It’s no wonder that smoke wasn’t billowing from his nose. Mark Kuhns was that angry.
It was 1989, and Kuhns was hosting his first major tournament as a golf course superintendent at Laurel Valley Golf Club in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. Kuhns, 35 at the time, was readying the course for the U.S. Senior Open.
Kuhns was also new to the circus that comes with hosting such a massive tournament. He watched with agitation as trucks and cranes rolled in and out of Laurel Valley as contractors went to work building corporate chalets and grandstands to seat the thousands of people who would soon trample his course. Then, Kuhns spotted a crane creeping along an area of turf near the 11th fairway. The crane’s massive tires dug into the turf, leaving a long wake of ruts several inches deep.
“I was livid,” Kuhns recalls.
The crane’s driver, needless to say, felt Kuhn’s wrath. But the young superintendent also learned the first of many lessons that day that comes with hosting major tournaments: Things can and will go wrong, and you must deal with the aftermath.
Flash-forward to 2016. Kuhns, who will host his sixth major tournament, the PGA Championship on Baltusrol Golf Club’s Lower Course later this month, is a calmer, cooler and more collected superintendent at the age of 61 than he was at 35. And with skin as thick as a rhino’s, Kuhns has learned to deal with the misfortunes and mishaps that come with hosting majors, even if they come in the form of damaged turf caused by an irresponsible crane operator.
PGA Championship at a Glance
WHEN: July 25-31
WHERE: Baltusrol Golf Club (Lower Course), Springfield, N.J.
DIRECTOR OF GROUNDS: Mark Kuhns
SUPERINTENDENT: Dan Kilpatrick
COURSE ARCHITECT: A.W. Tillinghast
LENGTH OF COURSE: 7,450 yards
“You realize after a while that things like that are going to happen,” says Kuhns, Baltusrol’s director of grounds. “But it has taken me a lot of years to learn that. Experience has taught me many lessons.”
Through his 39-year career as a superintendent, Kuhns has also hosted the 1992 U.S. Women’s Open and 1994 Men’s U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, where he spent nine years as the superintendent; and the 2001 U.S. Amateur and 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol in Springfield, New Jersey, where Kuhns has been since 1999.
Kuhns’ wife of 40 years, Janet, the office manager at the Baltusrol golf maintenance facility, has noticed her husband has become more apt at rolling with the punches. In the past when things went wrong, Janet would ask, “Is there anything you can do about it?” When Mark answered, “No,” Janet would say, “Then why worry?”
Kuhns has heeded his wife’s advice. “He has definitely mellowed,” she says.
Cruising the lower course in his utility vehicle on a recent sun-splashed summer day, Kuhns says he has changed for the better during his 17-year tenure at Baltusrol. A noticeably physical change is his weight. Kuhns, who once weighed 380 pounds, is down to 250. Two years ago, he had gastric sleeve surgery and had part of his stomach removed. He has also hired a trainer and works out several times a week. His energy level is the highest it has been in years.
Kuhns says he has also concentrated on becoming a more patient, understanding and compassionate superintendent to his employees and others. Not that he was a grumpy ol’ superintendent before, but he admits he could sometimes be unfairly tough on others and a bit self-centered.
In the past, Kuhns says he would have fired a troubled employee who showed up late, didn’t work hard or was difficult to get along with. Not now, though. Instead, Kuhns will find out if something outside work is affecting that employee’s performance. He wants to help his employees with personal issues, not give up on them. “I want to help them become stronger,” he says.
Dan Kilpatrick, superintendent on the Lower Course, experienced just how compassionate and patient Kuhns can be. 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 Lower 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. He treats us like family.”
When Kuhns began at Baltusrol, he noticed that other staff members, including the pro and general manager, kept to themselves. So Kuhns did the same, not wanting to be bothered with their problems.
“We were all in our own little worlds,” Kuhns says. “I called them fiefdoms.”
But it didn’t take long for Kuhns to realize that everyone had to work together if Baltusrol was going to be the best club it could be. So Kuhns went to his peers and told them he was there for them if they needed his help. He began to meet with them regularly to communicate what he was doing and how it might impact what they were doing.
“The team effort is of the utmost importance in our profession today, and you really need to work hard at it,” Kuhns says. “You can’t tell the pro to stay out of your world.”
One of Kuhn’s best friends, Ken Kubik, the CEO of Grass Roots Turf Products in Randolph, New Jersey, says Kuhns, who served on the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America’s Board of Directors from 2003 to 2010, is an advocate of the profession.
“There are people that take, and there are people that give. Mark is definitely a giver,” Kubik says.
Kerry Haigh, chief championships officer for the PGA of America, has known Kuhns for several years, dating back to the PGA Championship in 2005. Haigh holds Kuhns in high regard.
“He is well known and well respected, and I have the utmost respect for him,” Haigh says.
While Kuhns has mellowed and doesn’t allow himself to get as ruffled when things go wrong, it doesn’t mean he has lost his passion for what he does. Kuhns says a fear of complacency has always kept him fresh and motivated in his career.
“In this profession, you have to change with the times,” he says.
Back in the 1990s, Kuhns admits he got burned out on being a superintendent. At the time, Kuhns was nearing the end of his stint as superintendent at Oakmont, where he and the club had mutually decided to part ways. Kuhns was actively looking for another job and was excited about possibly going to work in sales for The Toro Co. But then he heard about the opening at Baltusrol, a club with two A.W. Tillinghast-designed courses that Kuhns marveled.
At the time, Baltusrol was a bit beat up. All of the two course’s greens had turf damage, some up to 80 percent. Acres and acres of fairways also sported dead turf. The person hired for the job would have to get the club’s Lower Course in shape for the U.S. Amateur, which was a year away. But Kuhns wanted the chance; the thought of working at Baltusrol revitalized him.
Kuhns was one of about 250 applicants and had six interviews before being offered the job.
Not only did Kuhns have to get the Lower Course back in shape for the U.S. Amateur, he was also given marching orders to take Baltusrol’s Upper Course, regarded as the Lower Course’s ugly stepsister, to another level. Kuhns oversaw the Upper Course’s renovation, which included adding length and a bunker renovation
“Today, Baltusrol is one of only two facilities in the country that has two top-100 [classic] golf courses on it,” Kuhns says proudly. The Lower Course is ranked No. 41, and the Upper Course is No. 58, according to Golf Digest magazine.
Another reason why Kuhns feels more relaxed these days: the golf course maintenance team is the best he has ever had in his career. Kuhns oversees a staff of 75 people, including 26 maintenance employees on each course. They are so experienced and knowledgeable that Kuhns is only bringing in 75 volunteers for this year’s PGA Championship, compared to 130 volunteers in 2005. Many of the current employees worked the tournament 11 years ago.
“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.”
While Kuhns is thankful for his experienced staff, which besides Kilpatrick also includes Upper Course Superintendent James Devaney and Assistant Superintendents Ryan Avery and Nick Alley, he expects them to move on to the next challenge in their careers soon after the PGA Championship.
“These four guys 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.”
Kuhns realizes the 2016 PGA Championship could be his last major, considering he might retire from the golf industry in 2020 when he’s 65. It’s another reason why Kuhns plans to enjoy this major like no other. But it’s not just about him.
“I’m excited to make this enjoyable for everyone, including our members and guests, the players, the volunteers and the PGA of America,” he says. “I want everybody to be in the shining light for this. I want this to be one of the best majors ever.”