Former superintendents, including Lloyd McKenzie, recall their tenures at Augusta National Golf Club

Editor’s note: Augusta National Golf Club prohibits its employees from speaking to the press. As a result, we couldn’t speak to Augusta’s Brad Owen, the club’s current golf course superintendent, or Marsh Benson, Augusta’s senior director of golf course and grounds, for this story.

When the phone rang, Lloyd McKenzie had no idea he was about to take a call that would change his life as a golf course superintendent.

It was a routine fall day in 1975 in Hilton Head, S.C., where McKenzie was the superintendent at the Port Royal Golf Club. He was in his office inside the maintenance facility when the call came through.

An official from Augusta National Golf Club was phoning to ask McKenzie if he would consider applying for the famous Georgia club’s superintendent position. He told McKenzie that his name came up in a discussion about candidates for the position.

McKenzie was flattered, but stunned. He’d never thought about being the superintendent at arguably the greatest golf course in America and hosting one of the nation’s top sporting events, the Masters. But McKenzie told the official he was happy at Port Royal and wasn’t interested in the job. He hung up the phone and went back to work.

“But, after a few days, I got to thinking,” Mc- Kenzie recalled recently. “Most people would give their right hand to have the opportunity just to try for a job like that. Augusta was as top of a job back then as it is now.”

So McKenzie called the Augusta official back and said he wanted to apply for the job. He did and got an interview.

Next thing McKenzie knew, Clifford Roberts, who co-founded Augusta with Bobby Jones and was chairman of Augusta at the time, was at Port Royal scouting the golf course and grading McKenzie’s work. Roberts must’ve been impressed. Later that night, the Augusta official called McKenzie and offered him the job.

“I was ecstatic,” recalls McKenzie, who worked at Augusta from 1975 through 1981.

Looking back, the 81-year-old McKenzie says being the superintendent at Augusta was the climax of his career.

“It was thrilling,” he says, before pausing. “But at the same time there was a lot of pressure.”

The pressure at Augusta was intense, unlike anything McKenzie had felt at any other job. McKenzie felt like his performance was always under a microscope from Augusta’s staff and members, the media, and even superintendents from other courses.

Billy Fuller, who succeeded McKenzie as Augusta superintendent in 1981, knows the pressure that McKenzie is talking about. But he put it out of his mind.

“We were doing so much in the way of upgrades on the golf course, and we were so busy getting it done that I never thought about pressure,” Fuller says.

Paul R. Latshaw succeeded Fuller and worked as Augusta’s superintendent from 1986 to 1989. The late Joe Duich, the prolific turfgrass professor and researcher from Penn State University, helped recruit Latshaw to Augusta.

Latshaw, who served as superintendent at Oakmont Country Club, Congressional Country Club, Winged Foot Golf Club, Riviera Country Club and Wilmington Country Club in his near 40-year career, wouldn’t say Augusta was his favorite job, but he did say it was his most prestigious.

“Augusta received more publicity than any other place I worked at,” Latshaw notes. “The Masters has grown into one of the major [sporting] events in the world.”

Latshaw came to Augusta from Oakmont, one of the nation’s top high-end private clubs and known for having the toughest membership in golf. He says, “Augusta was one of the easiest jobs I ever had.”

That was due in part to Hord Hardin, Augusta’s legendary chairman at the time. He kept virtually everyone, from Augusta’s members to the media, away from Latshaw; they weren’t allowed to speak to him.

“Mr. Hardin said, ‘I’ll take care of them,’ ” Latshaw recalls. “The members would wave to me on the course, but they couldn’t talk to me. Mr. Hardin was the boss, no questions asked.”

Augusta “never let up”

Augusta, designed by Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie, is only open to its members for about seven months of the year. But that doesn’t mean there’s a lot of downtime for the course’s superintendent.

What Fuller remembers most about Augusta was the constant workflow.

“It never let up as far as demand and time,” he says.

In the summer and fall, before the course reopened to members in October, there were projects to do and overseeding to be done.

“We were trying to get everything as perfect as we could for members and keep it that way,” Fuller says.

Then Fuller had to change gears and prepare for the Masters in April.

“We spent the rest of the winter and early spring on tournament preparation,” he notes.

As soon as the tournament was over, Augusta’s members wanted to get back out on the course. The club closed in late spring, but there was a whole new slate of projects to begin.

“There wasn’t much time for a vacation,” Fuller says. “You can burn people out with that 12-month schedule. Most individuals want more balance.”

Is Augusta at fault for being too perfect and setting a bad standard for golf course conditioning? Or are golfers at fault for making unfair comparisons between Augusta and the courses they play? Read Lawrence Aylward’s “Augusta Syndrome” story at www.superintendent-digital.com/Mar2013.

But Fuller says things are different at Augusta these days. Brad Owen, who has been superintendent at the course since 1997, is able to take time off. When Owen succeeded Marsh Benson as superintendent, Benson stayed on as the club’s senior director of golf course and grounds. With two people in lead agronomic roles, the job is less intrusive from a time perspective.

“Now one of them can cover the ship when the other one goes on vacation,” Fuller adds.

McKenzie had his share of agronomic challenges at Augusta – “I was always concerned about losing turf,” he says – but his biggest challenge was in 1980, when the club decided to convert the bermudagrass greens to bentgrass to provide a faster putting surface.

