Photo by Mark Jaworski

Vanja Drasler paces on a green sitting atop venerable golf land less than 20 miles from the center of America’s busiest city. A plane soars above the greenspace as co-workers scurry past the ninth green of Montclair Golf Club’s third nine.

Somebody is always going somewhere in Drasler’s new neighborhood. Car. Bus. Plane. Train. Bike. Ferry. Foot. Golf cart. Utility vehicle. Neither the activity outside the 36-hole club nor the work on its 300-acre grounds completely stops.

Montclair Golf Club rests on the New Jersey side of the New York City metropolitan area, the world’s most demanding private golf market. Members live nearby; many workers, including Drasler, hail from distant places.

Drasler could be somewhere quieter on this late-July morning. A native of the small central European nation Slovenia, Drasler left a superintendent job at Attersee Golf Club in Austria for the sweat, stress and crowds of New Jersey. Mountains and clear waters occupy Slovenian and Austrian landscapes. “It’s way, way different than your New Jersey,” she says. “It’s like your Colorado or something like that.”

The way Drasler and those close to her describe it, her career reached an unscalable peak in Europe. Her home country has just 13 golf courses. The country where she spent seven years elevating a course in an elevated setting supports 204 courses. The Metropolitan Golf Association, which serves the three-state region surrounding New York City, includes more than 500 clubs and courses.

“She would say, ‘Mel, where am I going in Europe? I’m working for these little clubs. I’m working for a management company. I’m not standing out in the crowd,’” says Mel Lucas Jr., a retired Met-area superintendent and GCSAA past president who has known Drasler since 2009. “She knew she needed to get to America and work at a major club for a few years to make something happen.”

Separating from the crowd required relocating to the crowd. On July 9, Drasler finished packing a sports bag, two large suitcases and her golf clubs. She departed Graz, Austria, connected in Frankfurt, Germany, and landed in Newark, New Jersey. Two days later, she started a job as a superintendent at Montclair Golf Club, a 129-year-old club with three nines designed by Donald Ross and a fourth created by Charles Banks. The club recently restored two of the Ross-designed nines. Big things happen at Montclair.

Drasler left behind her mother, brother, dozens of friends, and hundreds of personal possessions because she craved the high-level, American private-club action. She chose passion over postcards — foreign over familiar — at age 44.

“It wasn’t just money that I was dreaming for when I started dreaming about becoming a superintendent in America,” she says. “To come from a country with 13 golf courses all the way to New Jersey, and to be a superintendent at Montclair, which has a different language, different environment, different everything …”

From left: Michael Sturdivant, Vanja Drasler, Sung Soun and Michael Sharpe
© mark jaworski

A pair of co-workers approach Drasler. She pauses and fervidly shouts in a deep accent, “Thank you, guys!” Gratitude represents a pillar of Drasler’s management philosophy. She’s thankful her co-workers are carefully trimming the high grass around trees on the third nine, because details matter to Drasler.

Gratitude, attention to detail and respect are universal principles.

 

Drasler’s role at Montclair involves overseeing the third and fourth nines for director of golf course operations Michael Campbell. Michael Sharpe oversees the first and second nines.

Sharpe and Drasler lead morning meetings and constantly collaborate and communicate to ensure a peak-season crew that swells past 50 employees executes the right tasks, the right way, at the right time. Their presence allows Campbell — whom Drasler fondly refers to as “Mr. Campbell” when he arrives to greet her on the approach fronting the third nine’s fourth green on the late-July morning — to focus on big-scale, private-club duties such as budgeting, hiring, project planning and management, and communicating with committees, chairs and members. “Greens departments have to get things done,” Campbell says. “We only have one opportunity to get it right.”

Of all the tasks facing somebody who leads a greens department, hiring has become the most perplexing. Things don’t get done, let alone correctly, without reliable and well-trained managers and employees.

