Returning the favor

The beneficiary of plenty of help and encouragement along his own career path, Oak Hill’s Jeff Corcoran is now paying it forward to a whole new crop of golf course management professionals.

Scott Hollister

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In nearly every career there are instigators. People who stir the pot, who nudge, cajole, prod, encourage and generally keep their charges on a path toward a brighter professional day.

These instigators are particularly prominent in the world of golf course management, where mentors such as these are common in every corner of the industry, and are regularly celebrated and revered. It isn’t hard to find superintendents who have enjoyed the benefits of such instigating and are eager to talk about it.

For example, consider the case of Jeff Corcoran, who oversees operations at Oak Hill Country Club just outside of Rochester, N.Y. With a shining professional achievement — the hosting of the 95th PGA Championship on Oak Hill’s famed East Course — looming on the horizon later this month, the 17-year GCSAA member has been taking stock of his own march to this particular place in time and the instigators in his own life who helped him along the way.

Folks like his older brother, Tom, a longtime superintendent himself who offered his younger sibling that first memorable glimpse into a career tending golf courses. “I remember exactly where I was when I asked him, ‘Can you go to college for this?’” Corcoran says. “And he just kind of looked at me and said, ‘Well, yeah.’ That really set my career path.”

Folks like Leonard Tork, a retired dairy farmer with a, um, colorful vocabulary who was the first superintendent Corcoran ever worked for as a teenager back at Stonehedges Golf Course in his hometown of Groton, N.Y. “I learned more one-liners with interesting words from that guy,” he says with a laugh. “He was a tough old bird.”

Folks like Bob Emmons, who for more than three decades guided students through the turfgrass program at SUNYCobleskill — including a veritable who’s who of championship-level superintendents who were Corcoran’s classmates — and won GCSAA’s Distinguished Service Award in 2003. “I was so fortunate to have him as a professor,” Corcoran says. “An unbelievable human being.”

August 2013 Returning the favor: main

The 13th hole on Oak Hill CC’s East Course, site of this month’s PGA Championship.
Photo by Montana Pritchard/The PGA of America

And folks like Paul B. Latshaw, CGCS, a beneficiary of a notable cast of instigators himself who took over the top spot at Oak Hill in 1999, while Corcoran was serving as the facility’s East Course superintendent. “That was huge for me. He took my agronomic acumen to a different level,” Corcoran says.

This trip down memory lane is more than just a nostalgic exercise, however. It’s also a glimpse into what drives Corcoran today as Oak Hill’s GCSAA Class A manager of golf courses and grounds, an insistence on helping others in the same way he has been helped and making it a priority even in the face of playing host to the final major of 2013.

“It’s always on my mind,” Corcoran says. “How well I prepare the guys that work for me is directly correlated to the level of success they’re going to have after they leave this place. I know what others have done for me along the way, so I feel it’s part of my job to return the favor.”

Monument to mobility

The walls of Oak Hill’s gleaming new maintenance facility (See “Home sweet home” on Page 48) bear tangible proof of just how important it is to Corcoran to help those who work for him get a leg up in the industry. Four framed golf flags adorn the walls of the break room, “a wall of fame, for lack of a better term,” showcasing former Oak Hill assistants who have gone on to manage courses of their own.

August 2013 Returning the favor: superintendent

Jeff Corcoran, Oak Hill’s manager of golf courses and grounds, knows the benefits of mentoring firsthand. And after seeing how help from others benefited his own career, he is now passing on similar help to those who work for him.
Photos by Mary Corcoran

“Those guys are here busting their humps for 80, 90 hours a week,” says Corcoran, “so I feel it’s part of my responsibility to get them into superintendent’s positions as soon as I can.”

There’s plenty of room on that wall for new additions, too, something that’s not lost on the club’s current crop of assistants, who know all too well how much working for someone like Corcoran during an event like a PGA Championship can do for their careers. And that next addition might come sooner rather than later, if all goes according to plan for Corcoran’s top lieutenant, Fred Doheny, who carries the superintendent title for both the East and West courses.

The Philadelphia native and nine-year GCSAA member knew all about his boss’s reputation when he came to Rochester from Shackamaxon Country Club in Scotch Plains, N.J., five seasons ago. He says the counsel he’s received from Corcoran over those seasons is a large part of why he is planning on taking on his first head superintendent position shortly after the final putt drops at the PGA.

“Honestly, this is what Jeff wants to see from his assistants,” Doheny says. “That’s part of the attraction of this place. Obviously, it’s Oak Hill and it’s the tournaments they’ve hosted, but it’s also Jeff and his place in the industry and his history.”

August 2013 Returning the favor: mentor

Fred Doheny (left), the superintendent over the East and West courses, says he has learned much from Corcoran, enough so that he’ll be heading off for his first head superintendent position following the PGA.

