Dr. Henry Heimlich had his life-saving maneuver, Samuel Morse had his nonverbal code, Oliver Winchester had his repeating rifle, and Ben Stover had his mower cut.
Ben Stover? Mower cut? I know, it doesn’t ring a bell. But stick with me here.
Next month will mark the 10-year anniversary of Ben Stover going from a second assistant superintendent at Winged Foot Golf Club to a household name for approximately a one-week period. He was a member of Eric Greytok’s golf course management team that was responsible for hosting the 2006 U.S. Open.
It would be the first year the United States Golf Association implemented the “step cut” or graduated rough to keep from penalizing those who found themselves barely missing the fairway. The concept of a graduated cut rough was not a new idea, according to then-USGA Championship Agronomist Tim Moraghan. In fact, Moraghan remembers a conversation he had with USGA past president Sandy Tatum at the 1991 Open at Pebble Beach on the possibility of introducing the element to the setup. Eventually the idea gained enough support, and Winged Foot became the first course to test it.
It was the spring of 2006 when Moraghan, Greytok, (West Course Superintendent) Sean Foley and Stover first met to lay out where the step cut would be used. It would be a 20-foot-wide swath cut at 3.5 inches between the 1-inch intermediate cut and the 5.5-inch primary cut. The rough was “juiced up a bit,” according to Stover, in the months leading up to the Open and was allowed to grow until about mid-May when Stover went to work. The first time, he walk-mowed the outside line of the carefully planned setup. Then, using a Jacobsen HR 6010 rotary mower, he would make a pass up and back to create the “step.”
Stover was just one of more than 100 staff and volunteers working from sun up to sun down that week. But the media was intrigued by the new set up and the unassuming native of Muscatine, Iowa, found himself the subject of media wanting to know more. Golf Channel cameras were poised on him. Sports Illustrated, which had a reporter and photographer embedded with the maintenance staff, featured Stover. Golf magazines and New York-area media outlets were curious as well. Greytok stoked the flames by naming the cut the “Stover Cut.”
“I was shocked,” Stover says. “I had no idea there would be that much interest. I got a lot of ribbing from the guys and my friends back home. You don’t plan on making Sports Illustrated. “
Stover says he did not have much interaction with the players or caddies during the event, so he did not hear many comments about his work. He figures it was a positive because the USGA continues to use it in its championships.
“I only cut it late, some of the time with lights because it was dark,” Stover says. “So I didn’t get much direct feedback. I heard the USGA and the players liked it. I would, too. Five-over [Geoff Ogilvy] won it. I can only imagine what the score would have been had we not had the cut. It would have been ugly!”
In the business full-time only since 2005, Stover has had an interesting and experience-laden career. He remained at Winged Foot through 2007 as the irrigation superintendent. He then moved on to Saucon Valley Country Club as an assistant superintendent where he helped host the 2009 U.S. Women’s Open and led the reconstruction and grow-in of the Weyhill Course through late 2011. He was then named head superintendent in late 2011 at Rumson (N.J.) Country Club. But just before he arrived, the course was hit hard by Hurricane Irene and a year later by Hurricane Sandy.
“We have a great club,” Stover says. “It is a full-service country club with an 18-hole golf course, driving range, short game practice facility, two clubhouses, marina, pool, trap and skeet shooting, platform tennis, standard tennis and croquet. We were able to clean up after the hurricanes and came out in better shape with the work we did following the storms.”
Next month, Stover will watch the U.S. Open as he has always done. Is he disappointed his name did not take hold regarding the step cut in the years following his time at Winged Foot?
“No, not really,” Stover says. “It was fun while it lasted, though.”