Scout’s honor

Valhalla Golf Club superintendent Roger Meier, ready for the PGA Championship, was a Boy Scout in his youth. Judging by tough decisions he made on the job, it certainly looks like he learned long ago what it takes to be a leader.

Howard Richman.

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Sidebar: Eight is enough

Long before it catered to golf’s finest, Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky., was known more for being situated in a flood plain. It also just happened to serve as a Boy Scouts of America camp.

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Photo ©Montana Pritchard

Roger Meier participated in the Boy Scouts. He even proudly indicates that fact on his LinkedIn profile. Meier achieved the highest honor in the Boy Scouts by earning the title of Eagle Scout when he completed a service project that called for the individual to plan, organize, lead and manage it.

That Boy Scouts camp no longer exists at Valhalla. If it did, there would be no reason to look very far for their leader.

He’s on the property.

Meier, 18-year GCSAA member, is the golf course superintendent at Valhalla, where he already has put his leadership skills to the test. He didn’t have a whole lot of time to prove it, either. Less than three years since Valhalla closed its course for major renovations, Meier appears to have earned what amounts to a merit badge for his effort on the brink of something kind of big that happens there this month.

Roger did a wonderful job with a marginal golf course,” says former Valhalla greens committee chairman Mike Thorp. “At one point, you could tell that our course was on its last legs.”

As the final leg of the 2014 major championship season arrives, the world’s best players can see for themselves what Meier has accomplished in such a relatively short window. The PGA Championship, which is scheduled Aug. 7-10 at Valhalla, is the setting for Meier’s handiwork.

His brush strokes are recognizable throughout the distinctly different front and back nines at Valhalla, which could be considered young at 28, having opened in 1986. Still, it already has a rich history, hosting PGA Championships in 1996 and 2000, and The Ryder Cup in 2008.

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Photo by Howard Richman

Three years later, the Senior PGA Championship came to town. Within weeks of its conclusion, a mammoth renovation was launched. Meier, in the eye of it, needed to make crucial choices. One of them focused on what type of grass would be chosen to regrass the greens.

In fact, it arguably was Meier’s toughest decision of them all. This would be the second time in seven years that the greens were going to be regrassed. In 2006, Valhalla switched from Penncross to a Penn A-1/A-4 bentgrass blend. In the summer of 2011, heat and humidity had taken their toll, and action was in order. There was no time to dawdle, particularly since this PGA Championship was less than 36 months away. That may seem hardly ample time to restore greens that had become, in a word, unacceptable.

“Literally, you were putting on sand,” Thorp says. “The PGA of America was concerned. Members were disheartened.”

Scott DeBolt, director of JacklinGolf at Jacklin Seed Co., was perfectly blunt when asked the importance of Meier’s greens grass decision.

“If he made the wrong choice and those greens failed, he’s looking for a job,” DeBolt says.

Meier, 36, had been on the job less than a year when Valhalla reached a crossroads. Although it hasn’t been in existence nearly as long as nearby famed Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, it sounds as if Valhalla had a thoroughbred in the form of Meier to guide such an important project.

“He is the workhorse, the every-down running back,” says Valhalla PGA club professional Chris Hamburger. “He doesn’t need my help.”

Yet when Meier set out to create the course he envisioned for Valhalla, he leaned on others rather than becoming a loner. If anything, Meier was thorough in his approach to getting it right. Whether he visited other golf courses to collect ideas, spoke to endless industry members that he felt he could trust or bounce ideas off the course designer — none other than Jack Nicklaus — Meier showcased the resourcefulness of an Eagle Scout.

“This course is a flagship of the PGA of America. The whole plan for Valhalla during this renovation was to ensure it was one for the ages,” Meier says. “We wanted to set this place up for a long, long time.”

If anyone can make it happen, David Beanblossom knows it’s Meier. “If you’re going to build a golf course on the moon, he’s your guy,” says Beanblossom, superintendent at Chariot Run at Horseshoe Southern Indiana. “He can get grass to grow anywhere.”