Chuck Zaranec, the newest of Oak Hill’s assistants who is less than a year into his journey as West Course superintendent, adds, “Jeff’s one of the best in the business, no doubt. His track record of having assistants move on to their own head superintendent positions speaks for itself.”

Sweating the small stuff

Whatever you do, though, don’t assume Corcoran’s ongoing interest in helping the industry’s next generation will somehow jumble his priorities come the first full week of this month. Even though the PGA Championship promises to be a bit of an old-home week around Oak Hill, the people that know him best — his family, his friends, his employees — say his legendary attention to detail and unwavering focus will keep him dialed in as he leads Oak Hill’s preparations for the PGA Championship (Aug. 8-11), the 11th major championship and third PGA to be contested at the club in its 112-year history.

“Jeff’s work ethic is second to none … and his attention to detail is just off the charts,” says Latshaw, who is now the director of grounds operations at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio. “He’s just one of those guys with a knack for growing grass.”

“He’s easily the most detail-oriented person I’ve ever been around, and I consider myself pretty detail-oriented,” says Phil Cuffare, another of Corcoran’s assistants at Oak Hill who focuses on the East Course. “Whatever it is, from the new maintenance facility … to working with the employees, he’s constantly pounding us on the importance of the details.”

August 2013 Returning the favor: dog

Molly, the trusty guardian of the maintenance facility at Oak Hill.

Even at home, the little stuff seldom escapes Corcoran. “He is all about attention to detail, across the board,” says his wife, Mary. “It’s a bit of a running joke at home because I consider myself a rather reasonable and tidy person. But Jeff is off the charts. I’d never seen anything like it until I met him.”

Upstate upbringing

As professional pursuits go, it’s been golf and almost nothing else for Corcoran since his formative years. The son of a machinist father and a kindergarten teacher mother, his very first job was on the golf course and he’s done virtually nothing else since. That wasn’t completely by design, especially in the early days. “It was a means to an end to play golf, and that was about it,” Corcoran says. “It was just a summer job, no pressure, and I got to play free golf six days a week.”

But those summers at Stonehedges, working for that grizzled old dairy-farmerturned- superintendent with his older brother by his side left their mark.

“Looking back on it, it gave me experiences that I never would have gotten at other courses. I mean, I’m 14 years old and I’m aerifying greens and running a triplex, driving around equipment I had no business driving around on a golf course. I would never let a 14-year-old do that here,” Corcoran says.

“But it was unique. I got a lot of good, early experience and just kind of built on that.”

That ultimate realization that maintaining and managing golf courses could be a career piqued Corcoran’s interest in SUNYCobleskill, a school about 2½ hours east of Groton with a two-year turfgrass program that had developed a strong regional reputation. It was there he would form the unbreakable foundation of his career, thanks to one amazing professor and a renowned group of classmates.

That professor, Emmons, made an almost immediate impression. “I was extremely fortunate to have him as a mentor, a teacher,” Corcoran says. “It’s hard to believe that this one guy leading a small, two-year turfgrass program in upstate New York … would shepherd all these guys who would go on to do well in the industry through that program.”

August 2013 Returning the favor: wall of fame

Corcoran honors former Oak Hill assistants who go on to head superintendent positions with a spot on the “Wall of Fame” in the break room of the club’s brand new maintenance facility.

As for those classmates from his two years in Cobleskill, their names read like a who’s who of America’s top superintendents. There’s Russ Myers from Los Angeles Country Club, who hosted the 2008 PGA at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla. There’s Mark Michaud, who worked at Pebble Beach before hosting a U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in 2004. There’s also Craig Currier — a two-time U.S. Open host at Bethpage who is now at the Glen Oaks Club on Long Island — and Jeff Kent — the former superintendent at Quail Hollow in Charlotte who recently took over at La Gorce Country Club in Miami Beach — and David Pughe — the longtime superintendent at the Garden City (N.Y.) Golf Club.

It’s a group that carries some impressive résumés, no doubt. But it’s also a group that’s been extremely supportive of each other throughout their careers, and one that has largely kept in touch since those days in Cobleskill. And to a man, they’re quick with their praise of Corcoran.

“The guy never misses a detail, never makes a mistake,” Myers says. “It’s not that Jeff’s a worrywart or anything, but he’s just always on top of things. He’s as well-researched a superintendent as I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t take him forever to come to a decision about things, but he uses a ton of information to get to that point.”

Inside information

Even after Corcoran left Cobleskill with his diploma in hand, his mentor there continued to affect the course of his career. While working to finish his education with two more years at Penn State, Corcoran landed a summer gig on the crew at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Course at Cornell University. While there, he bumped into Emmons during a turfgrass field day event, and Emmons inquired about Corcoran’s plans after finishing his work at Penn State the following year.