A third-generation turf leader and New Jersey private club veteran, Campbell admits he has flubbed a few managerial hires. “There was definitely a level of frustration,” he says. “I don’t just hand them lists. They have to think, they have to contribute. I’m hiring their minds and their thoughts in addition to their physical work ethic.”

Campbell’s nucleus includes two superintendents, two assistants and an equipment manager. Plenty of thoughts, plenty of ideas. Drasler received her first glimpse of wide-scale internal idea exchange when she left a job as head superintendent at Diners Golf & Country Club in Slovenia in early 2013 to begin an internship at famed Baltusrol Golf Club. She was 35 years old.

A 36-hole facility with a major-championship past and future, Baltusrol is 10 miles from Montclair. Drasler’s presence at Montclair stems from her experiences at Baltusrol. Everything about the high-level American turf way — being surrounded by dozens of co-workers and expensive mowers, her interactions with legendary director of grounds Mark Kuhns and his managers, handling enormous expectations in an unpredictable growing environment — enthralled her.

“I was a superintendent back home and then came here as an intern,” she says. “Many people were surprised and thought I was crazy. They asked, ‘Are you sure you would like to do that?’

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” she adds. “But if I didn’t do that at the time, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I saw how they worked in America.”

Drasler followed the Baltusrol experience with an internship maintaining warm-season turf at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head, South Carolina. When her visa expired, she returned to Europe and spent a year as a sales manager for a Toro distributor. She then landed a position with Engelmann Turf Care, a German-based management company that oversees the maintenance of multiple courses, including Attersee. As she ascended Engelmann’s turf hierarchy, she visited America annually to volunteer tournaments, visit superintendents and courses, and attend the Golf Industry Show. She paid her own way each time.

Drasler enjoyed Attersee, a resort-style, semi-private course that attracts play from Vienna and Linz, two of Austria’s three largest cities. The course overlooks Lake Attersee, an alpine lake featuring clear-blue water. Mountains and wooded hills are omnipresent. “If you spend seven years at one place, you must really like it,” she says. “And I really liked it. The people were so nice and friendly.”

Montclair Golf Club director of golf course operations Michael Campbell added Vanja Drasler to his management team earlier this year.
© mark jaworski

A meager budget prevented Attersse from reaching what Drasler considers the course’s potential. Five employees who worked from late winter until late fall comprised her crew. The equipment fleet included three fairway mowers, two rough mowers and two triplexes for greens. Drasler observed four fairway mowers polish one hole on Montclair’s third nine on the same July morning she recited Attersee’s equipment list. Montclair disperses more topdressing sand in less than two months than Attersee applies in an entire year, according to Drasler. “It’s hard to be on a golf course where you know you can do more,” she says, “but you can’t do more because of money.”

Approaching her mid-40s, Drasler realized she needed to get to America. But securing the proper visa presented a time-consuming and often frustrating endeavor.

Drasler needed help. She needed people like Lucas and Campbell and a club like Montclair willing to help her wade through the complex visa-securing process. The parties worked diligently, with Drasler receiving more than 20 letters of recommendation from highly regarded turf professionals, all of whom she personally met during her off-season visits to America. “It’s amazing to me the resource network she already has,” Campbell says. “She knows the who’s who here. She has done a tremendous job of meeting people, meeting the right people, and gaining their respect.”

Earlier this year, Drasler learned she had obtained an O-1 nonimmigrant visa. The visas are approved and issued to individuals with “extraordinary ability or achievement.” The visa permits Drasler to remain in America for up to three years. She plans on spending the three years at Montclair. “I want to show them they hired the right person,” she says. Drasler and Montclair collaborated for nearly a year to secure the visa. “We were lucky,” she says. “It was a long process.”

Campbell considers Montclair lucky, too. Few greens departments are adding an experienced, detail-oriented, appreciative, thoughtful and enthusiastic leader in a tight golf course maintenance labor market.

