John Zimmers knew what he was getting into when he was named the golf course superintendent at Oakmont Country Club in 1999. Zimmers was aware of the club’s revered history and had heard the stories about Oakmont’s demanding members, who take pride in their persistence for firm, fast and flawless playing conditions. Zimmers also knew it would take someone with the stamina of a superhero to be the superintendent at Oakmont, which hosts its ninth U.S. Open Championship next month, more than any other golf course.
“This job isn’t for everyone,” he says.
Fact is, the 45-year-old Zimmers has one of the toughest jobs – if not the toughest – in golf course management. “At certain times, I’ve questioned if this is the thing I should be doing,” says Zimmers, who puts in up to and more than 100-hour workweeks on the course, located near Pittsburgh.
He has given up a lot, including the chance to be a father. Zimmers and his wife, Tracey, decided several years ago not to have children because of the commitment it takes for him to be Oakmont’s superintendent.
U.S. OPEN AT A GLANCE
WHEN: June 16-19
WHERE: Oakmont Country Club, Oakmont, Pa.
SUPERINTENDENT: John Zimmers
DIRECTOR OF U.S. OPEN OPERATIONS: David Delsandro
COURSE ARCHITECT: Henry C. Fownes
SIZE OF MAINTENANCE CREW: 50
NUMBER OF VOLUNTEERS FOR THE U.S. OPEN: 125
LENGTH OF COURSE: 7,219 yards
“But while I have given up a lot, I chose this,” Zimmers says. “I have no regrets.”
When Pittsburgh steel magnate Henry C. Fownes designed Oakmont in 1903, he did so to make it the most arduous test of golf on the planet. Fast-forward more than 100 years, and it’s clear that Fownes’ vision hasn’t been lost upon Oakmont’s 600 members, who relish the course’s deep bunkers and slick-as-ice Poa annua greens.
“It is the approach of the membership that it is their birthright, so to speak, to belong to a club that values a difficult test of golf,” says Bob Wagner, a longtime Oakmont member, who is also the past club president and past grounds chairman. “Oakmont has always been maintained at a tournament-tough level. It is the expectation of the people who join Oakmont to be able to play under those conditions all of the time.”
When Wagner talks about “tournament-tough level,” he is speaking of the U.S. Open, a tournament known for its grueling conditions. It’s no secret that the United States Golf Association (USGA), which stages the event, aims to test the world’s best players with a stern setup.
Agronomically, U.S. Open courses are pushed to the brink with their setups. Turf is stressed, at times to the point where it is susceptible to disease. But when the tournament is over, so is the extreme conditioning – which often calls for triple cutting and double rolling greens – and the turf is allowed to heal.
But at Oakmont, as Wagner points out, nearly every day is a U.S. Open, and most of the club’s members expect such conditions. Some don’t care if two days of rain is likely to slow the course’s greens; they still want them running at 13 or 14 feet on the Stimpmeter. And if Zimmers and his crew must hand-water greens on a scorching-hot July day to cool the turf, God forbid if the procedure slows the greens a foot or two.
“That’s the way the members want it, and that’s the way they insist that John Zimmers maintains the golf course,” Wagner says. “And, by in large, he has done that.”
So it’s no wonder that Oakmont’s members have gained such an insistent reputation. Part of their mentality stems from the course’s history of playing so difficult, but Zimmers also believes the sports-minded culture in western Pennsylvania has something to do with the way they think. The club’s members who grew up in the area are also fans of Pittsburgh’s sports teams, especially the Steelers, an organization that is regarded as an underachiever if it doesn’t make the NFL playoffs every year. So if Oakmont isn’t playing like Oakmont, Zimmers hears about it. But that’s OK with him.
“There is nothing wrong with the fact that they want the course to be the best it can possibly be,” Zimmers says. “I get that, and I embrace that.”
Zimmers does more than embrace it. If a member brings a guest to play Oakmont for the first time and the course is playing subpar because of wet conditions, Zimmers understands why they both might feel let down, and he also takes it to heart.
“I have very high standards, probably higher than what members expect,” he says.
But if the greens can’t be mowed and rolled because they are wet, Zimmers and his crew will not pack it in. They will break out the squeegees and blowers to dry the greens as best they can to speed them up to members’ expectations.