A son finds his niche

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Meier and assistant superintendent Joey Downard
conduct Stimpmeter tests.
Photo © Montana Pritchard

Judy Meier’s son fooled her — a couple of times.

After she and Roger Meier Sr. had two girls, everything changed June 10, 1978. They were expecting their third child, and Judy assumed it would be another girl. She got a surprise at birth.

It was a son.

“I even said to the nurse, ‘Are you sure?’’’ Judy Meier says with a laugh, still sounding surprised to this day.

In time, her son, whom they named Roger, threw Judy another curveball.

“He didn’t want to cut the grass at our home, but he was very dedicated to doing his work at the golf course,” she says.

Trumansburg (N.Y.) Golf Club was down the block from the Meiers’ residence in this bedroom suburb near Ithaca. Young Roger Meier learned to play golf there and discovered a fondness for the entire facility, first washing golf cars until he was presented with a bucket and a screwdriver and told to pick rocks out of the 16th fairway.

It was the perfect time to be at Trumansburg. Meier was there when it evolved from a nine-hole facility into 18 holes, a key moment in his development when it came to shaping a golf course.

“I got to be part of the construction. I used an old topdresser that was belt-driven,” Meier says. “We seeded and I did some night watering, doing laps around the course with a hose and roller base. I even played in a night league there. It was my second home.”

School also proved to be a comfort zone for Meier. He got good grades, which ran in the family. His sisters, Heidi and Gretchen, both earned master’s degrees.

The Meier children were anything but spoiled.

“None of the kids got allowances,” Roger Meier Sr. says. “I clothed them, fed them, gave them a place to live. If they needed something, like a few bucks to go to the dance, they got it. The girls did some babysitting. Roger plowed snow for neighbors.”

At least, that is, until he went away to college. Meier landed at SUNY Cobleskill in Cobleskill, N.Y., which has become a cradle for major championship superintendents. In fact, make it back-to-back PGA Championships in which the superintendent attended the same college. In 2013, Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., was the site for the championship; it also is where superintendent Jeff Corcoran oversees operations.

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Valhalla GC is ready for its
third PGA Championship.
Photo courtesy of PGA of America

Other SUNY Cobleskill-schooled superintendents with major championships on their résumé include Russ Myers (now at Los Angeles Country Club), who hosted the 2008 PGA Championship at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla.; Mark Michaud, who hosted the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills; and Craig Currier (now at Glen Oaks Club on Long Island), who was in charge of two U.S. Opens at Bethpage Black Course in 2002 and 2009.

A link to all of them was SUNY Cobleskill professor Bob Emmons, who in 2003 received GCSAA’s Distinguished Service Award. Meier calls Emmons, whose office was adjacent to the greenhouse, his mentor. Emmons’ door always was open; and he knew how to open doors for his students.

“He was well connected. He knew the Latshaw group. We took trips to high-profile courses like Pine Valley and Oak Hill. He made sure you got the experience you needed,” Meier says.

TPC River Highlands was quite an experience. Meier landed an internship there while he was in college. A perk was being able to work the Greater Hartford Open on the PGA Tour, which convinced Meier that he was on to something special.

“That was an eye-opening experience. I got hooked on tournament golf,” he says. “It was just a different level of intensity.”

When he graduated in 1999, Meier found work at a famed facility. The Country Club of Brookline in Boston held that memorable Ryder Cup where America’s Justin Leonard drained a dramatic lengthy putt to secure the U.S. triumph. By the time he arrived there in ’99, however, the Ryder Cup had ended. Meier’s professional journey, though, was just beginning. He made $10 an hour to rake skeet fields, tear down or rebuild equipment and lived in the maintenance facility dorm at Brookline.

Soon, a new century signaled what would become a decade of comings and goings for Meier. In that span he would meet his future wife. Get his first big break. He even had encounters with a Golden Bear.

Here and there

Just call this Meier’s five-year-not-planned plan.