“I told him I was still trying to figure that out,” Corcoran says. “So he said he wanted to introduce me to someone, Joe Hahn, who at the time was the superintendent at Oak Hill. Literally within 10 minutes of meeting him, I had an internship to work here in 1994.

“Bob was always that type of guy, always looking out for people. He just knew where people were in their lives and careers and was always willing to help them out if he could.”

August 2013 Returning the favor: group

Corcoran (second from right) with Oak Hill’s current crop of assistants: (from left to right) Doheny; Phil Cuffare, East Course superintendent; and Chuck Zaranec, West Course superintendent.

That chance introduction at a Cornell field day has led to a nearly 20-year relationship between Corcoran and Oak Hill. The only break in that relationship was an almost three-year span between November 2000 and October 2003 when Corcoran moved to Boston to run the Weston Golf Club. “A great experience,” he calls it. “We did a ton of project work, I met a ton of good people and got to live in Boston, which was awesome for a Red S ox fan who grew up in Yankees country.”

Aside from that, Oak Hill and Rochester — through three different bosses (Hahn, John Gasper and Latshaw) and soon-to-be five major tournaments (the ’95 Ryder Cup, ’98 U.S. Amateur, ’03 PGA, ’08 Senior PGA and this month’s PGA) — has been the only professional home Corcoran has known.

“You know, I turned 40 in May, and when you hit those big milestone birthdays, you remember them,” he says. “And it dawned on me then that I had turned 21 at Oak Hill Country Club, I met my wife at Oak Hill Country Club — I don’t think I would have been able to meet a girl any other way because we were here so much — I turned 30 at Oak Hill and now I’ve turned 40 here. It just brings into focus how much of my life has been spent at Oak Hill.”

Kindred spirits

Latshaw’s arrival at Oak Hill in 1999 came at a pivotal time in Corcoran’s career. Still searching for validation that he was meant for a life in golf course management, he found in Latshaw, who had come to Rochester fresh off a stint at Merion, not only an agronomic role model but also a shining example of how to work and help others.

“(Paul coming to Oak Hill) was huge for me,” Corcoran admits. “Not only was he a good mentor but he ended up being probably my best friend. He taught me to grow grass at a championship level.”

August 2013 Returning the favor: course

The par-3 15th hole on Oak Hill’s East Course received the most notable face lift in advance of this month’s PGA Championship.
Photo by Montana Pritchard/The PGA of America

“Right away, you could tell that Jeff was just a wealth of information,” says Latshaw of his early impressions of Corcoran. “Jeff is a guy with a really strong scientific background … and he had formed some very strong opinions about the ways he thought things should be done and which agronomic programs would work and which ones wouldn’t at Oak Hill. I could tell right away I had inherited a really, really good guy that was going to be a large part of any success we would have at getting Oak Hill to where it needed to be.”

The quick connection between the two stemmed at least partially from the similarities in their career paths and the big-name courses and superintendents they’d been exposed to at a young age. Latshaw obviously carries one of the most well-known surnames in the industry — his father, Paul Sr., is among the most respected men in golf course management following stints at Augusta National, Oakmont, Congressional and Winged Foot, among others, and he remains an active consultant today — so there were myriad reasons for Corcoran to put stock in what he was learning from his new boss.

“I’m not sure the whole ‘Latshaw’ thing is any different than a lot of other superintendents who had established a network and helped mentor people. It’s a part of this industry,” Latshaw says. “When I look at the successes I’ve had in my career, it’s built on the leadership of the people that I’ve worked under. You like to see progression, and you like to see guys do well. Jeff understands that, and practices that with his guys.”

Practice makes perfect

Part of the reason Corcoran can direct as much energy as he does toward those who work for him in the face of an impending major championship is Oak Hill’s long and illustrious championship pedigree. As he says, “we’re wired for sound around here, so to speak,” so aside from being dealt an unexpected bad hand by Mother Nature in the days and weeks leading up to the tournament, Corcoran and the entire team at Oak Hill feel confident and comfortable as the tournament approaches.

“This place, and specifically this membership, has been through so many tournaments and it’s so important to them that there aren’t many surprises,” he says. “Whether it’s parking or on-course stuff … it’s overwhelming how good they are at what they do.”

That peace of mind is why Corcoran can actually look forward to, at least a little bit, some of the reunions that promise to take place during PGA week, to watching some of his current charges ply their trade at Oak Hill one final time and to helping others rack up just one more highlight for their résumés.

“I’m sure there will be guys coming in for a day or two here or there,” Corcoran says. “I think some of the old assistants who now have their own courses have committed to come back to their old stomping grounds. It’ll be fun.”

Corcoran wouldn’t have it any other way.

Scott Hollister is GCM’s editor-in-chief.

Home sweet home

 

After years of making due with an antiquated maintenance facility, Oak Hill will enjoy a brand-new, state-of-the-art complex for this month’s PGA Championship.

