Pictured: Dan Kilpatrick, superintendent of Baltusrol’s Lower Course, is one of the golf maintenance team’s most veteran members. Photo: Lawrence Aylward
You might think that Mark Kuhns is as nervous as a college kid on final exam day as the first round of the PGA Championship kicks off this morning on Baltusrol Golf Club’s Lower Course, where Kuhns is the director of grounds. Kuhns’ adrenaline is flowing like a high-speed train for sure, but he is more relaxed than nervous.
A big reason for Kuhns’ calmness is his 72-person maintenance crew on Baltusrol’s two 18-hole courses, which he says is the best group of employees he as ever assembled in his 40-year career as a golf course superintendent. Of course, crews from the Lower and Upper courses will be called on to maintain the Lower during the tournament.
“The fact that I have people I’m confident in that can handle this without me having to look over their shoulders … I’m more relaxed than I have ever been,” Kuhns says. “Everybody knows their jobs. They know what the expectations are.”
The crew is so experienced and knowledgeable that Kuhns brought in only 75 volunteers for this year’s PGA Championship, compared to 130 volunteers when Baltusrol hosted the same tournament in 2005. Many of the current employees worked the tournament 11 years ago.
Kuhns’ experienced staff includes Dan Kilpatrick, superintendent on the Lower Course. The 37-year-old Kilpatrick has worked at Baltusrol since 2003 when he started as an intern. Kilpatrick, who has a two-year certificate in turfgrass management from Penn State University, was promoted to irrigation technician in 2004. He was assistant superintendent of the Upper Course and Lower Course before being named superintendent of the Lower Course in 2006.
Kilpatrick never expected he would be at Baltusrol for as long as he has. But he’s not complaining about not moving on from Baltusrol, especially now that he can list “superintendent of a PGA Championship” on his résumé, which will obviously command respect.
“It’s a fairytale,” says Kilpatrick of the opportunity.
Kilpatrick has the utmost respect for the A.W. Tillinghast-designed Baltusrol, which is ranked No. 41 on Golf Digest magazine’s list of classic courses. Kilpatrick views the Lower Course, which opened in 1922, has hallowed ground.
“I’ve been here 12 years and this course has been here a lot longer than that,” Kilpatrick says. “The history of the property is incredible.”
Kilpatrick is also thankful to be working for Kuhns, who he says treats everyone with kindness and compassion. Kilpatrick experienced Kuhns’ benevolence firsthand.
In 2012, Kilpatrick, who is from Canada, was deported for three months during the golf season because his visa ran out. Kuhns could have found a new superintendent for the course, which would have been understandable. But Kuhns told Kilpatrick his job would be waiting for him.
“He stayed committed to me, and I’m forever in debt to him for that,” Kilpatrick says. “He has such a heart for everybody here.”
Kuhns also knew the agronomic talent he had in Kilpatrick, who he expects to move on to another golf course in due time to lead his own staff.
In fact, Kuhns expects to lose several crew members shortly after the PGA Championship. He couldn’t be happier, though — he wants them to move on and grow in the profession in terms of responsibility and pay — even if it means his experienced staff could soon become inexperienced.
Besides Kilpatrick, Kuhns’ right-hand guys include Upper Course Superintendent James Devaney and Assistant Superintendents Ryan Avery and Nick Alley.
“These four can go anywhere in North America and do a great job at any course that hires them,” Kuhns says. “That’s how much I think of them.”
Kilpatrick would like to lead an older course, but he’s in no hurry to leave Baltusrol.
“I think I can bring something to the table at an old club,” he says.
Kilpatrick can count on Kuhns as a reference, for sure.