From the July 2016 issue of GCM magazine:
At the turn of the century, Mark Kuhns, CGCS, played a key role restoring PGA Championship host Baltusrol Golf Club, which doesn’t look much different now than it did for its last major. He does, though.
Photos by James Lum
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Mark Kuhns, CGCS, initially suffered from a case of cold feet. Ultimately, it was more like wet feet.
In late summer 1999, Kuhns returned to his Pennsylvania home from his first interview with Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J. At that juncture, uncertainty reigned. “I came home, sat on the sofa, staring into space,” Kuhns says. “Janet (his wife) says, ‘What’s wrong?’ I told her that I didn’t know if I wanted to do this again.”
Kuhns had parted ways that year with Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club after nearly a decade. Soon thereafter, he had begun conversations with The Toro Co. about going to work there. Although he calls himself a “dyed-in-the-wool Toro guy,” Kuhns continued a courtship with Baltusrol, which this month will host the PGA Championship.
Obviously, he interviewed well. Kuhns was the last man standing, even if that part of it was uncomfortable. Following his final interview, Kuhns was staying at a Newark, N.J., airport hotel when he received a phone call from Baltusrol green chairman Dick Fowler. Fowler spoke for 20 minutes, throughout which Kuhns figured that Fowler was letting him down easy, preparing to tell him the selection committee had chosen somebody else. Meanwhile, in his hotel room, Kuhns’ feet were soaked. “I was standing in water on a rug,” says Kuhns, the remains of Hurricane Floyd, which had dumped as much as 14 inches of rain in the area, soaking through his soles.
Finally, Fowler told Kuhns the job was his. Kuhns accepted. “There was just something in me that said, ‘This is what I do,’” Kuhns says.
He knew, though, that there would be no honeymoon period. In 11 months, Baltusrol would be hosting the 2000 U.S. Amateur. Being in charge of a golf course in a major setting wouldn’t be anything new for Kuhns, director of grounds, who had already overseen five major championships, including the 1994 U.S. Open. This situation, however, had much more at stake. Baltusrol — the legendary spot where Jack Nicklaus won twice and Bobby Jones lost, and that in time would earn National Historic Landmark status — was encountering a crossroads.
The greens were in trouble, perhaps putting the club’s chances of holding future championships in jeopardy — a possibility that would be unthinkable at Baltusrol, which has hosted 10 major championships, including a U.S. Open in 1993 (which was its seventh for the men, trailing only Oakmont’s nine).
“Having championships is important to us. We consider it part of the culture of the club. It’s woven into us,” says Rick Jenkins, PGA Championship tournament chairman. “Before Mark came, it was a fairly traumatic time for the club. I think it was a wake-up call to the club that we needed to come up with a new plan.”
“I don’t think, to my knowledge, the USGA put any pressure on us. But I’m sure it was in the back of their mind that they may have to move the Amateur somewhere,” Fowler says.
Well, they didn’t — and just look at Baltusrol now.
An unknown in terms of future major championships at the turn of this century, Baltusrol is now firmly back on the radar. Come July 28 through 31, the Lower Course will be the site of its second PGA Championship.
The PGA of America wasted no time swooping in and securing Baltusrol for its marquee event when the opportunity presented itself. In 2002, the PGA of America announced that Baltusrol would replace The Country Club of Brookline in Brookline, Mass., for the 2005 PGA Championship after The Country Club officials deemed that the type of resources the facility had used to hold the Ryder Cup in 1999 were no longer available.
Mark Kuhns, CGCS, and his wife, Janet,
with their granddaughter, Abigail Leyland.
Kuhns’ role made the decision to pick Baltusrol even simpler for PGA of America chief championships officer Kerry Haigh. “He knows what we’re looking for, and he’s done it,” Haigh says. “Certainly he’s experienced in the game, and in the business.”
Actually, Kuhns’ story in regard to restoring Baltusrol as a major championship cornerstone is more about reclamation. Hope. Deliverance. Not only did he deliver on those greens and, in the process, keep Baltusrol on the championship map, but Kuhns also reinvented himself. Since the PGA Championship 11 years ago, he has shed more than 100 pounds. “Somebody said, ‘You’re half the man you used to be.’ I take that as a compliment,” Kuhns, 61, says.
Bottom line: Baltusrol got the man it wanted in Kuhns. Just in time, too.
