Written By: Collin Kannenberg
As a golf fan, this is arguably the best weekend of the year. The Masters is underway today and with it comes another year of expectations for Tiger to finally claim the green jacket once again while odds favorite Rory McIlroy looks to continue his hot play and claim the victory after his epic collapse in the 2015 Masters. Hosting the Masters since 1934, Augusta National Golf Club located in Augusta, GA has gone through changes throughout the decades but iconic features such as Amen Corner and Rae’s Creek still remain. As you can imagine, hosting a PGA Tournament takes a lot of work to get the course up to standards. This is something that Erin Hills Superintendent Zach Reineking has experienced first hand when preparing for the 2017 US Open Championship.
How does one become a golf course Superintendent? For Zach, it was a journey that took him many years to discover. It all started back in high school when he was a caddie at Pine Hills Country Club in Sheboygan where he grew up. He attended college at UW-Madison where he majored in Landscape Architecture. After about two years Zach realized that sitting at a table drawing designs was not for him. While he enjoyed working outdoors, he found out that Landscape Architecture entailed more sitting and drawing. One of his friends suggested talking to an advisor who was in the turf management sector. From there he switched some classes around taking more soil science and horticulture courses and interned at Blackwolf Run Course. He did another internship the next year at Whistling Straits who in 2004 hosted the PGA Championship. He turned down an opportunity to intern in Colorado so that he could gain the experience of hosting at Whistling Straits. Following graduation, he remained connected with an assistant who he became friends with at Whistling Straits who had just received a job at Erin Hills just as it was being constructed. Zach expressed interest in working at Erin Hills and right away received the position as an Assistant Superintendent. After the Superintendent left in 2009, Zach was promoted and has remained Superintendent ever since. “The whole process was really fast with switching majors from Landscape Architecture to Soil Science, I did an internship with Blackwolf run, internship in Kohler, and got the job fresh out of college at Erin Hills.” Zach’s journey to the Superintendent required hard work and to take advantage of the connections made during his internships. What he had learned throughout the years would soon be applied in 2017 when
the US Open came to Erin Hills.
Preparing for the US Open was not an overnight ordeal. Zach explained that while Major Championships rotate around courses that have already hosted, Erin Hills was hosting a Major Championship for the very first time. Unlike other courses, there was no prior groundwork laid at Erin Hills for hosting. The announcement came in 2010, and preparation started shortly after hosting the US Amuter in 2011. “We essentially were building a small town for a couple of days.” They began to add infrastructure by creating service roads and access ways. They cleared area for merchandise, hospitality tents and concessions. The course had to be as ready as possible so that by the time the US Open came they could construct without a lot of effort. “The whole process begins in 2010 where we had developed programs where we’d have things in place. The USGA gets really heavily involved about three years out where they do course walks where, as a group, we walk the golf course and inspect specific areas and check things like green firmness and bunker depth…they have parameters where they want greens to be a certain firmness.” By three years out there is a rough draft of the course in place. Like Zach mentioned, the green firmness, bunker depth and firmness, grass lengths, all required precision and attention to detail. The list is refined many times leading up to the event. Most of the work is done the week before the event. By the week the US Open arrives, the amount of revisions and tests of the course is a routine and there is not too much to change. “It was great. We got a lot of very positive reviews from everybody from players to the USGA to spectators. They really applauded the effort that was put in.” What makes it all the more impressive is that there was a lot of rain on the Monday leading up to it and the rain continued through a couple of the days of the week. The US Open was a great success for Zach and his team, but adjusting to life following the event was a change.
“There for sure is kind of a hangover where you put all that effort into getting prepared for the US Open and then once it’s over you start with ok now what do we do? For us, that hangover lasted just a short period of time because we market ourselves as a daily facility where a lot of people come out and play Erin Hills and we are a destination golf course.”
Zach mentioned that they try to keep the course up to the same standard they had when hosting the tournament. People come from all over the country to want to play the same course that the US Open was played on and Zach wants to be able to provide that experience to the guests. A lot of the focus was put into restoring the course so that the hospitality tents were disassembled and they removed some of the roads and access points. They re-seeded many areas and by August the course was pretty much back to the way it was before the event.
Zach has been to every US Open since 2012 and was able to observe those courses and find ways to continue to refine Erin Hills. As mentioned earlier, much of the work is done the week prior to the event. Zach and some of his staff would go to the locations of previous US Opens the week before to observe the work they were doing. “The experience”, Zach said about observing prior US Open preparations, “is invaluable”. For example, in 2016 they had gotten a lot of rain during the US Open, and Zach was able to talk with the staff and learn what they would do. This came in handy in 2017 when Zach and his team had to deal with inclement weather. So much of what he learned that lead to the 2017 success came from observing and interacting with the staff of other courses that had hosted the US Open in previous years.
As Augusta has Amen Corner, many courses have a distinct feature. Erin Hills is a new course compared to other courses that have hosted Major Championships and also has its own unique quality. When asked what Erin Hills’ most defining feature is, Zach had this to say:
“What sets us apart from a lot of other facilities, is that we are not a manufactured or fabricated golf course. The contours, the fairways, even some of the greens is exactly the way the land was. When they built the golf course, I was fortunate enought to see a lot of the constuction, the grounds and fairways were the existing contours that were here and they really just softend some things up, smoothed some areas out and then established fairways, tees, and greens. It’s as natural as a golf site as you will find in America.”
In terms of technology, golf course management is really evolving. Zach mentioned that as an industry, golf is starting to use technology more. Analytics is used in many cases. For example, instead of just turning on the irrigation system, they have the technology to check the moisture of the green and give real-time data which will result in more efficient use of resources. Instead of just following a set plan, the data allows for a more dynamic plan. The course can save on pesticide, fertilizer, and water. This saves a lot of money and is more helpful to the course.
While Zach has been in the industry for a while now, what he enjoys most about his job is the impact he can make on the kids who work for him. “We’ve been able to have employees who have come to Erin Hills as high school students who work for us for a year or two and go on to college and have followed this career path.” He enjoys providing a mentorship system at Erin Hills and seeing previous employees who are now successful at other golf courses.
Following the 2017 US Open, Erin Hills is poised to host more large-scale PGA tournaments. The course is set to open next month to the public. As Zach continues to run his office of 652 acres, he hopes to continue to hire the same hard-working high school students who return each year. Zach likes to run his staff in a way that is enjoyable but can still get the necessary production. Many kids continue to return to Erin Hills and bring in the siblings as well. This is a testament to how Zach manages his staff. Some of these high school students may end up following Zach’s path. Zach will continue to mentor kids while looking forward to the future of what Erin Hills has to hold.