Paul B. Latshaw had never flown on a private plane before. But there he sat, the only passenger on the plane, on his way to interview with the legendary Jack Nicklaus to be the golf course superintendent at Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio.
Latshaw was excited, considering the interview was the opportunity of a lifetime. But he was also shaking in his dress shoes.
“I was mesmerized,” Latshaw says, remembering the interview more than 13 years later. “I was a nervous wreck.”
Latshaw sits behind his desk in his office, located inside the Muirfield golf maintenance facility, recalling details of the interview as if it were last week. Nicklaus sent the private plane to Rochester, New York, to pick up Latshaw, who at the time was superintendent at Oak Hill Country Club. It was an August day in 2003, shortly after the PGA Championship was held at Oak Hill. The course had been in spectacular shape for the tournament. Many people noticed, including Nicklaus, apparently.
Latshaw’s co-workers jokingly dubbed the plane “Air Bear,” named after Nicklaus’ beloved nickname, the “Golden Bear,” which the 77-year-old gained somewhere on the way to winning 18 major golf victories to gain the title of world’s greatest golfer, which he still holds today. Nicklaus was looking for a new superintendent for Muirfield, a course he designed and built in 1974 in Dublin not far from where he was born, grew up and attended college, The Ohio State University.
‘A mentor and a friend’
Latshaw’s peers admire how he’s exceled at Muirfield:
“That’s a pretty tough gig. And he’s been doing this year after year for the best player who has ever played the game. … In my opinion, he’s the best superintendent around.”
— John Zimmers, superintendent at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh, has known Latshaw for more than 25 years
“He was more than a boss to me. He was a mentor and a friend, and even a father figure to me.”
— Jake Gargasz, superintendent at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Indiana, worked for Latshaw for several years at Oak Hill and Muirfield and credits Latshaw for teaching him many things
Nicklaus knew Latshaw’s father, Paul R. Latshaw, one of the greatest superintendents ever, who will be honored next month with the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America’s Old Tom Morris Award. Nicklaus phoned Paul R. and asked if his son might be interested in the job. Paul R. gave Nicklaus his son’s phone number.
While on Air Bear en route to meet with Nicklaus, Latshaw, a longtime fan of the man who won 73 times on the PGA Tour, went through the interview in his mind. One thing he told himself not to do was act star-struck during the interview.
“I knew I needed to be the agronomy Paul and not the fan Paul,” he says.
Latshaw did something right in the interview. Nicklaus offered him the job on the spot, and Latshaw accepted it the next day.
“I think he liked my energy,” Latshaw says.
Nicklaus liked more than that. He has described Latshaw as “terrific” and “very intense” when talking about his skills. Nicklaus is also impressed with Latshaw’s perpetual thirst to gain knowledge to become a better superintendent.
This spring, the 51-year-old Latshaw enters his 14th season as Muirfield’s director of ground operations. He says he is a better superintendent for coming to Muirfield, one of the top courses in America.
Latshaw is a great fit for Muirfield; he’s a superintendent who likes to thrive under pressure. Considering that Nicklaus once said Muirfield meant more to him than his career, the pressure on the superintendent there is undeniable.
Latshaw’s boss can also talk turf, only adding to the pressure. But rather than be intimidated by that, Latshaw is impressed with his Nicklaus’ acumen for growing grass. He picked up on it during his interview with Nicklaus.
“What people don’t realize about Jack is that he knows agronomy,” Latshaw says. “He knows his grasses, trees and soils. He is very astute. … He sees things that nobody else sees.”
Latshaw and Nicklaus click on agronomics.
“He has given me the tools that I need,” Latshaw says. “We are always in tune.”
Latshaw has earned that support. Early on in his tenure at Muirfield, Latshaw told Nicklaus that several hundred trees should be removed from the course to improve airflow and, subsequently, turf health. Nicklaus went along with Latshaw’s recommendation, but told him, “It better work.” Latshaw hasn’t forgotten the look Nicklaus gave him when he uttered those words.
“It was a stern look … his baby blue-eyed stare, which was intimidating,” Latshaw says. “If it didn’t work, I would’ve been gone.”
