There was no pot ’o gold at the end of the rainbow for the U.S. team at this year’s Ryder Cup. The European team beat their American hosts 14.5–13.5. Here, assistant superintendent Ryan Cummins waters the first green near a string of corporate tents. (Photo provided.)
Ryder Cup runneth over with Purdue pride
By Tom Campbell
The opening match of the 2012 Ryder Cup was more than two hours away. Morning darkness enveloped the bleachers surrounding the first tee at Medinah Country Club’s daunting Course 3 in the well-heeled suburbs west of Chicago.
There wasn’t a seat to be had. In the rollicking darkness that had to be seen to be believed, fans were just as prepared for a party as they were for what has become the biggest tournament in golf.
American fans chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and sang any song they could think of with the word “America” in it. European fans countered with their unofficial team anthem, which loosely translates to “Olé, Olé-olé, Olé!”
This was not your normal golf tournament.
But then again, Medinah’s Course 3 isn’t your normal golf course. One of the true crown jewels of golf, Course 3 has hosted three U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships and now this, the 38th Ryder Cup, matching America’s 12 best golfers with the 12 best Europe has to offer in a team event.
Course 3 has plenty of golf-ball-devouring trees and a lake big enough to water-ski on. But mostly it has mammoth length. The beastly, 7,600-yard course is so long that it doesn’t even need a rough to bring the world’s best golfers to their knees.
Ryan Cummins stood quietly near the first tee, soaking in the raucous atmosphere of that opening round on Sept. 28. It was unlike anything he had ever experienced on a golf course. He’s the assistant superintendent at Course 3, part of the team responsible for grooming the course into the emerald and azure jewel that looks even better in person than it does on high-definition television.
The first hole was one of the six his team maintained during the tournament (2, 7, 8, 15 and 16 were the others). And it may have been the craziest.
His goose bumps had goose bumps.
“I just stood there for 20 or 30 seconds before I went back to work,” said Cummins. “I was overwhelmed. We had been working toward this moment since 2009. Now it was finally here, and it finally sunk in, what it all meant to be able to host the Ryder Cup. It was still dark and these people were just going crazy. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.”
The golf course superintendent fraternity is a tight one. And many of them converged on Medinah in September to help prepare Course 3 and to be a part of the Ryder Cup.
Former Purdue classmates (from left) Ryan Cummins, Nate Fair and Matt Sumpter all worked at the 2012 Ryder Cup. (Photo provided.)
“We’re all really proud of Ryan,” said Nate Fair, a Purdue classmate of Cummins, superintendent at the Delaware Country Club in Muncie and a Ryder Cup volunteer.
“It’s great to see him succeed at the highest level of the profession,” said Fair, who also earned his associate’s degree in 2009.
Cummins had parlayed a good impression from his Medinah internship in 2009 to secure a full-time job as an irrigation technician upon earning his associate’s degree from Purdue’s turf science and management program in May of the same year.
Ryan Cummins (foreground) led a crew that maintained six holes at the Ryder Cup, including No. 15, where a lake was added to challenge the driving accuracy of the golfers. (Photo provided.)
Not long after that, under the direction of the Professional Golfers’ Association of America – the PGA – Medinah began to look as much like a construction site as a golf course.
“The infrastructure was amazing,” said Fair. “Medinah became a mini-city with tents, grandstands and towers everywhere.”
“It really started in December of 2010,” Cummins said. “They started moving guys in and put up trailers for them to work out of.”
A crew including Ryan Cummins (pointing finger) check out the first green long before the players get to the course. That’s Purdue agronomy professor Cale Bigelow behind Cummins. (Photo provided.)
The advance troops consisted of a half dozen men, the construction managers of the Ryder Cup project.
The heavy lifting started in June 2011. Grandstands were erected, TV towers, hospitality tents and concession stands began popping up like mushrooms on the perimeter of the course. Two driving ranges were built out of holes on Course 1.
The normal maintenance crew for Course 3 is about 30 people. In the week leading up to the Ryder Cup, Cummins said all available help was pulled onto Medinah’s tournament course, where attention to detail became of paramount importance – even the hundreds of sprinkler heads scattered throughout the course got a good wipe-down with polish.
Ryan Cummins sprays the inside of the cup with white paint to make the hole stand out for spectators, television viewers and the golfers. (Photo provided.)
“During the final few weeks, I think we had 85–90 people working on the course,” Cummins said.
“These were the top professionals from all over the country, not just your average `Joe Schmoe’ golfers volunteering to help stage the greatest golf tournament in the world,” Fair said. “It was great just to be a part of it all.”
