This article appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of LINKS.
As he does most mornings, Matt Shaffer is walking Merion’s East Course when he comes to the green of the short, par-three 13th and points out a patch of clover just to the left of the cavernous front bunker. A couple of dandelions grow a few yards away. What would mortify most superintendents is a badge of honor to Shaffer. “One of my guys said to me, ‘You know, we’ve got weeds out there?’” Shaffer recalls with glee, “and I said, ‘Yeah, isn’t it awesome?’”
This mad mower is the guy responsible for staging this year’s U.S. Open? Yep. And the USGA Executive Director Mike Davis couldn’t be happier. “There’s no one that has more influence on the success of a U.S. Open, if you set Mother Nature aside, than the golf course superintendent,” he says. “And Matt is just fantastic. The things he’s done to Merion to make it a better course day-to-day for the members, but also for a U.S. Open, I just can’t give him enough accolades.”
What Shaffer has done at Merion since arriving in 2002 is not only return the East Course to its legendary championship conditions—it’s hosted more national championships than any other course—but create one of the most environmentally friendly operations in the country by not worrying about how the grass looks. It’s a big reason he won the 2012 Environmental Leaders in Golf Award in the National Private category.
“We have total disregard for the grass,” he says. “I know that sounds bizarre but that’s just the way I operate. This course doesn’t have a homogenous stand of bent or anything anywhere. Our greens have anywhere from five to nine different varieties of bent. Mr. Davis really likes our rough because it’s so inconsistent.”
All Shaffer cares about are playing conditions, aesthetics be damned. “Aesthetics have really driven the cost of golf out of sight in my opinion,” he says. “You can’t sustain it. You can’t keep hammering people for five percent dues increases. We need to reel it back. There’s no shame in losing grass. It’s nature. If golf course superintendents didn’t have to worry about every single blade of grass being perfect cosmetically, it would be a far better game.”
Dressed in a dark blue U.S. Open parka, chinos, and waterproof boots, Shaffer, 60, is sitting behind his desk in the club’s new, award-winning turf-care center just off the 18th fairway. A 12,000-square-foot grass roof not only helps camouflage the building from players on the course, it saves $3,000 a year in electrical costs. Used motor oil heats the radiant floor in the mechanic’s bay while a recycled wash area uses just 500 gallons of water a year to clean 90 pieces of equipment.
Of course, his innovative water management also extends to the course, where moisture sensors tell him when it’s absolutely necessary to water. Shaffer’s maxim is “the drier, the better.” “Water is the root of all evil,” he says. “It starts the cycle. You’re flushing nutrients with a tremendous amount of water, so you lose all of them. Then it becomes more succulent so you get more disease. But when you pull the water out, you’re going to lose some grass.”
The Merion members can live with brown around the edges of their course, but what really irks some of them are the shaggy bunkers with their clumpy grass faces on top. “I have a pretty cavalier approach to maintaining bunkers,” say Shaffer, a Pennsylvania native who oversees a staff of about 55. “In my opinion, there’s way too much money spent on bunkers. They’re hazards for Pete’s sake, not ‘on-purposes.’ The grass faces are just horrendous. They’re incredibly controversial here. They’re full of pits. They’re just flat nasty. You can lose your ball in them. It’s probably 90 percent of my angst because the members hate it so bad.”
Unlike most superintendents—who live in fear of losing their jobs—the burly but affable Shaffer is so confident in what he’s doing that he isn’t afraid to take risks. Perhaps that’s what makes him so good. It also helps that he and wife Renna have a profitable side business remodeling homes.
“There’s no job security in this business,” he says. “None. My wife says it’s like marrying a football coach though not nearly as lucrative. We don’t have one boss, we’ve got hundreds, so most of us get nervous. You have a tendency not to be a risk-taker because you’re always afraid of losing grass.”
You’d never guess that Shaffer learned much of what he knows working at Augusta National from 1986–88 for the legendary Paul Latshaw Sr., who is renowned for fine-tuning. When Shaffer arrived at Merion from The Country Club in Cleveland—with marching orders from the green committee to get the course in championship shape—his first order of business was to watch the members play. “There was no high grass,” he recalls with a smirk. “They’d tee it up on 14 and just cut right across that left-hand corner. There was no penalty if they came up short, so I stripped off all the top soil and grew high grass in there. Then I forced them into the bunkers on the right. We’ve done that on several holes.”
Other than narrowing the fairways (there are now 18 acres of fairway, down from 26), shifting a few of them closer to OB (most notably at the par-five 2nd), and growing the rough a little longer, the set-up for the U.S. Open won’t be all that different from how it plays every other day. If the weather cooperates and conditions get fast and firm during the Open, Shaffer thinks the winning score will be about five or six under par, despite the course playing less than 7,000 yards.
“The USGA will say, ‘Hey, we went to a great old classic and as far as we’re concerned it did a great job of defending par,’” he says. “My whole premise for hosting this thing is to make sure the members get to decide whether they want to host another one, not because the golf world says they can’t come back here because the pros tore it up. That’s my responsibility from my perspective.”