Latshaw, who has a bachelor’s degree from Penn State University in agricultural science and a two-year degree from the school in turf management (which he finished in one year), began his career as a superintendent at the prestigious Merion Golf Club, where he was recommended for the job by the club’s former superintendent, Dick Bator, another industry legend. Latshaw was only 26 at the time, and there were whispers that his dad helped get him the job. But Latshaw spent seven years at Merion, which put to rest any doubts about his agronomic skills or that he needed his father’s influence to succeed.
Nicklaus found that out quickly. Their relationship is tight, such that Latshaw views Nicklaus as a father figure. Just as he never wanted to disappoint his own dad, Latshaw says he doesn’t want to disappoint Nicklaus.
“I have so much respect for him,” Latshaw says. “I had respect for him before I came here, but the more I work for him, the more respect I have for him. He’s the epitome of excellence in everything he does.”
But that is also Latshaw’s way; he is a superintendent with a reputation for never settling for second best.
“If you don’t buy in that you should be pursuing excellence, this might not be the place for you,” he says of Muirfield.
Next to Nicklaus, nobody cares more about Muirfield than he does, Latshaw says. And one of the things Latshaw loves most about his job is staging the Memorial Tournament, an annual PGA Tour event held in the spring. At Muirfield, it’s almost like there are two different seasons to prep the course – for the Memorial and then for the club’s regular members when the tournament is over. Latshaw and his crew are gearing up for the Memorial as soon as the snow melts in March. It’s normal for them to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week in the weeks leading up to the tournament.
“A lot of people think it’s really glamorous to host a tournament every year,” Latshaw says. “But they don’t realize how many hours go into it.”
Staging the Memorial, however, is not getting stagnant for Latshaw.
“I still get a rush out of it,” he says. “It gets in your blood.”
When the tournament is over and the thrill is gone, Latshaw doesn’t bask in the fact that he and his crew just spent four days staging a golf tournament for the greatest players in the world. He is already on to next year’s tournament, thinking about what he can do better.
“It’s not like I ever enjoy the moment,” he says.
In October 2013, Muirfield hosted the prestigious President’s Club, a tournament held every two years pitting American golfers against an international team of players from everywhere but Europe.
Central Ohio is normally dry that time of year, but the skies opened, dumping 4 inches of rain during the four-day tournament. “The course was destroyed outside the ropes,” he says. “It turned out to be the hardest tournament I’ve ever done.”
Latshaw says it was the only time in his career he didn’t want to be at work. “I couldn’t stand looking at the course,” he says. “It was the most disappointing thing that has happened in my career.”
Latshaw says Nicklaus was supportive, commending him for keeping the course playable. “He said it was the best job I’d ever done, even though it wasn’t the outcome that I wanted.”
Latshaw doesn’t second-guess himself for not enjoying the moment; it’s just the way he rolls. He will never apologize for letting his intensity drive him for the results that he expects from himself and his crew.
Even with his self-assuredness, Nicklaus’ encouragement means a lot to Latshaw and speaks volumes about Nicklaus’ trust in him. While he is thankful for his trust, Latshaw checks his pride at the door every morning when he comes to the office.
“I’m more comfortable here than I have ever been, but I’m always on edge because we are always trying to make the course better,” he says.
Latshaw is speaking about Nicklaus’ annual plans to make the course better, which often means construction projects. Nicklaus is sometimes accused of “tinkering” with Muirfield, but Latshaw says it’s only about keeping the 40-year-old course up to date.
“The game of golf has evolved and so has the golf course,” Latshaw says. “Jack is always evaluating how the course plays. He is constantly trying to make this place better, which is what makes Muirfield great.”
But that is also Latshaw’s marching order. To him, it’s always about making the course better and challenging yourself to be better.
“I’m not here for the paycheck,” Latshaw says. “I’m here because I want to be good at my craft. I want to excel.”
Paul R. says his son has proven on his own that he is one of the industry’s premier superintendents.
“He has certainly brought a new era of professionalism to the industry,” he adds.
Paul. B remarks that his dad and his mother, Phyllis, who died 12 years ago, taught him perhaps the one thing that has led to his success. Paul R. and Phyllis grew up on farms, where they learned the value of hard work and the impact it can have on living a meaningful life.
Reflecting on his own upbringing and his devotion to his profession, Latshaw realizes how thankful he is for his livelihood and Muirfield.
“Work isn’t really work,” he says. “It’s my passion.”