While McKenzie was part of making Augusta history, he says it was a lousy time to convert the greens because of poor growing conditions.

“We had a lot of rain and heat,” he explains. “And you know that heat and rain don’t go well with bentgrass, especially when you’re trying to grow it in.”

As winter approached, several of the greens weren’t doing well. McKenzie and his crew built a plastic tent over them to create a greenhouse effect and spur growth.

“It was pretty nerve-wracking … hoping the greens would be good enough for the tournament [the following spring],” McKenzie says.

Fortunately, they were, and the greens became even healthier as they grew more established the following year.

McKenzie was a friend of Clifford Roberts, Augusta’s chairman for 45 years, who offered him some sound advice.

“He once told me that I would have a lot of ‘experts’ at Augusta, from doctors to other professionals, who would tell me what to do,” McKenzie says. “But he said, ‘We don’t pay them anything, we pay you. So you make your own decisions. And if you lose your job, make sure you lose it over a decision you made, not one that somebody made for you.’ “

For Latshaw, who spent his career as a superintendent in the North prior to coming to Augusta, maintaining bentgrass greens in the South was a big change.

“It was a rude awakening coming from the North,” he says.

But maintaining the greens at Augusta wasn’t Latshaw’s biggest challenge. Overseeding the bermudagrass fairways and tees every fall with ryegrass was the hardest part of the job, he says.

“It was a hassle every year,” he adds. “I remember one year we just got done overseeding, and we had 6 inches of rain. There were piles of ryegrass [seed] at the bottom of every slope. We had to start all over.”

Billy Fuller on the cover of Southern Golf. Fuller was superintendent of Augusta from 1981-1986.

If overseeding was Latshaw’s lowlight at Augusta, then experiencing Masters week was the highlight.

“It was quite special … there was satisfaction in seeing it all come together,” he says. “The Masters is, without a doubt, the best run major event in golf.”

Latshaw’s MO was to provide the best conditions possible, and he was never shorthanded in terms of resources to do so.

“I had unlimited funds,” he adds.

Latshaw was locked in to his duties. He didn’t let any outside distractions, especially the media, change his mind of how the golf course should play and appear for the tournament.

During his first two Masters, Latshaw had the greens running so hard and fast that people were talking up a storm.

“Mr. Hardin called me and said, ‘Paul, are the greens alright?’ I said, ‘Yes, why do you ask?’ He said, ‘Because they don’t look too good on TV.’

“The greens were brown and hard and lightning fast,” Latshaw says with a cackle.

Fuller also remembers being in a zone during Masters week.

“All of the eyes of the world are on you, and you wanted to put your best foot forward,” he says.

Fuller was always in “ready-to-react” mode, a mindset that served him well for his first Masters in 1982. Shortly before the start of the first round Fuller was standing on the ninth green. A crowd grew behind him on the 10th tee as the starting time approached, and then something strange occurred.

“All of the sudden there was this groaning and moaning from the crowd, and people started to push back from each other,” Fuller remembers.

Fuller looked up toward the 10th tee and noticed the ground was swelling about 3 feet high. It looked like something out of a science-fiction movie.

“It was obvious there was a giant irrigation leak underneath, and the ground was about to burst,” he says.

Fuller was soon standing in 6 inches of water. He called his assistant to shut down the pump station. Fortunately, the water flowed down the slope toward the ninth green and eventually dissipated.

Still, the irrigation leak, caused by a worker who drove a metal stake into a pipe while putting up a scoring tent, had to be repaired. But Fuller didn’t throw his arms up in the air and cry, “Why me?” He just went to work repairing the pipe.

“We dug down to the pipe, cut out the bad part, replaced it with new pipe, put the dirt back over it, and placed sod over the area,” Fuller says. “We were done in 20 minutes.”

A time to move on

Fuller’s best memories of Augusta were on Sundays during the Masters. When the tournament was over and the trophy presentation was about to take place on the 18th green, Fuller allowed himself to stop and take it all in. He says there was no better feeling than getting to be one of the few people on the green for the presentation and being recognized for his effort during the week.

“It was really special,” he says. “It was priceless.”

Fuller, who had his sights on becoming a golf course architect, decided to leave Augusta in 1986. When he was offered the chance to join Cupp Design in 1986 to work as a golf course design associate and senior agronomist, Fuller turned in his resignation at Augusta. He launched his own design firm in 2004.

“I’ll always be thankful and blessed for having the opportunity to be at Augusta,” the 64-year-old Fuller says. “It provided me the chance to meet so many people – my network expanded exponentially because of it. I had a lot of fun.”

After working four Masters, Latshaw was also ready to make a move. He and his wife Phyllis wanted to move closer to eastern Pennsylvania to be with their aging parents. When Latshaw received “an unbelievable offer” to be the superintendent at Wilmington Country Club in Delaware, he took it.

“I’m glad I had the opportunity to be there,” the 73-year-old Latshaw says of Augusta.

McKenzie left Augusta in 1981 for the Quail Creek Country Club in Naples, Fla. He finished his career as superintendent of West Palm Beach (Fla.) Country Club.

McKenzie has been retired for 19 years and now lives in Blue Ridge, Ga. He admits that he left Augusta because he was tired of the constant pressure and long hours that defined the job at the time.

“It was my career highlight … despite all the pressure,” McKenzie says. “There’s no doubt about it.”