Some of the world's greatest names in golf will descend on Merion Golf Club next month for the 42d Walker Cup Match, which pits the best American amateur players against a team from Britain and Ireland.
The international all-star cast includes Jim Roney from Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa.; Rob Patterson of Royal Aberdeen Golf Club in Scotland; John Zimmers out of Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh; and dozens of other big names - who are known largely only to one another.
They are members of a tight fraternity of a few hundred men who are in charge of maintaining the greens, bunkers, fairways, and roughs at the world's championship golf courses. They used to be called greenskeepers, but that colorful if incomplete title has given way to the more ponderous and utilitarian "superintendent."
Despite their lofty positions, the visitors to Ardmore will be reduced to such humble tasks as raking bunkers, seeding divots, and cutting grass. That guy picking up a candy wrapper on the 12th fairway next month may be Rick de Holanda, who runs the show at Shadow Creek Golf Course in Las Vegas, or Alan Strachan from Royal County Down Golf Club in Northern Ireland.
"It's our version of the Amish barn-raising," says Merion superintendent Matt Shaffer, who will oversee his colleagues during the three-day event, which will begin Sept. 11. "We all get together for the big events and help each other out. We'll all be working hard, but the best part is that we'll all share tips and ideas."
Shaffer is expecting about 50 golf superintendents or their assistants for the Walker Cup. They will be supplemented by the regular Merion staff of about 60, and five interns studying to be superintendents in Pennsylvania State University's turfgrass management program.
Merion is to greenskeeping as the Grand Ole Opry is to country music.
"There are few golf courses in America with a richer greenskeeping history than Merion Golf Club," Robert Labbance, a noted golf historian, once said. "What other club boasts one of America's greatest golf course architects as its first greenskeeper, followed by a legendary turf man responsible for selecting one of the world's most widely used grasses?"
William S. Flynn supervised the construction of Merion's East Course, and when it opened in 1912 he became the first greenskeeper. Flynn left in 1918 to form an architectural partnership with Harold C. Toomey that would become world famous.
Flynn was succeeded by Joseph Valentine, an Italian immigrant Flynn had brought in during construction because he spoke English and Italian, the first language of many of the workers.
For the next half-century, Valentine kept Merion's East Course groomed to such a high degree that Herbert Warren Wind, golf writer for New Yorker magazine, would say, "It is the one course in the country that is continually in such superb condition that a visitor playing it on an ordinary day frequently gets the idea that a national championship must be starting the next morning." Valentine was succeeded in 1963 by his son, Richie, who would oversee Merion for 27 years.
Since he became Merion's eighth superintendent in 2003, Shaffer has built a reputation as an innovator and a believer that playability - the challenge a course presents to the golfer - is more important than aesthetics.
"Merion is an old-fashioned golf course in a modern world," he says, standing at the first tee. "Television has changed everything. Appearances are all that matter. At Merion, we are less sensitive to matters of aesthetics and more interested in playability. Other courses use much more chemicals and fertilizer than we do, but if more golfers were less concerned about brown grass, golf would be a lot cheaper for everyone."
He lays down his words like a challenge. "I water as little as possible. Water is the catalyst for growing grass, but the less moisture you have, the less likely you are to have disease."
Before 2005, watering was hit or miss, with primitive probes and pocket knives used to judge moisture. But that year, Merion installed sophisticated sensors, each about the size of a beer can, on greens, fairways, and roughs. The sensors send data to Shaffer's office computer.
"It's like a CAT scan," he says. "When I don't have to water, I don't. The sensors are an edge against Mother Nature. Joe Valentine would have loved them."
Standing at the top of one of the East Course's 120 bunkers, Shaffer points down. "See that dunes grass? No other course has that. Joe Valentine used to have a place at the Jersey Shore, and he brought back dunes grass and planted it in the bunkers. See those big pine trees over there? Joe had his kids uproot them at the Shore and then planted them over there."
These bunkers, known as the "white faces of Merion," are feared throughout the golf world. "They're different from anything else in American golf," says Shaffer. "They look haphazard and neglected, but they are intensely managed. They present a unique and different challenge. I don't mean to the golfers - I mean to the groundskeepers. I think about them every day. They have to be perfect."
Today's golf superintendent is a multifaceted technologist.
"It's a unique profession - as volatile as a college football coach, though a lot less lucrative," Shaffer says. "You're a biologist, a mechanic, people manager. You have to know about soil content and chemical usage. We work for demanding people, and not everything is in our control, especially the weather."
The job's evolution led directly to formalized schooling, and it was Joe Valentine who persuaded Penn State to introduce a course for greenskeepers. After Valentine died in 1966, Penn State established the Joseph Valentine Turfgrass Research Center, which was dedicated in 1970. Nearly all the superintendents who will visit Merion for the Walker Cup are graduates of this school or a similar program at Rutgers University.
"The greens on the East Course are mostly creeping bentgrass. The fairways are creeping bentgrass and annual bluegrass," Shaffer says. He points to a section of rough that has patches of different shades of green. "Here we have five different varieties of grass. This would be unacceptable at many courses. Here we not only accept it, we're proud of it."
Nearly five inches of rain hit the course Aug. 2, complicating preparations. Is Merion ready for the Walker Cup?
"I've been working 75 hours a week, and some of my top staff people have been putting in 90," Shaffer says. "Fortunately, my wife, Renna, mows our lawn at home. I've been at it for the past 700 days. We're ready, and that's good because it's too late to do much now. We're on a glide path. What we have now is what we'll have in September - barring some weather catastrophe."