Keeping Score

At U.S. Open, The Grass Man Has The Power

The Merion superintendent -- and Mother Nature -- controls the course conditions

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Golfers practice before the US Open at Merion Golf Club on June 12, 2013 in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.

Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, and the rest of the world’s best golfers aren’t the only ones sweating the start of the U.S. Open, which begins at the Merion Golf Club in suburban Philadelphia Thursday morning. For one man at Merion, the tournament is a career culmination, a chance to finally display his craft in a major championship. “It’s like you’ve waited your whole life to play Bobby Fischer in chess,” says Matt Shaffer, superintendent at Merion.

Mike Davis, executive director of the United States Golf Association (USGA), has called the golf course superintendent “the person that is most important to the success of a U.S. Open.” The superintendents make sure the greens are fast enough, the rough high enough, to challenge the golfers, while negotiating weather conditions that can wreak havoc on the event (rain has soaked Merion in the days before the Open, and the forecast calls for plenty more). And Shaffer, an affable 60-year-old from a small town south of Altoona, Pa., is one of the best. “These guys are scientists,” says Davis. “They are studying soil samples, trying to figure out how gallons of water per minute to run through the soil, looking at dirt under a microscope. Among superintendents, Matt is a bit of an icon. He’s someone of lot of these guys look up to.”

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Golf course superintendents are among the great oddball characters in sports — the behind-the-scenes obsessives who, if they’re doing their job correctly, stay out of the public eye (like, say, the chain gang in football, or the official scorekeepers at baseball and basketball games, or the guy who spots the javelin at the Olympics). “He breathes, eats, and drinks grass and dirt,” says Shaffer’s wife, Renna, who calls herself a “mistress,” since Matt is married to the course. Matt even insists on tending to a garden at home. “I tell him all the time, ‘you don’t have time for a garden,’” says Renna. “‘You already spend 100 hours a week around soil.’ But he says, ‘No, I just love growing stuff.’ It trips his trigger.”

Shaffer grew up on a farm, and worked at his first golf course when he was 17. While mowing greens and picking up rocks, Shaffer got hooked. “It was just the coolest thing,” says Shaffer from his office at Merion, during a chat in late May. “Just the coolest thing. First off, the dynamics were super cool.” Shaffer earned a certificate in turf science from Penn State, a breeding ground for top superintendents. In the late 1980s, Shaffer landed a plum gig: an assistant superintendent’s job at Augusta National. “I went in there with a chip on my shoulder,” says Shaffer, who left a head superintendent job at a smaller club in rural Pennsylvania to take the apprenticeship at Augusta. “Like I was a pretty bold guy. But as soon as I walked in there, I said, ‘holy crap, I’m out of my league.’ It was like a great college player walking into an NFL locker room for the first time. A whole different deal.”

Shaffer quickly learned that cowboy boots, blue jeans and flannel shirts weren’t proper attire for Augusta. “I was such a hayseed,” says Shaffer. “They walked me right across the street to a store, to get khaki pants and golf shirts and tennis shoes. Then, they walked me right across the street again to get a haircut.” After two years at Augusta, Shaffer took head superintendent jobs at clubs in New Jersey, Hershey, Pa., and Cleveland before heading to Merion in 2002. (Like, say, football coaches, superintendents bounce around from job to job while climbing the ladder).  Shaffer boasts of having “two .400 hitters” on his Merion staff, guys who know how to soak the soil. “I trust them with water — and I don’t trust that many people with water,” says Shaffer. “The great ones just know where they need to be on the course.”

Philadelphia’s unpredictable weather poses a challenge for Shaffer. “For growing grass, the Mid-Atlantic is known as sh-t city,” says Shaffer. He’d be “flabbergasted” if the fifth hole, a tilting 504-yard par 4 with punishing slopes on the green , doesn’t give golfers the most fits. The 17th hole is also one worth watching: when he got to Merion, Shaffer grew high weeds between the tee and the green on the 246-yard par 3. You either carry your first shot to the green, or suffer. “My boys don’t have any problems finding golf balls,” says Shaffer.

This U.S. Open course is the shortest in nine years. That lack of length, combined with wet conditions, could make this U.S. Open one of the lowest scoring tournaments in recent memory. “There are definitely more birdie holes than usual,” says Davis. “If you like lots of big changes on the leaderboard, this could be your kind of Open.” Merion hasn’t hosted a U.S. Open since 1981, and  Shaffer has a dream ending for the tournament. “I want the winner the hold up the trophy and say, ‘I can’t wait to get back to Merion,’” says Shaffer. “Then I win. It shouldn’t take another 30 years for Merion to get back on the U.S. Open radar.”

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