes to the golf course and hit shots from damp fairways. But Flanagan hasn’t wavered on his desire to produce firm fairways on contrasting courses. The undulating fairways on the Lake course remain the same widths as the 2012 U.S. Open; the Ocean fairways are wider and flatter. Topdressing occurs monthly on both courses during the tournament season, resulting in seven to nine sand applications to fairways per year. The club owns a deep-tine aerifier, and Flanagan’s team tries to use it monthly on each course. Fairways are also core aerified twice per year. Coastal wind and an aging irrigation system are among the reasons Plovanich says “we pull a lot more hoses than we did in the past” on fairways.
Intense scouting isn’t as prevalent in Northern California as other regions because of moderate temperatures, but disease and pest concerns can arise on fairways and other surfaces. Two winter applications of Concert II, a fungicide containing a blend of active ingredients from Banner MAXX II and Daconil, are performed to control pink snow mold. Concert II is also applied twice in the summer to help control anthracnose. Using Appear with Daconil Action decreases summer leaf spot concerns on greens caused by a lack of sunlight and the stress associated with heavy play and frequent mowing and rolling. Daconil Action strengthens the plant and improves rooting, thus mitigating drought stress, Flanagan says. On the pest side, BTA has been spotted on both courses since Flanagan’s arrival. Acelepryn will be applied in June to provide season-long control.
Flanagan, who entered the industry in the early 1990s, says advances by suppliers are among the reasons why facilities such as The Olympic Club can elevate the condition of playing surfaces. “Expectations have definitely gone up over the years,” he says. “But the manufacturers – the equipment manufacturers, the chemical manufacturers, the fertilizer manufacturers – have really stepped up their game and allowed us to achieve amazing results.”
Reliable agronomic programs are needed to handle a flurry of activity. Conditions in San Francisco are conducive to year-round play, with The Olympic Club regularly hosting big tournaments from May until October. The club has 975 golf members, and an additional 10,000-plus members with access to the courses through their affiliation with the athletic club. The relationship with the USGA remains strong, and The Olympic Club will host the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open on the Lake course. “My team’s mentality is that you are always keeping the golf course as close to championship ready as you can, knowing that all we need is a few days to tweak it to get it to those standards,” Flanagan says. “That’s what we live by here.”
Managing events and projects is a major part of Flanagan’s job. Recent projects on the Lake course involved converting the rough on the Lake course from Poa to ryegrass and renovating bunkers to include drainage, aggregate and new sand from Idaho. Fine fescue was installed around all 57 bunkers. Continual enhancements, including adding fine fescue and native plants, are elevating the reputation of the Ocean course.
The next project is a major one – constructing a new maintenance facility on the same site as the existing structure. Work will entail moving 75,000 square feet of equipment, chemicals, fuel and other supplies to a temporary location on the property. And, plans are being concocted to revamp the irrigation system before the U.S. Women’s Open. “My time managing projects outweighs my time growing grass on the golf course,” says Flanagan, who further honed his business and personnel management skills at the 2011 Syngenta Business Institute.
Flanagan leans on what he calls “a city of agronomists” to oversee daily maintenance. “They are the ones who do such a great job of executing the game plan,” he adds. Irvin and Plovanich, a pair of Midwest natives, lead experienced crews on the 18-hole courses. Flanagan, Irvin and Plovanich are three of nine agronomic staff members with turfgrass science degrees. The club’s general manager, Pat Finlen, is the former director of golf course maintenance operations and a past GCSAA President. When Flanagan needs an outside perspective, he contacts Syngenta technical manager Dr. Dean Mosdell, who provides guidance about fighting Poa and controlling growth on greens. The combination of skill and synergy, along with enthralling scenery, make working at The Olympic Club a memorable experience.
“It’s non-stop here,” Plovanich says. “That’s why having this team is so important and that’s why we have to work so closely together because there’s so much going on. It’s a lot easier to get everything done and get it done right when we are all working together.”