Feature Interview with Len Curtin
1. Where did you grow up? How did you get into golf?
I grew up in Jamaica Plain Massachusetts, about a 3 minute bike ride from The Country Club in Brookline. My dad was the manager of the Municipal Golf Course in Brookline, Putterham Meadows (now Robert T Lynch Municipal) that borders The Country Club. I began playing golf at age 6, and started shagging balls for the Pro at Putterham at 9. I did all kinds of jobs at the course as a kid, working at the snack shack, caddying, shagging balls, washing clubs, etc.
2. Under what circumstances did you turn golf course maintenance into a profession?
At 13 I began caddying at The Country Club, and did so through my high school years. After high school, in the winter of 1984/1985, I got a job on the Grounds Staff at TCC. The Club had just hired Bill Spence to oversee the restoration of the course under the direction of Architect Rees Jones. I had no idea we were literally going to go full bore restoration. 16 championship tees, 3 complete greens complexes (all established from seed), and every bunker redone.
3. You worked for four years helping to prepare The Country Club for the 1988 U.S. Open. What was that like?
We installed a new irrigation system, widened and restored the fairways, renovated the clubhouse, and built a new pool complex. All of this construction occurred within 3 years of the Open. I never thought it would all be finished and in championship condition by the Open, but Bill never doubted we’d be ready, and we were. We worked 80 to sometimes 90 hours per week, as we were at the time only a staff of about 20 people for a 27 hole golf course. I worked my tail off for those 4 years and loved every minute of it. That was the hardest working group of people I ever worked with, and we were like family. That was when I decided I wanted to be a Golf Course Superintendent.
4. You have construction experience as well. Tell us about your involvement with growing in a course in Portugal.
The Portugal opportunity came about around 1992. I had been an assistant superintendent at a club in Greenwich, Connecticut. My boss took a new Superintendent position, and I felt it was time for me to move on from my position. The NY Metro area wasn’t really for me. The position in Portugal came about through some business friends of my former boss at The Country Club. They were looking for someone to help with construction and grow in cool season turfgrasses at a course near the coast, in a small city named Rio Maior, about 30 miles north and west of the capital of Lisbon.
The Course was named Golden Eagle Golf and Country Club. The setting was rural, rustic and spectacular. Think desert southwest, New Mexico/Arizona. The owner was a wealthy business man who LOVED golf and envisioned himself as an up and coming golf developer. The land, vistas, and overall setting were fabulous. Unfortunately it was off the beaten path, and hard to get to. Golf maintenance in Portugal back then was 15 years or so behind us in upkeep and technology. Getting golf specific materials was difficult so we had to improvise quite a bit, and use agricultural materials quite often. It was sometimes frustrating, but forced us to be resourceful. The owner resisted opening Golden Eagle to the public to generate income. He wanted to keep it exclusively private, which resulted in his financial demise. It took about 4 months of getting used to, but after that I loved every minute of my experience there. The country, the people, the culture, everything! I still have many friends there and have been back to visit 3 times over the years. I hope one day to maybe retire or “relocate” there.
Sadly, the course finally closed 3 years ago due to financial problems. Last December I took my daughter Paulina there. The course has gone back to nature, but the outlines of the holes are still there, bunkers, tee signs, benches, plaques, irrigation controller pedestals. It’s all there. As I walked with my daughter, I cried. Glad to say, all my friends are still around, and they gave us a royal reception. Really touching.
5. You have been at George Wright for most of this century. Why did you accept the position as there are bound to be inherent challenges that come at a municipally funded facility?
The George Wright position came available in late 2003. The course had been run for the City of Boston by management companies for almost 40 years. Due to some shoddy work by one of the last management operators, the City had had enough, and decided to run it as part of an offshoot of the Parks and Recreation department. I had played George Wright as a kid during summer league tournaments, and during high school matches and had always loved the course. It was only 2 miles from where I grew up, so I thought that it was worth a look. Under normal circumstances, I would not have been interested in a Municipal position, as I saw the frustration in my dad managing a muni growing up. During my interviews, I wanted to be clear that the only way I would be interested in the position was if the City had plans to restore the course and invest money into the maintenance operation. I was assured by the Parks Commission that Mayor Tom Menino was planning to do just that. I began at George Wright in March of 2004.
6. What was the course like when you took over?
The course was is rough shape. Three greens were mostly dead. Another 4 or 5 had large areas of dead grass. The tees and fairways hadn’t been aerated in years. The management company had shrunk the fairways down to half their size, to save time and money. Large portions of the irrigation system did not work. There was no staff or equipment, as that all went out the door with the management company. We had to start literally from scratch.
With the full support of the Parks Department and our Golf Director, Scott Allen, we began improvements right away. Lots of aerating, topdressing, seeding, fertilizing, widening greens and fairways. Reestablishing bunkers that had been filled in. A lot of this work was done by summer high school students. A couple of years later, we began doing some reconstruction projects to tees and bunkers.
7. Let’s background the course. George Wright was a massive construction effort, requiring 60,000 pounds of dynamite and 1,000 men to get the job done for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. Walter Hatch led the project for Donald Ross. Given the rock content, how well does the course drain?
