Chris Gaughan: Bleeding green

By Ron Bellamy | Golf, Oregon |

Eugene Country Club’s superintendent and his staff prepare the course for the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Golf Championships

Six days a week, from April through October, Chris Gaughan arrives at Eugene Country Club at 5 o’clock in the morning, checks his messages and plans tasks for his greenkeeping crew — assigning greens, fairways and tee boxes to be mowed and pin placements to be moved, among other jobs — to be announced at a staff meeting that will begin precisely at 6 a.m.

Then Gaughan drives a cart into the pre-dawn darkness of the golf course. He doesn’t need light to find his way around. He’s 57, caddied here as a kid and has been on the payroll since he was 16 and superintendent since 1993.

He knows every inch of the place, the 25 acres of fairways, the three acres of tees and three acres of greens, the 66 bunkers and the 1,300 trees, spanning roughly 100 species, and the Latin names for all of them.

Gaughan heads first for the greens. In the heavy golf season, from spring through fall, he walks them in the morning and again at night. He knows where the hot spots are, which greens need extra hand-watering, and where to look for signs of disease in the poa annua grass. Greens are the lifeblood of a golf course, its most precious commodity, and each has its own micro-climate and subsidiary micro-climates.

In any tournament, the greens “are what everybody is going to be talking about,” he said.

For some weeks now, Gaughan has been preparing the ECC course for one of golf’s brightest spotlights — the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Golf Championships, with the Golf Channel bringing the competition, and the golf course, to the world. The women’s tournament begins Friday, and concludes next Wednesday; the men’s tournament begins two days later, on May 27, and runs through June 1.

The fringes around bunkers have been trimmed, and will be re-trimmed. More than 5,000 flowering annuals will have been planted.

To some degree, the course that Gaughan will present for the NCAA Championships has been mandated by the NCAA. The greenspeeds will be 12.5 on the stimpmeter for the men’s tournament, and 11.5 for the women’s tournament; easily, Gaughan could make them faster, and has for past tournaments. The rough will be 3.5 inches deep for the men’s tournament, 2.5 for the women’s tournament; easily, he could let it grow longer and tougher.

“I’ve done this enough that I won’t be nervous,” Gaughan said. “The only thing I sweat is the weather. I won’t sleep if I hear that (rain is coming). It changes hole locations, putting speeds, the set-up.”

That he can’t control the weather is a source of some frustration for Gaughan, because as superintendent he’s a perfectionist, vexed by a single weed, worried that a few birds pecking at the grass in a certain spot is the harbinger of an infestation of troublesome insects, mindful of the appearance of every bunker and fairway. (During the NCAA championships, Gaughan’s staff will mow at night, instead of in the early morning, when dew causes clippings to stick, leaving clumps on the fairways.)

“I bleed green, probably,” he said. “ECC green. I’m all about the course, and my staff. I do know I can’t do it all myself. Because I tried that in the beginning, and it would kill you.”

Led by “awesome” assistant superintendent Les Dunlap, Gaughan has a full-time crew of 11, with part-time staff swelling the number of workers to 20 in peak season, and including an intern from Penn State. Over the years, Gaughan estimates that 35 to 40 ECC greenkeeping interns have gone on to work for golf courses around the country, a tribute, certainly, to his stature in the industry; he’s attained the status of a certified golf course superintendent, held by only 10 percent of superintendents.

“He’s as good as they get, in my opinion,” said Scott Larsen, superintendent at Emerald Valley Golf & Resort, who consults with Gaughan frequently.

Born in Eugene, Gaughan figures he was 10 when he started caddying at ECC. His father, the late Dr. Bill Gaughan, was a member, and the son carried dad’s clubs, not that he got paid.

“He was tighter than the skin on a hotdog,” Gaughan said, smiling.

But Gaughan got to play, too, and as with any ball sport, he was very good at it, becoming a scratch golfer who plays now to a 2 handicap (which brings a certain credibility among the golf-playing membership).

When he was 16, and a student at Marist High School, Gaughan got a job at the country club “weed-whacking” the high grass around the tree wells, working weekends and summers through high school and college at the University of Oregon. He majored in business and finance but left short of a degree to caddie for his sister, Cathy Gaughan Mant, on the LPGA Tour in 1982.

Ten years older than Chris, Cathy Gaughan was a national collegiate champion for Arizona State in 1970 (12 years before the NCAA included the sport for women), played 10 years on the LPGA Tour and is now the women’s golf coach at Georgia State.

“The most fun job in the world,” Gaughan said of his three years as his sister’s caddie. Along the way, he met his wife, Debi, in Wheeling, W.Va. They’ve been married 31 years. Debi taught in the Bethel School District, and they have two daughters and three grandchildren.

After he returned to full-time work at ECC, Gaughan was tabbed as the heir-apparent to then-superintendent Bill Norman, and began working and studying toward that role. In 1988, he took nine months worth of agronomy courses at Oregon State University, and for the next two years worked for respected superintendents Bob Zoller (son of longtime ECC superintendent John Zoller) at Monterey Peninsula Country Club in Pebble Beach, Calif., and Dick Fluter at Oswego Lake Country Club in Lake Oswego.

It was a two-year apprenticeship as Gaughan returned to ECC in 1990 and became superintendent in 1993. He cleaned up the ponds on the course, implemented a policy of hand-mowing approaches to greens (because riding mowers left tracks and mud) and stressed attention to detail and punctuality on his staff. (He states that in 41 years at ECC, he’s never been late).

A superintendent has many roles beyond turf management.

“You have to be an electrician, a plumber, a financial guy, a leader,” Gaughan said.

Technology has changed the job. Gaughan presides over an impressive fleet of mowers and rollers, including four fairway mowers that cost $60,000 each, and his staff includes a mechanic. The ECC irrigation system, installed in 1996, features 2,000 sprinkler heads, each of which can be turned on or off remotely, from a laptop. His latest acquisition is a device that precisely measures the moisture in a green. He waters minimally, uses fertilizer sparingly and keeps up with scientific and ecological advances in pesticides.

And yet, technology is no substitute for what Gaughan’s eyes tell him when he walks a green.

During the NCAA championships, he’ll probably be at the golf course from 4:30 a.m. until after 9 p.m. each day, but during a regular work week in the peak season he’ll work from before dawn until mid- to late afternoon, then come back in the evening to check the greens. That late visit — even on Sundays, his nominal day off — is his favorite time of day. Sometimes, he’ll bring his grandchildren, and often he’ll hit shots and roll putts.

“My quiet time,” Gaughan said. “In the evening, this is where I come and chill.”

And where else? For Gaughan, the golf course at Eugene Country Club has been more than a job. “It’s basically been my life,” he said.

(Originally published in the Eugene Register-Guard, May 17, 2016.)

Comments are closed.