Innumerable blades of grass embody Sea Island Golf Club’s Seaside Course, and Berry Collett is responsible for each one of them.
So much goes into managing one of the top golf resorts in the nation and the site of the PGA Tour’s McGladrey Classic, which begins first-round play in its 2014 edition Thursday.
Every armyworm sets itself against Collett, Sea Island’s Director of Golf Maintenance.
“They’ll turn (the grass) brown,” Collett says. “They’ll turn an area as big as my office brown in an hour.”
A fungus popped up a few days ago — it’s been prone to happen every once in a while around tournament time.
“We have to react quick. A couple of years ago we had to go spray (fungicide) the night before the tournament.”
And if the weather doesn’t cooperate, the calendar Collett keeps on a large whiteboard inside his office can be thrown into total disarray.
“The weather affects so much. The weather between now and the end of the tournament will dictate how good we look.”
If the sunny skies of the last two weeks are any indication, PGA Tour pros and fans alike should come away impressed by the end of this weekend.
The pros in particular have been Collett’s main target audience this year, and he’s dedicated himself to appease their very specific standards — from the speed of the greens to the smoothness of the fringe to the hard and rolling fairways.
The latter was a point of emphasis of PGA Tour representatives when they visited Collett to convey what the players wanted.
In an age of high-tech equipment and holes that can’t seem to play long enough for players like Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson who make 350-yard drives look effortless, the message was simple.
“You could leave the fairways and greens as they are, and they’re nice and soft,” Collett says. “The pros are looking for firm and fast. The expectations are a little different than your everyday player.”
The players may be the harshest and most prominent critics, but Collett knows the eye of the public will be on Seaside as well, with thousands of fans flocking to Sea Island Golf Club and many more watching on television.
“Our expectations are always high, and I’m a perfectionist,” he says. “There’s just a little more pressure knowing we’re going to be on TV.”
That pressure has gotten easier to handle each year for Collett. In McGladrey’s inaugural year of 2010, things turned nightmarish for Collett and his crew.
This is a man who says that golf course management is “all I’ve ever done.” Growing up in Pinehurst, N.C., Collett worked at Pinehurst No. 2 while in high school before he obtained a degree in turf grass management from North Carolina State. He’s worked at courses in Atlanta, Thomson and Amelia Island before moving to the Golden Isles. He’s been here 22 years — eight with the King and Prince Resort’s course, the Hampton Club, and 14 with Sea Island.
Preparing for a PGA Tour event was something new to him, he said. Everything was an experiment.
“The first year, you had to pick out the best place to put everything,” he says.
“The first year was really stressful and exhausting.”
Five years later, getting ready for the McGladrey has become formulaic.
“It’s not nearly as stressful now. I know what to do.”
Collett knows it’s time to start the grind. It’s time to get Seaside into McGladrey-shape.
“Six to eight weeks out is really when we start the fine-tuning.”
To meet the PGA Tour’s demands, there’s a window between late summer and early fall he must take advantage of. They plan to close the course one day per week to top-dress fairways and greens with sand, which makes them firmer.
“We want to get as much sand as we can before it starts cooling down,” he says. “We couldn’t do it one week from the tournament.”
Collett supervises a crew of about 50 maintenance workers who are responsible for the Sea Island’s Seaside and Plantation courses.
The crew starts before daybreak for the top-dressing and usually finishes an hour or two before lunch. Collett estimates they use 150 to 200 tons of sand for each top-dressing day.
“Last year, we didn’t have these days to top-dress fairways. You put that amount out all summer, it’s going to have an impact.”
He also requested data from the PGA Tour’s Shot Link, which tracks every shot hit at the McGladrey Classic, allowing Collett to see the most popular landing areas in every fairway. He measures the area between the shortest drive to the longest drive on each hole so his crew knows exactly where to dump the sand.
On the greens, Collett takes a daily measurement with a Stimpmeter — a ruler-like tool in which Collett can roll a golf ball down and measure how many feet the ball will roll on its own. Ten feet is considered fast. Collett’s target for McGladrey is 11 1/2.
It’s around this time when two worlds start to collide.