“I think if you show you are making the effort, it goes a long way,” Zimmers says.
Doug Drugo, who worked on Zimmers’ staff for several years before becoming the superintendent at Wee Burn Country Club in Darien, Connecticut, says it takes a special person to be Oakmont’s superintendent.
“It’s not an easy place to work,” he adds.
When Drugo first met Zimmers in 1999, he didn’t expect Zimmers would last long as the club’s superintendent. Drugo, 23 at the time, was helping build a new tee on the fourth hole when a few members came by to introduce the newly hired superintendent to him and other crew members. Drugo took one look at the fresh-faced 28-year-old Zimmers and figured that Oakmont would chew him up and spit him out in no time.
“We thought there was no way in hell that he would survive here,” Drugo says.
But it didn’t take long for Drugo to change his mind about Zimmers. After working with him for a few months, Drugo realized that Zimmers was a solid leader who empowered his employees to do their jobs, getting the best out of them.
“He was going 100 miles an hour,” Drugo recalls. “He had a very clear picture of what he wanted Oakmont to be.”
Part of that vision was returning the course to as close to Fownes’ original design as possible. Zimmers oversaw the course’s $2.5 million renovation, which lasted from 1999 to 2005, and included removal of about 5,000 trees planted in the 1960s as part of a beautification project. About 5,000 more trees have been removed since 2005.
Drugo, who eventually became Zimmers’ first assistant, also noticed that Zimmers had the personality to deal with Oakmont’s members. Drugo remembers being in green committee meetings that weren’t always amicable, but Zimmers kept his emotions in check and never displayed frustration. While he might agree with the green committee that some things could be done better, he also wasn’t afraid to hold his ground on certain issues. But Zimmers did so with dignity, not defiance.
“No matter how contentious a situation would get, he kept a positive disposition,” Drugo adds.
Darin Brevard, the USGA’s director of championship agronomy and a senior agronomist with the USGA Green Section, has known Zimmers since he started his career at Oakmont and is also impressed with his diplomatic skills.
“There are always people [at Oakmont] who will not be happy with what you are doing or happy with the conditions on the day they played,” Brevard says. “But the one thing you can’t do is get frustrated or show anger. You have to calmly talk to them and educate them. In some instances, people will say they understand, but others won’t be so accepting. But you can’t let those people ruin your day. You have to let them know that you’re doing the absolute best that you can. I know John does that on a daily basis.”
Brevard and Drugo are astonished at the impeccable conditions that Zimmers and his crew present day in and out at Oakmont considering the high number of rounds, about 25,000, the course does annually.
“I just don’t know of another place that can compete with that,” Drugo says. “It’s the same thing every day in terms of conditioning and playability. It’s ridiculous.”
Zimmers came to Oakmont after spending three years as the superintendent at Sand Ridge Golf Club, a Tom Fazio design in Munson Township, Ohio. Before that, he worked as the first assistant to legendary superintendent Paul R. Latshaw at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland. Zimmers, who grew up in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, a small town in central Pennsylvania, earned a two-year turf certificate from Rutgers University in 1993.
At Oakmont, Zimmers has already hosted one U.S. Open in 2007, a U.S. Women’s Open in 2010 and a U.S. Amateur in 2003. He realizes that few superintendents get to host four top tournaments in their careers.
“I don’t take it for granted. I have a lot to be thankful for,” he says.
Despite the challenges and pressures that come with the job, Zimmers is still pinching himself after 17 years to make sure he is really at Oakmont.
“As demanding as it is, I love Oakmont,” he says. “I love the challenges.”
No superintendent has lasted this long at Oakmont in the last 40 years. Drugo, aware of the load that Zimmers has endured, says it isn’t in Zimmers’ DNA to back down from a challenge, no matter how difficult.
“He is not wired that way,” Drugo adds.
Wagner is impressed with Zimmers’ resiliency and realizes, perhaps better than anyone, how difficult the job can be, especially when you’re dealing with the most demanding membership in golf.
“In many [instances], John’s efforts are largely underappreciated or not appreciated,” Wagner says. “But it’s a testament to his ability as a superintendent to withstand the criticism and tough aura that the members present.”
For Zimmers, it’s just part of the job. After all, he knew what he was getting into.