The course drains extremely well. The drainage schematic of the course was designed by the Army Corp of Engineers. Everything is designed to handle the extremes of weather, flooding etc.
8. Wow, that’s neat. The course that I saw and profiled in the fall of 2015 was superb, to the point where the course had been awarded the 2018 Massachusetts State Amateur, a remarkable accomplishment. Indeed, the State Am had never been held at a public facility in its 100 year history. Let’s talk about the transformation that you led from 2004 to 2015. What was your first significant plan of action?
Our first plan of action was simple: Try and grow back/re-establish good playable turf grass on our greens, tees and green surrounds/complexes based on what we could afford to do with in-house help. After a couple of years, things improved, and we began reestablishing turf lost on fairway areas, all the while fixing wire and broken pipe and decoders on the irrigation system. This was a real challenge, as the course was very busy, averaging 2 to 3 golf functions/outings per week while we tried to do this stuff. We have a small staff, generally of about 10 seasonal employees.
9. When did your turnaround work start to gain attention?
Our work began attracting attention when a golf writer for the Boston Globe came up to play in the spring of 2009. He had played the course in 2002, and swore he’d never come back because of the condition of the course. He was very pleasantly surprised at how far the course had come, and wrote a glowing article of our work, and ran it on the front of the Globe’s sports page. The City was very happy with what we were doing and the positive press coverage.
10. Did that positive press help with funding and additional resources from the Parks Department?
Yes, that was when they decided to get our Architect, Mark Mungeam, heavily involved in a capital restoration project. Mark has done a fabulous job of walking a fine line with modernizing the course, while being VERY sensitive and respectful work to Ross’s original design work.
11. How close are the green complexes to what was originally built?
The greens complexes/ contours are all essentially original, with the exception of some restored greenside bunkers. Even those, though, we took original drawings and tried to replicate them as closely as possible. The only green that has been altered was green #15. A previous management company before my tenure lost the green, and rototilled it to lay sod. So the original contours and some of the shape is gone.
12. What a few favorite holes/shots on the course?
My favorite shot and hole on the course is #17, par 3, elevated tee across a valley to an elevated green. Hole is about 175 yards, with a stone wall behind it. Looks like Scotland.
My second favorite is hole #4, another par three measuring 180 yards to an elevated green with a false front. 4 very difficult greenside bunkers need to be avoided.
13. When and how did you learn that the course had been awarded the 2018 State Amateur? Did you view that as the ultimate compliment?
The State Am was a slowly developing thing. We had hosted a few qualifiers for the Mass Open and Mass Am in the early part of the decade with very positive feedback. The MGA (now MassGolf) really liked the course, site and golf staff as a location for their events. So our relationship with them was very positive. MGA then gave us the 2012 Massachusetts Public Links Championship, which was a tremendous success.
From there, discussions began in 2015 on hosting the Men’s State Amateur in 2018. On a side note, in the spring of 2018, the MGA merged with WGAM (Women’s Golf Association of Massachusetts), so they asked up to host the Women’s State Am two weeks after the Men’s tournament, in the middle of August. So we did both tournaments, two weeks apart and they came together great.
14. Who else deserves a shout out for making this turnaround possible?
In no particular order:
Scott Allen -Director of Golf, Mark Mungeam – Golf Architect, Bernard Lynch – Past Parks Director, Dennis Roache – Past Finance Manager, the late Tom Menino – Mayor of Boston, Martin J Walsh – present Mayor of Boston, Christopher Cook – Director of Environmental City of Boston, Ryan Woods – Parks Commissioner City of Boston, Tony Alvarez – George Wright Golf Course Mechanic. In regards to Tony, I really could NOT do this job without his help and hard work.
15. What challenges persist?
The biggest challenges we face each season is very similar to most municipal golf operations, namely Operating Budgets and Staffing.
While the City does an admirable job at funding our material needs, we are always having difficulty finding and keeping grounds staff employees. It seems we never have enough people to do the work.
Although this is an entire golf industry problem, we need to recognize the hard work, dedication, and talent necessary to become a polished, professional golf maintenance employee. As an industry, we need to begin paying these professionals what they’re worth.
16. What impact did Covid have this year?
During the Covid health crisis, our maintenance operation contracted by about 50% staffing. This was not a mandate by the City, but rather mostly a problem finding people that want to go to work during the pandemic. For us, we are operating with a small staff (seven seasonal laborers), so we do the basics to keep the course clean and playable. The good news is that we have been REALLY busy, doing about 40,000 rounds of golf this season.
17. What is required for George Wright to be presented in the manner in which it deserves?
Because George Wright is a very difficult property to maintain, in an ideal world, we would have a staff of 16 to 20 crew members, a full time mechanic, and two Assistant Superintendents to help with fertility, spraying, construction projects, winter brush removal etc.
18. Well, you are well short of having the kind of manpower that you need, so good luck remedying that. In parting, literally – and no exaggeration – tens of thousands of golfers would like to say THANK YOU for all that you have done. What does the future hold for Len Curtin?
I’m not sure. I would love some day to perhaps work and live again in Portugal. I also love Nova Scotia, Canada, where I spent my summers as a young child with my cousins. I love both places for their natural beauty and salt of the earth, friendly people. For now, my daughter is a senior in high school, and I need to get my daughter through college (LOL)!