Sean Sullivan is a self-professed – perhaps more aptly put, a self-confessed – tinkerer.
Driven by a combination of necessity, budget limitations and natural curiosity, Sullivan can often be found swimming against the current as the certified golf course superintendent at The Briarwood Golf Club in Billings, Montana. Consider that just after arriving at The Briarwood in 2002, he decided to replace the sand in the bunkers with black coal slag.
“The club had been struggling a little, and it needed to change things up a bit,” Sullivan said. “I liked the look at Old Works (Golf Club in Anaconda, Montana), so I said let’s give it a go. I believe that you should always look at how you might do things differently. You never know, it might save you money or it might result in better product.”
Sullivan’s perspective is not all that surprising given his career path that has included more than its share of dog-legs. He graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in forestry and worked for the federal government in the forest service until budget cuts eliminated his job. He went back to A&M to get a degree in petroleum engineering. But the domestic oil industry went bust and Sullivan was once more looking for a new career.
Sullivan moved to Atlanta where he landed a job on the maintenance staff at Druid Hills Country Club. After just five years there, he became the superintendent at Lane Creek Golf Course in Bishop, Georgia. He spent seven-plus years there before he returned to Montana (he was born in Butte, Montana) to take the job at The Briarwood. Never one to rest, Sullivan earned his CGCS certification and is currently working on his Master Greenkeeper designation from BIGGA. This summer he’ll work his third Open Championship as it returns to St. Andrews.
Still in search of a means to “dress up” The Briarwood, Sullivan harkened back to his days in Atlanta and his hobby driving race cars.
“We’d be constantly working on the engines, pulling them apart. The valve covers, oil pans and other part would get beat up. So, we’d powder coat them to make the engines look almost like new. We’d also powder coat the wheels to make them look sharp.”
Sullivan reasoned that he could apply the same technology on the golf course, so he tackled the cups. He bought a powder coating gun for $125 and then put out a call to the membership to see if someone might be willing to give him an old oven. After acquiring the oven, he purchased a supply of powder and was in business.
“We could not afford to replace cups (at a cost of $35 each), so I did the same thing we did to the race cars. Doing it yourself just once more than covers the cost of the sprayer, oven and powder.”
Sullivan then turned to ball washers after growing tired of seeing the same dark green color for years. Inspired by his trips to the British Isles, he replicated country flags by creating stencils by hand to depict the various designs. He then added crests of golf clubs from the same countries, an FBI logo in honor of one his members and even a glow-in-the-dark unit.
“I have figured you can coat a set of 18 ball washers for about $45. New ball washers go for about $225 apiece. You can also send them out to be refinished for $50 apiece. So, you can see there is quite a savings.”
The process is fairly simple. He begins by sanding the surface and cleaning it with a solvent. After drying the unit in the oven, he applies a coat of colored powder and bakes it in the oven for 18 minutes. He lets it cool and then repeats the process for each color applied. Once cooled, it is immediately ready for use. Although he hasn’t done it yet, he envisions the process being used to create advertising opportunities, and for cups and ball washers in recognition of holidays and charity events.