“Any time anybody wants to come and work for us, I feel like I have a responsibility. With Vanja, I feel like I have more of a responsibility,” Campbell says. “She made a lot of big decisions and decisions that I would probably never make. I have to live up to this. I’m sure she comes to work — knowing her the way that I do now — trying to make her indelible mark on the club.”

 

Before Montclair, Attersee or Baltusrol, there was an escalator and a door inside the Orange County Convention Center.

At the urging of Lucas, whom she met at the 2009 Slovenian Greenkeepers Association Conference, Drasler traveled to Orlando for the 2011 Golf Industry Show. She received an invitation to attend a reception with some of the industry’s biggest players. She rode an escalator three times until finding the fortitude to enter the reception. “I finally thought to myself, ‘I didn’t come all this way to do nothing,’” She was likely the only woman in the room who didn’t speak English as a first language. Drasler speaks Croatian and German in addition to Slovenian and English.

Montclair Golf Club is a revered 36-hole facility on the New Jersey side of the New York City metropolitan market.
© guy cipriano

Her familiarity with the American golf industry has rapidly expanded since that anxiety-filled evening in Orlando. Lucas urged her to pursue formal turf training, so she attended the seven-week, in-person University of Massachusetts Winter School for Turf Managers. The program offered more than 200 hours of instruction and covered subjects ranging from entomology to plant physiology.

“I knew she had passion from the day I met her,” says UMass emeritus professor Dr. Pat Vittum, another industry icon whom Drasler considers a friend and mentor. “She was worried about her English. She was always asking, ‘Is my English good enough?’ It absolutely was. In fact, she wrote better than some of our American students. But the passion for turf, … she was a sponge. She wanted to learn and understand everything we had to offer.”

Vittum and Drasler have remained close since the program, with the now-retired professor visiting her former student’s native country multiple times to present at a conference. “She has gone way beyond what anybody I can think of has done to get herself to a position where she has the opportunity to reach her dream,” Vittum says. “She’s absolutely driven to be the best.”

Hailing from a country with scant golf infrastructure delayed the start of Drasler’s turf career, forcing her to cram an extraordinary amount of effort into the past 13 years.

Raised on the outskirts of Maribor — which is home to 94,370 residents and is bisected by the Drava River, and which is also Slovenia’s second-largest city — Drasler experienced an active and pleasant childhood. Her mother, Nada, and father, Marjan, who died in 2018 of a heart attack, emphasized to their two children a lesson Drasler uses wherever she works. “My parents taught me if you respect people, they will respect you,” she says. Nada and Marajan encouraged Drasler and her brother, Aljosa, to seek outdoor leisure. Drasler fondly recalls spending long hours biking, horseback riding, playing tennis and basketball, hiking and skiing.

Drasler left Maribor to attend university in Ljubljana, where she studied agriculture/horticulture. She worked an administrative government job following graduation. The job offered manageable hours and stability. But it didn’t mesh with Drasler’s personality — or ambition. “It was eight hours a day in an office,” she says. “You found out quickly that it would be hard to climb the ladder there, because there were some people who were there 10 and 15 years. There was nowhere to go.”

Only 12,000 of Slovenia’s 2.1 million residents play golf, according to the 2021 “European Golf Participation Report” released by the R&A and European Golf Association. Nobody in Drasler’s family played golf and she never heard much about the game until a friend mentioned knowing somebody who worked on a course. The combination of smelling fresh-cut grass, preparing a recreational playing surface and working outdoors intrigued Drasler. She performed a Google search and discovered her country had just 13 courses. Drasler continued searching for information about the industry and contacted a Slovenian Greenkeepers Association official. The official invited Drasler to attend the 2009 Slovenian Greenkeepers Association Conference. Lucas and the late USGA Green Section agronomist Stanley Zontek were among the presenters. Drasler was the superintendent at Diners Golf & Country Club less than two years later.