August 2013 Returning the favor: sidebar

Oak Hill’s gleaming new 30,000-square-foot maintenance facility — more than twice the size of the club’s old building — has been a “game-changer” for the more than 60 full-time employees who use it every day, says manager of golf courses and grounds Jeff Corcoran.

Throughout its storied, 112-year history, there has been plenty for Oak Hill Country Club to brag about. The Donald Ross pedigrees of its two courses. The long lineage of major championship golf, including three PGA Championships, two U.S. Opens, two U.S. Amateurs and a Ryder Cup.

Unfortunately, there has rarely been much bragging about the club’s maintenance facility, especially in recent years, when the old stone structure first built in 1954 by famed superintendent Elmer Michaels fell further and further behind the modern golf course management curve.

The building had just one bathroom and a break room with a capacity of 10 for an in-season staff that had grown to nearly 60 employees. It wasn’t air-conditioned. The club’s equipment techs couldn’t lift equipment more than six feet off the ground because of the shop’s low-slung ceilings. Equipment had to be staged at various locations around the property — including a 1946 Quonset hut that had been plucked from a World War II surplus pile — because there simply wasn’t enough room at the main facility.

“Dave Oatis with the USGA Green Section once told me it was the worst maintenance facility for a top-50 golf course he had ever seen,” admits Jeff Corcoran, Oak Hill’s manager of golf courses and grounds.

Fortunately for Corcoran and the team at Oak Hill who will tackle preparations for this month’s PGA Championship, those challenges are all just bad memories now. In December of last year, the team moved into an all-new, cutting-edge complex located on the southwest corner of the property. “It was like flying right out of the 17th century into the 21st century,” Corcoran says.

The desire for a new facility wasn’t exactly confined to just the maintenance staff. Oak Hill members had identified the maintenance facility as the club’s top priority for improvements in a property-wide evaluation. And several of those members stepped directly into the project, from builder Rick LeFrois, who worked closely with Corcoran on the facility’s design, to Jim McKenna and Rick Brienzi, who lent their construction expertise during the actual building process.

Corcoran got his hands dirty on the project from the very beginning. He and LeFrois even staked out the physical footprint of the buildings prior to the start of construction. “Me looking at a flat piece of paper doesn’t really work,” Corcoran says. “Spatially, I need to kind of get inside and say, ‘Hey, this room needs to be a little bit bigger,’ or, ‘This hallway needs to be wider,’ or, ‘The traffic flow here doesn’t work.’”

In the end, that attention during planning paid off. “There hasn’t been a whole lot we’ve encountered that we’ve said, ‘Oh, I wish we’d done that differently,’” Corcoran says.

And there have been other ancillary benefits. Moving off the site of the old facility at the center of the East Course has opened up prime real estate for additional corporate hospitality sites during the tournament.

Attracting and retaining staff also got a boost from the new home. “Staff morale has gone up,” Corcoran says. “They definitely take care of it better. And in recruiting new employees, it definitely helps. You bring a guy in … to a shop with one bathroom, a break room the size of a closet, he’s not going to be so sure about working here. Now, that’s all changed. This building is a game-changer in that regard.”

Same song, different verse

 

If making significant architectural changes to a golf course after it lands a major championship is an industry trend, then consider Oak Hill Country Club’s East Course a trend-buster.

When the world’s finest golfers take on the Donald Ross-designed East Course during this month’s PGA Championship, they’ll find a layout that has largely been unchanged since its last major event — the 2008 Senior PGA Championship — and, really, dating back to the last time the PGA came to town in 2003.

There have been a few nips and tucks along the way, and the introduction of graduated rough as a tournament maintenance practice — a first for a PGA Championship — will attract some attention, but “essentially they’re going to see close to the same golf course they saw back then,” says Jeff Corcoran, Oak Hill’s manager of golf courses and grounds.

If there is a marquee change to note, it is on the par-3 15th, a 181-yard downhill hole with a pair of bunkers guarding the left side of the green and a pond standing watch over the right. Before the changes, the pond was a full 4-5 feet from the edge of the green, the bunkers were elevated above the actual putting surface, and the entire green sloped noticeably from left to right, which limited the number of practical hole locations.

With Tom Marzolf of Fazio Golf Course Designers providing the vision and McDonald and Sons Golf Course Builders the muscle, the green was rebuilt, largely in an effort to “provide more (hole locations) and more exciting hole locations,” Corcoran says.

“We changed the bunkers, reshaped the surrounds and dropped the elevation of the left-hand side,” he says. “It still runs left to right toward the pond, but it’s much less severe now. We also brought the pond right up to the edge of the green, so it’s a little narrower than it used to be.”

Corcoran speculates that the newly created hole locations on No. 15, tucked tightly up against the water, will be in play on as many as three days of the championship.