Championship-Caliber Leadership: A Q&A with Chris Tritabaugh — Golf Course Superintendent, Hazeltine National Golf Club

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January 3, 2017 at 3:31 pm Category:

The Ryder Cup Experience with Chris Tritabaugh

Fantasy volunteer drafts, sisters ghost-tweeting and a Bill Murray story. Sounds like innovative leadership that equated to some amazing experiences for Tritabaugh’s team of 200 turf grass volunteers, and aided a win for the U.S. side.

Here’s a peek inside what made the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine truly unique.

Q: Did you set goals when preparing for the Ryder Cup? If so – what were they?

A: As a club, we had a couple wide-reaching goals for the golf course. 1) Have the course in the best conditions possible, which I suppose is a bit obvious. 2) To make sure the course was the field of play for a great event, rather than an area of focus. Both were accomplished, in large part because of the commitment from our members. They hit from mats for the month of August and the course was completely closed from Labor Day to the Ryder Cup.

From a personal standpoint, I also had a few goals. 1) To make sure our staff was able to fully appreciate and enjoy the Ryder Cup experience. Some of our staff had been looking forward to this event for almost 15 years, others came to Hazeltine specifically to be part of the Ryder Cup. It was important to me that the enormity of the Ryder Cup not keep them from enjoying the event as much as possible. 2) I didn’t want the enormity of the event to adversely impact my family. Certainly my kids and my wife enjoyed the Ryder Cup, but it wasn’t their life and I didn’t think it was fair to ask them to put a whole year aside, just so I could make it my life. I worked hard to strike a good work-life balance, even in the year of the Ryder Cup. In the case of both personal and professional goals, we accomplished what we set out to do.   

Q: How would you describe your leadership style? What type of working environment / atmosphere did you set? 

A: I am all about creating a work environment that allows our employees to enjoy what they are doing, who they are working with and what they accomplish. The Ryder Cup was the ultimate example of that. I wanted our staff to be able to truly experience the entirety of the preparations and hosting of this event; for that reason, everything we did was aimed at limiting burnout. October 2nd is a long way into a Minnesota golf season, even in a normal year. A staff can feel burned out and ready for winter by that time. With the effort we needed to put in, the potential to burnout well before the event was a great possibility. We tried to keep things as normal as possible through July, then started to ramp up in August, then went all-out in September. We knew that September was going to be crazy, but we also knew that by the time September came, we could allow adrenaline to carry us through the end of the event.

Q: How did you divide the duties of your 200 turf management volunteers?

A: As I put together and invited the volunteers, I also put together the assignments for the morning tasks. It was ever changing and I think we made our last edit about two weeks before the event. In one of the memorable moments in the lead-up, the group leaders, interns and myself sat down over pizza and hammered out the final job assignments for the morning. The group and task leaders picked the Hazeltine staff they wanted and the final pieces of the puzzle were put into place. It was almost like a fantasy football draft.

Lead Assistant Ryan Moy and Assistant Mike Graves put together the midday and afternoon assignments. They do job assignments all season long, so this wasn’t a departure for them, or us. All of the midday work was handled by the Hazeltine staff. I knew getting the chance to work among the crowds would be special and I felt this was a deserved reward for our staff.

(Photo/Chris Tritabaugh)

Q: What surprised you or was unexpected?

A: One of the unexpected items that came up was the fact we had more people around for the evening shift than we had tasks. This was mostly because of 1) the demand for volunteer spots lead me to inviting a lot of people, 2) if we had bad weather, we would have needed more people. But we had perfect weather. Early in the week, the volunteers who felt they were supposed to be working during the evening shift felt a little uncertain when they weren’t being assigned a task. A few of our staff let me know this feeling was running through the volunteers, so Wednesday morning, I addressed it. I let the volunteers know that we would try and work everyone into a task, but that if they didn’t have one, they should feel free to go out and explore the course on foot — to take it all in, in essence. I wanted to share as much of this event as possible with my peers and allowing volunteers to walk the course was one of the ways I could do that.