Lucas, who has served as a consultant for multiple European clubs over the past two decades, worked with Drasler to establish agronomic programs and help correct turf issues caused through faulty course construction. Drasler and Diners Golf & Country Club successfully hosted the 2012 European Ladies’ Amateur Championship, an event won by eventual European women’s golf stalwart Céline Boutier. “She had the golf course absolutely primed and conditioned the best of almost any club I had seen in my years of being involved with golf courses in Europe,” Lucas says. “She had it absolutely brilliant.”

With more education and experience, Drasler has improved conditions everywhere she has worked, including Attersee. Lucas visited Drasler in Austria annually until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and noticed fewer weeds in fairways (herbicide options are limited in Europe), more bentgrass on greens, and tidier bunker conditions on each visit.

“The course is quite a little gem,” says Jernej Kocbek, who followed Drasler as superintendent. “It’s underrated. We have really high standards for the environment and the level of attention that it requires. We are on a tight budget. But for everybody who’s coming here, I don’t think they expect to see the standard that this golf course actually is. Everybody is happy with that experience.”

Drasler was a beloved figure at Attersee, according to Kocbek. The crew she managed was split between Slovenians and Romanians. They worked as a cohesive unit despite the language barrier, and the team remained together for five years until Drasler’s departure midway through this season. Kocbek, who met Drasler more than a decade ago through a cousin, worked various lighting and construction jobs before settling at Attersee, which he calls, “the most chill job I’ve ever had in my life.” Kocbek says he’s passionate about greenkeeping, although he concedes Drasler’s passion is on a different level.

“You have to be born with some kind of passion,” he adds. “Of course, she passed some of it down to me. I like to believe I enjoy my work, but I wouldn’t say I’m as passionate as her. If I didn’t enjoy it, I would have left years ago. I enjoy learning stuff, I enjoy working.

“What she taught me was patience. I learned some of that on my own, but sometimes I’m a bit sloppy. She’s detailed-oriented. She was always helping me. She was helping me take classes, she was helping me meet people. Of course, I’m my own person and a different character than Vanja is. But the majority of the stuff I’m bringing on now was because of her.”

The ability to teach and guide diverse teams will be a huge asset for Drasler at Montclair. The team she worked with this past summer included veteran employees from multiple Latin American countries, rookies from local high schools and colleges, loyal seasonal workers and highly trained managers with turf degrees or certificates.

Observing Drasler interact with co-workers on a late-July day personified what makes her unique as a manager. Besides a 20-minute break to eat lunch in her office — which features a sign on the wall that reads DO EPIC SHIT — she spent the day outside alongside Montclair’s team. Drasler waved, thanked, fist-bumped or acknowledged every co-worker she passed.

After the crew left, she checked moisture levels on greens. The day ended with Drasler, Sharpe and assistant superintendents Michael Sturdivant and Sung Soun joking about eating at White Castle, an American institution depicted in pop culture.

Chatter about a hamburger joint contrasts some discussions Drasler had with co-workers earlier in her career. Drasler recalls a story involving an employee from the former Republic of Macedonia on her first Diners Golf & Country Club team. The story demonstrates why she’s prepared to handle New Jersey workers and members.

“We had three guys from Macedonia,” she says. “One of them was making fun of me and said, ‘You need to go back to the office.’ But when I left that course, he was crying. You have to show them that you can do the job. When I became superintendent and I was his boss, I could have made his life harder. But that’s not me. It’s the same thing here. I respect everybody. It doesn’t matter if they are from the Dominican Republic, Mexico or America. I’m from Europe, I’m an immigrant, too.”

Tears seemingly follow Drasler’s departures from jobs. Her final scheduled day at Attersee was June 24, although she mowed greens with Kocbek ahead of a shotgun start the following morning because a co-worker wanted Saturday off to visit his family in Romania. As Drasler inspected the course for a final time, she encountered the club manager and his crying wife.

“I then started crying,” she says. “After seven years, we were all together a lot. That’s always going to be a special place for me, even if where I’m at now is 10 steps above it.”