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Installation work at Valhalla GC.

It begins here: In March 2000, Meier left Brookline to take an assistant position at TPC River’s Bend in Maineville, Ohio, under superintendent Dave Faucher. He was part of the grow-in and construction process, opportunities that served Meier well down the road. “He came with good recommendations,” Faucher says. “I hire by first impressions, gut feelings. He seemed like he wanted to further his career. He turned out to be everything I thought he’d be.”

Faucher’s daughter agreed. Not only did Meier get the job; he also got the girl. He married Carrie Faucher — Dave’s daughter. Meier points out, with a grin, that he began dating her after he took the job.

Fast-forward five years. In March 2005, the Meiers left Ohio when Roger was offered his first superintendent job at Chariot Run Golf Club in Elizabeth, Ind.

And, five years later, Meier checked his voice mail in the summer of 2010. Valhalla general manager Mike Montague wanted to know if Meier would be interested in discussing the open superintendent position there to replace the retired Mark Wilson, who Meier worked for as a volunteer during the Ryder Cup.

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The 18th during the renovation process at Valhalla.
Photos courtesy of Valhalla GC

It seemed like a no-brainer for Meier to pursue, but it wasn’t that simple.

“I’d gone to Chariot Run to prove myself and get back into the TPC network. That’s where I wanted to end up,” Meier says. “Now, here I am getting a call about a Nicklaus course, owned by the PGA of America. I was blown away.”

In August 2010, the final stages of the interview process had been completed for the Valhalla job when Meier was unwinding with friends, playing golf on a Sunday at Chariot Run. He just happened to record his first hole- in-one during the round.

The following day, when he was back to work on the same course, Meier answered his phone. It was Montague. He wanted to talk about what it would take to hire Meier. On Sept. 1, 2010, it was Meier’s first day on the job at Valhalla. He says the same things now that he thought then.

“This place is unbelievable,” Meier says.

A man with some plans

When Meier showed up three years ago at the golf course of Ted Willard, CGCS, it was pretty obvious this was not exactly a social visit.

What gave it away? Meier was carrying a moisture meter.

Willard, superintendent at Hunting Creek Country Club in Prospect, Ky., was among the first in the region to install T-1 creeping bentgrass, which was developed by Jacklin Seed’s Doug Brede, Ph.D. Although it has only been a decade since T-1 reached the market (it was first released in late 2004), courses in the transition zone more recently began to give it a closer look because of its tolerance to extreme temperatures and drought as well as its Poa resistance.

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Meier and crew, from left: Chris Habich, Joey Downard,
Meier and Jason Sperring.
Photo © Montana Pritchard

The methodical and tireless quest for Meier to select the best grass for the greens at Valhalla impressed Willard. “That was smart of him. He actually came out here a couple of times,” says Willard, a 29-year GCSAA member. “He was energetic. I knew he was somebody who is going places. He is going to be prepared for that PGA.”

Meier certainly did his homework. Practically the day after he was hired, Meier began building his case for major renovations, which also included reshaping greens, a new irrigation system (when Meier arrived, Valhalla didn’t have green surrounds heads), a Precision Air subsurface aeration system, multiple bunker renovations and an expanded practice area. He knew the grass on those greens wasn’t performing to its full potential. Meier exhausted multiple avenues to correct the problem.

In a way, Meier went home to launch the process.

Hummel & Co., a soils consulting service in Trumansburg, analyzed Valhalla greens samples. Greens were gridded. Meier suspected greens weren’t draining nearly as well as they should because sewer pipe failed to hold up under the weight. Drain tiles were crushed. Organic and calcareous sand had degraded, basically turning into clay and silt. Meier knew then that a silica base was a must in the greens renovation.

In his pursuit, Meier sought advice and assistance from numerous people in the industry.

Former USGA agronomist Tim Moraghan visited him at Valhalla. So did Marc Logan, president of Greenway Golf. Among the first to supply Meier with his analysis of the situation was TPC agronomy regional director Dennis Ingram.