Q: For volunteers and superintendents, what were the estimated hours of sleep, week of?

A: My alarm that week was going off at 3 a.m. Due to road closures, my usual 10-minute drive to work took about 20 minutes. I was at the shop by about 4 a.m. Hazeltine staff arrived about 4:30 and the volunteers showed up around 5. By about 5:30 a.m., we were hitting the course.

In the evening, we finished anywhere from 7-9 p.m. depending on the night and what type of tasks we had going. Most volunteers were back at the hotel, or on their way home, by 7-8 p.m. and Hazeltine staff were generally home by 9 p.m. I know the volunteers had enough time in the evening to spend some time socializing together. Most Major Championships require work to go late into the evening, but the Ryder Cup offers a more relaxed schedule and we were sure to take advantage of it. Before I left each night, I’d spend about an hour going through and responding to tweets from the day. My sister Emily was ghost tweeting for me that week. Not only did she handle most of the tweets during the morning setup, but she also retweeted stuff from volunteers and set aside tweets for me to respond to in the evening. It gave people a great window into what we were doing that week and was quite enjoyable. As I mentioned above, I wanted to share with as many peers as possible; this helped me be able to do so.

Q: How did you keep comradery up?

A: Pretty simple really: let everyone enjoy themselves. The comradery that week was something no one who was there will ever forget. It was, in my opinion, the best part of the Ryder Cup.

(Photo/Jane Mackenzie)

Q: How much of a chance did you / volunteers get to watch play?

A: It sort of depended, but I think most of the volunteers got a pretty good chance to see a lot of golf, both on the course and on T.V. During the few times I was back at the shop, the chairs and couches in the volunteer headquarters were packed with people watching on T.V.

My credentials allowed me to watch play from inside the ropes and I did take advantage. I followed a group on Friday afternoon for a few holes. I was busy and didn’t see anything on Saturday. Then Sunday, I followed the Ryan Moore-Lee Westwood match from the 9th green through the moment the Cup was clinched on 18. My Green Chairman for all four years I’ve been at Hazeltine was the walking scorer for that match. We walked together and were standing about 25 yards off the 18th green when Westwood conceded the hole to Moore and the Cup was clinched. Pretty neat moment.

(Photo/Chris Tritabaugh)

Q: You said on the phone you felt a lot went right – what would you have changed?

A: With no reservations, I can say I would do it exactly the same.

Q: Any tips for superintendents when it comes to pre-tournament fundraising? 

A: This was probably the most difficult part of the prep. You need to have good relationships with your vendors. And if you do, they will be very likely to support you.

Q: I’m sure you have some amazing anecdotes about meeting the most elite players in the world in perhaps professional golf’s purest event. But I’m wondering: Did you get to meet Bill Murray?

A: This one made me chuckle; because the way you asked the question ties in perfectly to the reality. I had almost zero interaction with the players. I think that was mostly just my own personality. I never sought out interactions with them. If they had a question, or sought me out — great. But I didn’t go looking to have conversations with them. I had some brief interactions with the players when they were here on the Monday prior to the Ryder Cup, but once the week of the event came, I didn’t interact with any of them. I did however meet Bill Murray and it was at the closing ceremony. All of the Hazeltine members and staff were in a sectioned off area right in front of the stage. Everyone was happy and excited, it was a surreal scene. Our Ryder Cup General Chair, Patrick Hunt, came up to me and grabbed my hand saying “Have you met Bill Murray?” I said no and he pulled me up to the back of this very silly looking hat. He taps the gentleman on the shoulder, the hat turns around and I am face to face with Bill Murray. Patrick told him I was the superintendent and Murray said “Sorry about my divots on Tuesday, I probably made your job a lot tougher this week.” I laughed and said “Don’t worry, we found them all.” We both laughed and went our separate ways.


For more great on-course content, follow Chris on Twitter — @ct_turf.

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