Ron Benedict and staff had to do “emergency surgery” to the golf course at Newport Beach Country Club two weeks ago. A good ‘ole fashioned flush for two days for a course that is preparing to host the annual Toshiba Classic next month.
Benedict and his crew drenched the fairways and tee boxes under 4 1/2 feet of water to flush out the sodium from the turf. Salt is grass’ enemy. Only one other time in Benedict’s 22 years at the club have they had to soak the course. The culprit is lack of rainfall.
Benedict and 10 colleagues carry the responsibility of making the grass healthy and pretty, particularly in the lead-up to the Champions Tour event for professional golfers 50 and older. During tournament week, Benedict arrives from 3:30 a.m. to 4 a.m. to mow greens and change holes on the putting green.
Benedict was born in San Bernardino in 1957 and grew up in Thousand Oaks. He played Pop Warner football and remembers shagging balls when the Dallas Cowboys practiced nearby. He says one of his best jobs was installing irrigation systems for parks in Thousand Oaks.
From 1980 to 1987, he lived in Bishop. He took ski trips to Mammoth and headed to Bishop Country Club to get in a few holes before work. He saw the superintendent at Bishop Country Club and thought, “What a cool job. You’re outside.”
Benedict returned to Southern California in 1988, where he began his journey to superintendent. He took classes in plant pathology, landscape design and surveying en route to an associate’s degree at College of the Desert.
A few years later, Gary Skolnik, a friend he met in school, was leaving a job at Newport Beach Country Club. Skolnik suggested Benedict apply. Benedict became assistant superintendent in 1990 and moved to head superintendent two years later.
The Toshiba Classic came to Newport Beach Country Club in 1996 after a year at Mesa Verde Country Club. Benedict remembers his first taste of working a pro golf tournament.
“I was overwhelmed,” Benedict explains. “It was like I was hit by a freight train. The PGA Tour has certain specifications and all the infrastructure needs take up a lot of your time.”
Vendors, such as California Pizza Kitchen, set up tents where they will serve food and Benedict advises to an extent the build up and tear down. He needs to make sure water pipes are set up properly.
Two instances stick out in his mind.
“One year a furniture truck backed up on a green. He wasn’t trying to destroy my day,” Benedict said. Then in 2010, “a truck made a U-turn during the night on a green. He realized where he was after the fact.”
When asked why he has stayed at NBCC, Benedict replied: “If it’s a clear day, I can see the Pacific Ocean. It is paradise.”
It’s a little past 10 on a brisk Monday morning, two weeks before the Toshiba Classic. Crews have erected hospitality tents. Wooden foundations wait for the temporary tents. Groups of 4-foot metal stakes wait to be pounded into the ground by workers wielding sledgehammers. Benedict walks into the pro shop. He’s dressed in a dark green jacket, khaki pants and boots.
He is frustrated. The winds quelled his plans to fertilize the course.
He walks to his cart. On the seat rests a copy of Sports Illustrated. The wind flips open a page. Benedict has his coffee thermos nearby. He drives around the course, watching for any napkin, wrapper or cup that may have flown out of a cart.
“I’m a glorified trash picker-upper,” Benedict says.
He arrived at the course at 5 a.m. and, like every other day, drives the entire course. He and his colleagues have four or five hours to get a jump start on their work before the first golfer tees off at 10 a.m.
Eyes are his best asset.
“You’re always looking, whether for insects or fungus,” Benedict says. “People think we just water, fertilize and mow. Truth is, there’s a lot more than that. We grow a pretty expensive cash crop.”
The biggest difference between tending a home garden and a golf course?
“At home you don’t have 60,000 players walking over your grass,” he says.
Driving toward a bunker on the third hole, Benedict notices a few clumps of grass sitting in the sand.
“Those will be gone by Toshiba,” he says.
He points toward the sky and a hawk’s nest resting on the edge of a branch. He’s seen a red-tailed hawk mosey from tree to tree.
The wind whips the flags and the course exudes an emerald sheen. Benedict says that grass behaves differently depending on how much moisture is on its surface.
“Mowing when [grass] is dry gives you better quality,” Benedict says. “When it’s wet, the blades might stick together.”
IT TAKES TEAMWORK
Like any job, this one presents challenges. Golfers of different skill levels have different requests, particularly with green speeds.
“Men like it faster, and women like it slower,” Benedict says. “I try to work with men’s and ladies groups. When you get them into a room, they are great. Ninety-nine percent are just awesome.”
Benedict acknowledges that a superintendent has to have “thick skin.”
“A member will call me over and say, ‘The [greens] are too fast today.’ I will respond that everyone is playing the same course.”
What helps Benedict is that 10 colleagues in the maintenance department have been there longer than he.
Mike Novak moved to California from Washington state and met Benedict in 1988 when the two worked at Blue Skies Country Club, which is no longer in existence. In 1993 he was hired as Benedict’s assistant at NBCC.
The two hit it off and have been friends ever since.
“This is a great place to work and I like the company,” Novak says. He likes the variety that comes with the job, whether it’s mowing or changing hole locations on the greens.
“There’s always something new. It’s not one job all the time,” Novak said. He arrives at 5 a.m. and helps Benedict assign colleagues to different tasks, which could be fertilizing or watering greens. “We try to cross-train but certain guys do certain jobs,” Novak says.
An effective superintendent must have pride, knowledge and a willingness to keep learning, Novak says.
The days creep into twilight as the Toshiba Classic inches closer to tee time. Novak says he might work six or seven days per week leading up to the tournament.
A special moment for Benedict came when Gary Player put his arm around him. Benedict says Player, winner of 24 PGA Tour events, seeks him out every year to say hello.
For now, Benedict will continue to breathe the fresh ocean air and look for any stray bottle or blade of grass that finds its way into a bunker.