Who will win the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open?
Perhaps defending champion A Lim Kim, who outlasted the field in December, will return to the top of the leaderboard and become the eighth woman to win the tournament in consecutive years. Or perhaps Inbee Park, a two-time Open champion, will join legends like Babe Zaharias and Annika Sörenstam with a third victory. Or perhaps, with a prayer or 12 and plenty of luck, one of the 1,595 hopeful entrants, unknown for now, will become a little more familiar the first Sunday in June.
No matter who hoists the Harton S. Semple Trophy, every course manager and crew member and volunteer will remember the championship week at the Olympic Club. Just ask Troy Flanagan, the club’s director of golf maintenance and a long-ago hand at a pair of major tournaments.
“I worked the ‘92 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and then the ‘94 LPGA Championship at DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Delaware,” Flanagan says. “I still remember them so vividly. They’re just really ingrained in my head.
“And I’m 52 now.”
Tournament prep is in full swing and has been for months, with the event set to begin June 3. Rough is growing tall, extra ryegrass was seeded last fall, aeration and topdressing are forging ahead as scheduled. Flanagan has leaned on his team of young managers during the process, especially Lake Course superintendent Thom Irvin and Ocean Course superintendent Andrew Crawford, to oversee the team responsible for maintaining the 45-hole property between Lake Merced and the Pacific Ocean.
“What’s great about Thom and Andrew is they push their guys,” Flanagan says. “They push the other team members to be essentially superintendents on the course each day. Those guys have them running the crew, making decisions during aeration, and decisions on application rates. They’ve done a phenomenal job of getting these guys ready. It’s fun to watch Thom and Andrew really take over and push these guys to a different level they’ve never seen.”
The Open will be an Olympic coda for Irvin: he will be the new superintendent at Claremont Country Club, about 20 miles east in Oakland, after the tournament.
“We have a good program that is helping to place people if they see that they want to move on and move up and they’re ready,” Flanagan says. “The opportunity’s pretty strong if you work here.”
Until then, Irvin and Crawford will continue to work with Lake Course assistant superintendents Kyle Moore and Zachary Erixon, and Ocean Course assistant superintendents Jared Kief and Kyle Wilker, preparing the Lake Course for four days of championship play. Equipment manager Phillip Gill, a former assistant superintendent under Flanagan, will manage a trio of union mechanics to keep an enormous fleet of John Deere machinery in peak working order.
“It’s as much a managerial position as it is getting in there and getting dirty — which Phil does — but I really need somebody to manage the operation, it’s so big,” Flanagan says. “I need to make sure that the mechanics are getting their thing done as much as I need somebody that can come in and turn a wrench. He has been phenomenal — and the quality of cut has been awesome.”
The rest of the 48-person crew will be supported by 55 to 60 volunteers, at least half of whom will be women turf pros. Flanagan started to develop the program not long after the Olympic Club landed the Open in early 2016 but its roots trace back to 1995, when four women were among his fellow Penn State turfgrass program graduates, or even 1988, when he worked with a trio of women on the crew at Town & Country Club in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
The experience in this 2021 group ranges from at least one retired superintendent who worked decades for her club and was pulled back in for a memorable week to a promising teenager who will be less than a week removed from her high school graduation and just starting her on-course career.
“A lot of people have come in to really help out,” Flanagan says. “The excitement that they’ve shown, the appreciation that we’re all doing this to help get them together to network, to learn.”
Flanagan plans to supplement the already-packed week with a series of educational and networking events featuring former LPGA Tour player and Golf Channel reporter Kay Cockerill, 2012 Curtis Cup captain Dr. Pat Cornett, and Olympic Club green chair Marissa Mar, all of whom are Olympic Club members.
“There’s no way this is not going to be an amazing experience for everybody,” Flanagan says.
The experience will also be amazing because the Lake Course will be at its absolute agronomic apex.
“We really didn’t change any of the aeration or sand topdressing processes because they’re pretty intense already,” Flanagan says. “We did do a fair amount of extra seeding of ryegrass in various rough areas, especially around the greens, and then any areas just outside of the fairways that we felt we wanted to supplement. The rough is a really important part of the U.S. Open. You get in the rough, you pay a penalty.”
Flanagan has worked with Shannon Rouillard, the USGA’s senior director for the U.S. Women’s Open and the U.S. Senior Women’s Open, “and she’s the one deciding how the course plays and where the tees are, where the cup locations are. She’s preached the premium is putting the ball on the fairway, and if you’re going to miss a fairway, you’re going to pay a penalty. It won’t be as penal as a men’s Open, but in relative terms for a women’s championship, it will be very thick and very penal.”
Flanagan and Rouillard were still determining the final height of cuts into late April, but Flanagan says there will be no intermediate cut from the fairway. “If your ball goes a foot into the rough, you’re going to be into somewhere around two-and-a-half to three inches of rough, right off the bat. And with the way our fairways are pitched, you might hit a ball in the middle of a fairway, that ball has a really good chance of rolling down into the rough on certain holes. It’s going to be a good test.”
Almost all of the maintenance will rely on a fleet of John Deere equipment. Flanagan recently signed a second equipment lease with the company and “99 percent” of everything on site is green and yellow.
“My favorites are the fairway mowers, the new 2750, which is their triplex, and probably my biggest excitement is the new GPS sprayers,” Flanagan says. “We have four GPS sprayers and they communicate with each other, so, for example, if one sprayer is on the No. 4 fairway and runs out of product, the other sprayer has finished on No. 3 can come over to 4 and finish their spray. Within 30 seconds, all the information of each sprayer is shared seamlessly. It’s pretty amazing.”
According to his records, the GPS sprayers have already resulted in an 18-percent drop in product usage and frequently allow a three-sprayer team to handle all 18 tees, fairways and approaches in about three hours, down from about four and a half hours. “That allows these individuals to get back on the golf course faster to do other projects,” Flanagan says.
“We saved quite a bit of money on product, but the detail around the course is so amazing. If I’m spraying fairways, I’m only spraying fairways and if I’m spraying rough, I’m only spraying rough. So that fairway line is just perfect.”
The biggest challenge for anybody on the grounds might be the task of healing the Ocean Course, which will be a parking lot for the week because of COVID-19 restrictions. “We can’t shuttle anybody in, so we have to park everybody on site,” Flanagan says. “That’s everybody from golfers to spectators, to volunteers, to USGA staff, to my volunteer staff.” Flanagan says other turf pros forced to turn courses over to cars have assured him the recovery won’t be nearly as onerous he thinks.
Flanagan might face similar challenges over the next decade and change: The Olympic Club is scheduled to play host to the 2025 U.S. Amateur, the 2028 PGA Championship and the 2033 Ryder Cup. Factor in a fast-approaching Gil Hanse master plan that “has the potential to be pretty amazing,” Flanagan says, and this U.S. Women’s Open might be just the start of the most momentous 12-year run at the storied club.
“These women are very good,” Flanagan says. “We’ve had a few out here practicing already and you know how that ball pops off their driver? It’s amazing. It’s amazing how many really good players there are and they hardly ever miss a fairway. It’s just crazy to watch. It’s really fun. We can’t wait to see it.” ?