Meier crossed state lines to become well informed. He also shared information with Pat Franklin, CGCS, at Westwood Country Club in Vienna, Va. Franklin already had established his T-1 greens. Meier inquired, often. Their relationship has proved to be fruitful.

“The biggest thing is aerification,” says Franklin, a 28-year GCSAA member. “His method was different than how I’d done it. He is doing smaller holes and more often. I never did it that way. When I finally did it, it was a real success. I think Roger’s mentored me more than I’ve helped him.”

Valhalla lead assistant superintendent Chris Habich isn’t shocked to hear that.

“Roger isn’t old school. He’s new school,” Habich says. “He’s scientific. He thinks outside the box. Sometimes I’m like, ‘Where did you come up with that?’ He lets us be accountable and try things. I almost consider myself a superintendent the way Roger runs things here.”

Jon Scott, vice president of agronomic services at Nicklaus Design, was one individual whom Meier sought for assistance. If anybody knows Valhalla’s background, and its issues with greens, Scott does. He served as grow-in superintendent there. He referred to his 18 months at Valhalla as “a difficult grow-in.” He says several of the young Penncross greens had turf loss, and it took a fall growing season to get them back in shape. Obviously, that recovery didn’t last. Flooding issues hastened a decision to make drastic changes.

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Jack Nicklaus, at right, on the course he designed at Valhalla GC. With him is PGA of America President Ted Bishop.
Photo courtesy of Valhalla GC

“The moment of truth occurred after the Senior PGA Championship in 2011 when the greens just gave out,” Scott says. “That was Roger’s first full year, and let’s just say it made a pretty strong impression on him that something needed to be done.”

Dysfunctional greens caused a debate at Valhalla: Rebuild or strip down below the accumulated organic layers and regrass? The latter argument prevailed.

Meier considered varying types of bentgrass, including 007. He still gave thought to Penn A-1/A-4. There even was talk of a grass that has gained momentum in the deep South.

“We actually had a talk, and it was a very short talk, of possibly putting in bermudagrass,” Meier says, “just because of this whole movement. Someday, not necessarily here, I can see bermudagrass in this area.”

Meier received insight on T-1 from Bob Hogan of The Hogan Co. in Springfield, Tenn., who was his connection to Brede. “Roger is a very fair man, very conscious of what he wants,” Hogan says. “I could compliment him all day long.”

Ultimately, Meier picked T-1, which has a strikingly rich, dark green appearance. Unlike Chariot Run, a wide-open course with full sun and an abundance of air, Valhalla is more of a microclimate scenario. Some areas are shaded, and air movement in spots is a problem.

“I liked the versatility in the T-1,” he says. “I liked how well it germinates, its heat tolerance, and it had the most uniform stand I’d ever seen.”

Brede, who likes to call the product his “baby,” says that if he had introduced it 20 years earlier in 1984, half the courses in the U.S. already would have it. Besides courses in the U.S. that have T-1, China is big on it. You can find T-1 in Las Vegas and in Carmel, Calif., at Valley Ranch Golf Course (which was among the first to install T-1). It also can be seen in Bucyrus, Kan. That is where Tom Watson has T-1 on the putting green at his farm.

Brede understands why Meier was under the microscope when he picked T-1.

“The highest valued agricultural real estate in the world is a putting green,” Brede says.

DeBolt knew Meier was serious about T-1 when they jumped in a golf car one day during the pre-selection period. “We toured the course in a pouring-down rain,” DeBolt says. “He was telling me his vision of what he wanted to do. He just had it all mapped out.”

Meier never lost sleep over the decision, which came with the club’s blessing, as well as that of the PGA of America and the Golden Bear himself, Nicklaus. Still, Meier was on the spot. After all, Valhalla decided against hiring a project manager. Instead, Meier was given that role.

Thorp says: “I told Roger, ‘They are essentially giving you everything you want.’ I said, ‘You better produce or you’ll be in big trouble.’’’