Tony Schuster usually arrives about five weeks from the start of the tournament to supervise everything that’s added on to the course to give it that “McGladrey” feel — the stands on hole Nos. 9, 16, 17 and 18, the scoreboard on No. 9, Golf Channel TV towers, the rotating McGladrey block in the middle of the pond on No. 18, even the concert stage Darius Rucker will be performing on Wednesday night.
An independent contractor, Schuster oversees tournament operations for five or six professional tournaments per year, including the Greenbrier Classic and the Deutsche Bank Championship, which was won by defending McGladrey champion Chris Kirk in September.
“I’m the conductor of an orchestra,” Schuster says. “I’ve got multiple players playing multiple instruments, and I have to make sure everyone is on the same page.”
The stands take the longest to build and go up first, with most of the other add-ons coming within two weeks of the tournament.
Collett feels like he is running a little behind schedule after several days of rain and almost an entire week of cloudy skies.
“We lost some days,” Collett says. “The sun not being out doesn’t help the grass. We weren’t able to mow it as much as we would’ve liked.
“If I could control the weather, we’d be perfect.”
Collett has blocked off the teeing areas for every hole and installed McGladrey yardage signs.
He starts to turn his attention toward the dozens of man-made dunes on the course, which were added during a yearlong renovation in 2001 and have become one of the most distinguishing features at Seaside. The sand isn’t white enough, and the myriad of flowers in the middle of them need to be blooming.
“Now we’re getting into crunch time.”
Communication between Collett and Schuster is pivotal. With construction crews putting up TV towers and the scoreboard, Schuster’s crew has to be careful not to create more work for Collett.
Being a former golf course superintendent himself, Schuster understands Collett’s position.
“Tony sees the big picture,” Collett says. “He makes sure they respect the golf course.
“He cares about the golf course. He minimizes the damage to the golf course. We’re lucky to have Tony.”
At some point, an 18-wheeler will have to transport a camera crane across the ninth fairway to an area between holes 16 and 17 without tearing up the turf. Schuster’s crew slowly lays a road of plywood for the truck to follow before the crane can be put in place. It takes about two hours, Schuster says.
Schuster is also responsible for the McGladrey community events held throughout the week.
On Tuesday, the 18-wheeler will have to haul concert performer Rucker’s stage to the middle of the fairway on Plantation’s No. 1 hole, adjacent to Seaside’s starting hole.
That’s just the easy part. Schuster’s crew will have to tear the stage down immediately following the concert, while Collett and Co. put the finishing touches on the course before first-round play begins the next morning.
“This tournament is not an easy thing to set up because we’ve got this concert in the middle of it, and then we have to tear that down in a day, all while we’re trying to put on a golf tournament,” Schuster says.
“This is the only (tournament) I do that has a concert. We can build it without the impacting the golf tournament.”
The people you don’t see who keep the machine running reside behind the No. 1 fairway at Seaside. When the pros complete each round, leaving thousands of divots on the course, Collett’s crew comes out and works through the night — mowing, watering the course, changing tee and pin placements, trimming the edges of bunkers and fluffing up the dunes with more sand.
Each crew member is allowed a nap shift during the day, but gets very little sleep during the four tournament days.
Collett will usually go home around midnight and come back at 4 a.m. to make sure everything is ready to go for the next day. A person can become worn out very quickly, Collett says.
“It’s a mental thing as much as physical,” he says.
Collett worries about the little things that are easy to overlook, but he can spot them a lot quicker than most people. A man off the street could stare at the 18th green and not see anything wrong, whereas Collett can tell right away whether the grass is cut correctly.
Sea Island closed Seaside in the days leading up to today’s first Pro-Am, the first time the club has shut down the course in such a manner prior to the McGladrey, giving Collett and his crew a few extra days to make it as perfect as humanly possible.
Dozens of things could go wrong for Collett between now and Sunday, but sunny skies and temperatures in the 70s are forecast throughout the week. The fairways are as hard and the greens are as fast as they’re going to get. The dunes are exquisite.
It’s time for the pros to see Collett’s improvements — the goals he set at the end of last year’s tournament. It’s time for the camera crews to capture the sight of Seaside. It’s time for golf fans in the Golden Isles to be proud of one of the community’s most unique events.
It’s time for the McGladrey.