Fair pulled similar duty at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif. But he says the Ryder Cup blew that experience out of the water.
“The Ryder Cup was unbelievable,” Fair said. “It was a career highlight just being involved in something that huge.”
As the clock ticked closer to the tournament, each workday started earlier and lasted longer than the previous one. Crews were on site just after 5 a.m. to groom the course to the exacting specifications of the PGA. The workdays got so long that Cummins and several co-workers stayed on the course around the clock the entire week of the event.
“We put up tents at the end of the driving range and camped out,” Cummins said. “It was fun. We’d work all day, then go to our tent city, sit around the campfire and shoot the breeze, go to sleep and do it all over again the next day.”
It was an even longer but no less enjoyable week for Don Cross, BS ’78. The superintendent at nearby Skokie Country Club since 1991, Cross commuted between his full-time job at the Skokie course and a moonlight job at Medinah just so he could be a part of the Ryder Cup experience.
“We had a great core of volunteers who just did whatever we were asked to do: fill in divots, rake the bunkers, clean up debris like leaves and acorns – anything. It was a lot of fun.”
For Matt Sumpter, BS ’10, working the Ryder Cup was like attending a family reunion for everyone named Smith: huge.
“We were like a giant family up there,” said Sumpter, an assistant superintendent at the Ford Plantation near Savannah, Ga. “All of the superintendents are like family members. There are no outsiders.”
Sumpter interned at Medinah a year after Cummins.
“It was something special to be able to return there,” Sumpter said. “With everybody back working the Ryder Cup, it was like seeing just how far your family extends.”
Sumpter’s employers encourage him to work one tournament a year away from his home course. Working the Ryder Cup was an easy call to make.
“This was easily the greatest sporting event I’ve ever been a part of,” said Sumpter, who was willing to do anything to help out his extended family.
“I wasn’t too proud to sweep the floor or pick up trash. That’s just what you do to help out your family members in a time of need.”
Chase Bonnell commuted each day from his full-time job at Rich Harvest Farms to volunteer at the Ryder Cup and work with his former Purdue classmates. (Photo provided.)
Chase Bonnell, BS ’09, said working the Ryder Cup made him feel like he was back in school at Purdue – that is, if his classes at Purdue included 40,000 cheering fans.
“I got a chance to work with guys I went to class with and studied with at Purdue,” said Bonnell, assistant superintendent at the Rich Harvest Farms course in nearby Sugar Grove, Ill.
“It was cool to be able catch up with those guys I spent countless hours with at Purdue.”
By their nature, superintendents are what Bonnell calls “turf nerds.” But Bonnell also calls himself a “golf geek.” His family runs three golf courses in northern Indiana, and his dad is a PGA professional.
Being inside the ropes at the Ryder Cup gave him a unique perspective on the golfers as well as on the course he helped prepare each day of the tournament.
“I always marvel at just how good these guys are,” said Bonnell. “I grew up watching Tiger Woods on TV. To see him live was pretty cool.”
By all reports, the week was a flawless success for everyone, save the American team, losers to the European team by the slimmest margin of a half point after three rounds.
“We heard great things all week about the condition of the course,” said Cummins. TV personality David Feherty addressed the crew Sunday morning to congratulate them on their course preparation.
“Nobody on the outside understands all of your hard work and dedication,” Feherty said. “But I do. And my hat goes off to you.”
Sumpter echoed Feherty’s comments.
“Ryan and the rest of the Medinah staff truly rose to the occasion in preparing the course for the tournament,” he said. “It was a privilege to be a part of the process.”
In 2004, Cummins got a job at the Sugar Ridge Golf Course near his home in Moores Hill, Ind. He thought he could make a little money and improve his golf game at the same time, but he never considered making it a career. He had wanted to be a conservation officer.
As a student at Franklin College, Cummins worked at the Legends Golf Club in Franklin, Ind., for superintendent Tim Kahle, BS ’01, who put him in touch with Zac Reicher, a professor of turf sciences at Purdue.
“I just overloaded him with questions,” Cummins said. “I started to think that this could lead to a career.”
Cummins transferred to Purdue in 2008 and worked on the two campus courses.
Now, with a Ryder Cup under his belt, Cummins is beginning to look at the possibility of becoming the head superintendent at another course in the area of Chicago and northern Indiana.
But he doubts anything will match that feeling he had on the first tee when it sounded like the golfing world was about to explode.
“It’s going to be tough to top that moment,” Cummins said.