Superintendent Brice Gordon of Otis Park Golf Course in New Bedford, Ind., who has T-1 greens and traded information with Meier, doubts that Thorp’s warning made much of an impact.

“Roger’s kind of fearless,” says Gordon, a 29-year GCSAA member.

There was some debate about whether to wait until the upcoming PGA Championship was over to begin renovations. Obviously, with such an important event on the calendar, it was deemed too risky to delay.

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The 18th at Valhalla GC, with its spiral-topped clubhouse in the distance.
Photo courtesy of PGA of America

“You’ve got to make a decision. I had a great support network,” Meier says. “You’ve got to do it and go.”

In November 2011, the back nine greens were reseeded; in March 2012, the front nine greens were reseeded. Six months later, Valhalla reopened. Meier, and others who matter there, now believe they are positioned for years of success. Valhalla second assistant superintendent Joey Downard knows Meier sank his heart into this.

“It seemed he was in every place at one time, going over things with a fine-tooth comb, the one goal being to make this place better,” Downard says.

Scott — who has met and collaborated with superintendents for years — believes that Meier is built to ensure Valhalla’s foundation.

That should come as no surprise. Meier’s Eagle Scout project all those years ago called for him to rebuild. On that occasion, it was a food pantry at the United Methodist Church in Trumansburg. He transformed a storage closet that was used to distribute food out of boxes and bags into a pantry that featured shelves and labels to make storage and inventory simpler.

“He uses future vision to know where he is going and what he needs to do now to get there,” Scott says. “Perhaps, most importantly, he is a great leader, motivator and organizer. If I had to put on paper the key traits I have seen in top golf course superintendents I have known and worked with, Roger would possess every one of them.”

Meier deflects praise as he puts the finishing touches on a new-look Valhalla that has his fingerprints all over it. “This isn’t about me,” Meier says. “It’s about the club. This industry. This profession. It’s about reaching out to guys who have tenure, who’ve gone through it, people who have had more experiences than I’ve had,” Meier says.

Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor

 

Eight is enough

This may not exactly be the Valhalla Golf Club you remember.

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Valhalla member Mike Thorp, left, and
superintendent Roger Meier got their way at No. 8.
Photo courtesy of Valhalla GC

Since it staged the 2008 Ryder Cup and 2011 Senior PGA Championship, Valhalla has had quite a facelift, as the world will note during this month’s PGA Championship. For instance, when the course was renovated three years ago, two fairway bunkers were added to the split fairway at the par-5 7th. On No. 2, the entire green was shifted to the left. A fairway bunker was removed at No. 15.

Although it may not necessarily catch your eye if you watch the championship on TV, one of the most notable changes occurred on No. 8. The 189-yard par-3, according to Valhalla member Mike Thorp, had become “an abomination.”

“In my opinion, the green was crazy. Multi-levels. Horseshoe-shaped around the bunker. Very shallow. All of the undulations. It was bizarre,” Thorp says.

This wasn’t the first time that No. 8 had been the center of attention. It was redesigned pre-Ryder Cup.

“It had severe contouring,” says Valhalla superintendent Roger Meier. “It was controversial. The members just didn’t like the contours. It was almost quadrant golf, so to speak, where you had to be in a particular area of the green. We just didn’t want to have the same No. 8.”

Thorp even challenged course designer Jack Nicklaus when the most recent renovation occurred. He opposed the idea of keeping severe undulations. Thorp told Nicklaus that to his face.

“Jack said, ‘If you keep messing with this, you’ll get bored with this hole.’ He thought it would present no challenge to us (members) and the best in the world,” Thorp says.

Meier and Thorp got their wish. Meier says Nicklaus ultimately approved softening contours at No. 8.

“The green turned out so good this time,” Meier says. “You don’t see these big undulations. They’re so subtle. You can’t figure them out. They’re fair, but the subtleties make it challenging. It’s a very fair green.”

— H.R.