The King, drill and fill, and a champion
Arnold Palmer recommended Kuhns for the job at Baltusrol. He climbed the ranks of GCSAA, serving as president in 2009. Countless people consider him their mentor. Yes, the Kuhns factor looms large in this industry.
One of those he mentored, Scottie Hines, CGCS, never doubted that Kuhns was the right choice for Baltusrol. He also knew that the job facing Kuhns was daunting. But Hines, who was one of Kuhns’ first hires at Baltusrol, also never questioned Kuhns’ resolve. “When I got there, we’re 10 months from the U.S. Amateur, and we’re playing on 36 temporary greens,” says Hines, currently director of agronomy at Windsong Farm Golf Club in Maple Plain, Minn., who, along with the late Mark Hughes, CGCS, oversaw Baltusrol’s two golf courses. “I think I knew Mark well enough to know that failure is not an option. We were going to pull this thing off — or at least die trying.”
That sentiment doesn’t surprise Baltusrol Lower Course superintendent Dan Kilpatrick, who arrived in 2003. “He (Kuhns) has an ability to make changes, and make changes the right way,” Kilpatrick says. “He always has had the best interest of this club. What he does rubs off on us.”
Mark Kuhns, CGCS (left), chats with his two superintendents, Jim Devaney (pictured in the middle, Upper Course) and Dan Kilpatrick (Lower Course).
Before Kuhns was hired (he replaced Joseph Flaherty, CGCS), Baltusrol had brought in consultants to assess the greens, which had been damaged by drought and disease. Kuhns took ownership of his first challenge at Baltusrol like he would have as a teenager working at Laurel Valley Golf Club in Ligonier, Pa. Kuhns would come to care for his home lawn as if it belonged to him. “I’d look at those divots on the course, and it got me thinking about the bare spots on our lawn and how I’d make them grow again,” he says of his youthful adventures. “From then on, that lawn was mine.”
From his first day at Baltusrol, Kuhns was on point. He knew he had to be. The most notable reason: Kuhns was following in the footsteps of a veteran in Flaherty, who, like many other superintendents, had learned he didn’t always have the power to control what may happen to a golf course.
“Joe’s an icon, a beloved superintendent by many around here, who has done so much for our industry,” Kuhns says. “I knew that walking in his shoes would be a difficult task. Like Joe did, I’m working with a living entity that can change day to day. You can have the perfect storm of disease and drought, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do. Sometimes it’s out of our hands.”
Kuhns, though, was determined to leave his fingerprints on a successful restoration of those greens. Growing up in a golfing family, Kuhns credits his mother, Nancy, and father, Robert, for being wonderful parents, and brother, Terry, and sisters, Susan and Roberta, for always being there for him. Kuhns eventually attended Penn State. He never thought, though, that he had all the answers. Kuhns values others’ input as well as their support, such as that of grounds chairman Roddy McRae (“He cares deeply about the course,” Kuhns says). Kuhns also welcomed advice and consultation upon his introduction to Baltusrol. That’s where Norm Hummel, Ph.D., entered the picture.
Hummel, who has more than four decades in the industry and operates a professional soils and turfgrass business, recalls how Baltusrol’s Poa annua/bentgrass greens had disease issues, grubs and additional problems, including highly organic topdressing and hardpan more than 3 inches below the surface that prohibited root penetration, which negatively affected drainage. “It was sort of a double whammy,” says Hummel, who suggested that Kuhns should topdress with straight sand, which he did. “They (greens) were soft, conducive to disease.”
Hummel thought Kuhns should either try a deep-tine aerification, such as Verti-Drain, or drill and fill. “I was less optimistic on the drill and fill, because the subsoil was so poorly drained,” Hummel says. Kuhns moved forward with the drill-and-fill method. Several years later, when Hummel was visiting with Kuhns’ interns, he told them that although one can bring in consultants, the person in charge ultimately makes the final call. In this case, “It worked out,” Hummel says.
Indeed. “We double-drill-and-filled the greens, and water went straight down through the profile, and it was perfect,” Kuhns says. “And then they started to clear up, and they started to recover.”
Kuhns (back row, far right) with his senior staff.
