Harbor Shores grounds crew preps for Senior PGA Championship

When the Harbor Shores Golf Club first opened 2010, no one was more proud than Brad Fry.

As the course Superintendent, he had seen the 500-acre plot of land evolve from a lot of dirt and sand to a lush, green, golfer’s paradise. In fact, Fry’s humbleness won’t allow himself to say it, but he’s largely responsible for that transformation.

He assembled and directs the golf club’s grounds crew. From the grass to the restrooms, Fry is responsible for making sure golfers have ideal playing conditions from hole one to 18.

The opening of the golf club was a resounding success. Jack Nicklaus, legendary golfer and architect of the Harbor Shores course, invited fellow greats Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, and Johnny Miller to a “Champions for Change” charity skins game. The event drew more than 3,500 spectators.

“To make the first hire to our grounds crew and kind of build a team and see everyone come together and work towards this goal of opening the golf course—finishing it off first—and then opening it,” recalled Fry, was “just great.”

As proud as that moment may have been, nothing will compare to next week, when ten times as many fans descend upon the course in Benton Harbor and 50 million more tune in from home.

Harbor Shores was chosen as the site for the 73rd Senior PGA Championship: Presented by KitchenAid long before the course even opened. Now, it’s time for its fairways and greens to live up to their calling.

“This is like hosting the Super Bowl for us,” said Fry. “So we're thrilled and excited. It's just a great opportunity.”

Along with excitement, comes a measure of pressure. The course must look and function perfectly on the first day of play, but also withstand the high volume of traffic champions like Tom Watson will bring with them to remain playable throughout the tournament. Each day it must withstand the scrutiny of millions of high-definition television sets and the expectations of those watching them.

Fry and his crew are fine-tuning the course for its premiere next week. For hours each day they turn piles of pipe and wood into grandstands, primp the bunkers and preen the grass. They drive screws into signs and string miles of rope along the course for crowd control.

Their modest crew of 30 will soon more than double—a product of having to do routine course upkeep, that normally takes more than half of a day, in just a couple of hours.

“A lot has to happen real quick to prepare the golf course in time,” said Fry.

Yet a groundskeeper’s job is not necessarily one that can be done in haste.

On the course’s famous tenth hole, the green ebbs and flows as if someone froze a waving flag and mimicked its topography with fine sod. While most approach the hole trying to find a way to overcome the hills and valleys to get the ball in the cup, Fry and company must figure out a way to mow it to near razor-thin heights while preserving its integrity.

Make no mistake, come next week, Fry will be ready. He has a degree in Turfgrass Science from Purdue and has worked as a groundskeeper since he graduated. Plus, he and his colleagues have logged countless hours planning.

“It's a lot of thinking and it's something that we've all been thinking about since this winter, but more so over the last couple weeks,” he said. “We know how long it takes us to mow greens on a regular day with our staff, but it needs to happen twice as fast, if not faster.”

The plan? During the tournament, the crew will arrive at the course between 4 and 4:30 in the morning. After a brief meeting, a cavalcade of machines will make their way out onto the Harbor Shores grass—27 lawn mowers (three different kinds), and 43 golf carts just to get around the course. A second wave of 12-15 people will follow on foot, their sole task to rake and maintain the bunkers. If it rains, the team must be able to adjust in an instant.

The real challenge come tournament week, will be timing. The full to-do list must be complete in just over two hours. Just one trip all the way around the cart path without stopping can take nearly an hour. To add to the drama, most of this will unfold in the darkness of early morning.

The stress may get a lesser man down. Not Fry. He admitted he’ll probably wake up even before his early alarm just thinking about the tournament.

“That's what's fun about it,” he said. “We all want to do what we have to do to make this right. So it is demanding at times, but you don't ever feel that way because it's so fun and everybody takes a lot of pride in it.”

The caricature of a groundskeeper is one of a disgruntled, underappreciated lawn-mower aficionado with a sunburn. Fry is the furthest thing from it.

“Every day you get to be out here and be looking at this” he said, motioning to the golf course behind him. “From your morning ride-arounds when no one's out here playing and it's quiet…to mid-day when it's filled with golfers and seeing them enjoying it, to night time, before you go home when it's quiet again. So you get to see it evolve everyday.”

With a lot of teamwork and effort, soon it will evolve into something not even Fry has seen yet. And when the final Putt drops, he’ll finally be able to say “We did it.”

“Our staff has worked so hard to get to this point and they've done a great job. It's just neat to see it all come together.”

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