The process included interseeding greens with Penn A-1 and Penn A-4 bentgrass, which, combined with Poa, launched their comeback. Kuhns also aerified 16 times before the Amateur, and used green covers. Decent weather, including the ability to mow early in 2000, helped. “We took off the covers in March, and the greens were beautiful,” says Kuhns, who, as an 11-year-old, was befriended by Palmer at Laurel Valley Golf Club, even earning $20 for cleaning his prototype Alcoa aluminum shaft clubs during a late-day practice session. “Good growth under them (the covers). It just got better and better. We knew we were going to be OK for the Amateur. Maybe not perfect, but a lot better.”
Even better than OK if you ask Tim Moraghan, who in those years served as the USGA’s director of championship agronomy. “It was pretty good — maybe exceptional considering where Mark had come from the beginning,” Moraghan says. “You just have to do it, and Mark does it all the time.”
When told recently that the greens at Baltusrol had needed significant work in the weeks and months leading up to the Amateur, Jeff Quinney was stunned. It was Quinney who drained a 30-foot birdie on the third playoff hole to defeat James Driscoll in that Amateur 16 years ago, a feat that had serious perks, including being paired with Tiger Woods the following year in the U.S. Open at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla. “I am shocked to hear they had been in bad shape,” Quinney says of the greens. “Condition-wise, I thought they (greens) were perfect. They were fast, but I made a lot of putts.”
Quinney’s endorsement signals that Kuhns and his staff had produced as hoped. And they still do, according to Fowler. “Mark would have to be given 100 percent credit for getting the greens ready for the Amateur,” Fowler says.
The apple of his eye — and eyeing the future
The scenic, signature fourth hole on Baltusrol’s Lower Course.
Major championships are a rush for Kuhns. Lately, though, his biggest high comes from a little girl. In fact, she may have saved his life. She has surely changed it.
Two-year-old Abigail Leyland is the Kuhns’ first grandchild, courtesy of their daughter Elizabeth and her husband, Simon. Six months before she was born in 2014, Kuhns made a life-altering decision. “The night she (Elizabeth) told me she was three months pregnant, I had an epiphany,” he says. “I weighed almost 380 pounds. I thought I’d never live to see that kid grow up.” Usually, Janet had made Mark’s doctor’s appointments, but upon learning of his impending grandparent status, Kuhns took matters into his own hands. “I called the doctor the next day,” says Kuhns, who has another daughter, Kristen, and a son, Stephen.
Following a strenuous six-week period in which he had hired a trainer and lost 30 pounds, Kuhns underwent a sleeve gastrectomy on Oct. 31, 2014. According to a December 2015 article in U.S. News & World Report, sleeve gastrectomy has become the most popular form of gastric bypass surgery, growing from 9 percent of all procedures in 2010 to 49 percent in 2013. Kuhns says that 80 percent of his stomach was removed during the surgery.
Several weeks ago, Kuhns weighed 265 pounds. His goal is to drop to 200 and, in the process, serve as an example for others who may have similar weight issues. The benefits? Kuhns can run up green banks now when he plays golf. He eats smarter. He wears a Fitbit to monitor how many steps he takes each day. He hasn’t removed it in two years, and he’ll proudly tell you that he once racked up 44,000 steps clearing paths during a snowstorm.
“He’s definitely more spry, without question,” says Baltusrol Upper Course superintendent Jim Devaney. “He’s always instilled in us to make ourselves better, and what we can do to make this place extraordinary so members gush over what they’ve just experienced.”
Kuhns no doubt gushes over Abigail. Enter his office and you’ll see for yourself. His screen saver features her image. “She was an inspiration. If I can enjoy my children and grandchildren another 10, 15 years, I’m all for that,” Kuhns says.
He’s definitely all-in on hosting the PGA Championship at the 7,450-yard par-70. It’s important to him, because it’s probably his last major. Kuhns says he and Janet plan to move to State College, Pa., after he retires in six or seven years so they can enjoy the sports teams there, particularly Penn State football. His heart, though, will always carry a special place for Baltusrol.
“When they brought me in, we got it done for them,” says Kuhns, who, following the PGA Championship, has the 2018 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship on the horizon at Baltusrol. “If I hadn’t come, they would have survived. But I do know this: Baltusrol has been the most rewarding place I’ve ever been. I made the right decision.”
When its future holding championships was at stake, so did Baltusrol.
“We have championship conditions day in and day out,” Fowler says. “I’ve never heard a member criticize Mark Kuhns. I think everyone puts him on a pedestal for what he has achieved — and it just gets better.”
Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.