From golf to the gridiron
As the NFL season kicks off, the head groundskeeper at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City reflects on his days as a superintendent and the transition from golf to football.
Travis Hogan, the head groundskeeper at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, began his turf management career as a superintendent, spending time at venues such as Pebble Beach and Blackwolf Run. Photo by Andy Lundberg
Walk into the world of Travis Hogan. As you look around, his surroundings will closely resemble what is visible in a golf course superintendent's space. There is a Dakota Turf Tender over here, a John Deere Pro Gator over there. Nearby, a Toro Reelmaster is in view. Look, though, above a door near Hogan's office. A large National Football League crest will catch your eye, which is the first hint that footballs, not golf balls, take precedence.
Hogan is in rare company. There are only 32 NFL teams, and he is the sports field manager for one of them, the Kansas City Chiefs.
Although he has made the transition from golf to football, Hogan can still put to good use what he learned as a teenager working at a golf course in Farmington, Mo. As football season comes into focus, as it does every September, Hogan was asked to compare golf with football as it applies to his job, which is highlighted by 2 acres of NorthBridge bermudagrass at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
"No frost delays. Whatever the weather, they're going to play. They (football players) just have bigger cleats to tear it up," Hogan says.
Was it a difficult shift from golf to sports turf? Not really, Hogan says. Both have critical traits that are alike. "The common denominator in golf and football is you want healthy turf and smooth surfaces," he says.
In some instances, though, golf and the gridiron aren't similar. "In golf, the superintendent can control traffic — where the markers are placed, using ropes and stakes — to prevent too much traffic in individual areas," he says. "In sports, you have no control. We never know where all the traffic is going to be in a football game. Sometimes they use the whole field, and sometimes the entire game is played in a 20- to 30-yard stretch."
Hogan, 42, never intended to be a superintendent or work in the NFL. Raised in the small town of Ironton, Mo. (population approximately 1,800) about 90 miles south of St. Louis, Hogan's school didn't field a team, and he had other aspirations anyway.
"I was going to be a golf (club) pro," says Hogan, whose home backed up to the seventh tee of a nine-hole facility. But he liked science and math, and learned that he could put those skills to good use working on that course. "I was everything from the weed eater boy to putting down fertilizer."
Even before he graduated from Rutgers University, Hogan had gotten a taste of the superintendent life, as well as of sports turf management. In 1998, he was a seasonal intern during the U.S. Women's Open at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis. Later that year, he was hired by the Chiefs, and in 2000, he became a full-time employee. Golf, though, remained in his blood. Hogan left the Chiefs for Pebble Beach Golf Links in California, which included a stint as assistant superintendent at Spyglass Hill Golf Course in 2003.
Hogan hasn't forgotten how much his golf course management mentors have meant to him. They include Michael Lee, CGCS, manager of golf course maintenance at Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits; Chris Dalhamer, CGCS, at Pebble Beach; Tom Huesgen, CGCS, who moved on from Pebble Beach and is now at Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish, Wash.; and Jeff Steen, CGCS, at The Links at Spanish Bay in Pebble Beach. Their guidance helped mold Hogan, who later worked as a superintendent at facilities such as Sullivan (Mo.) Country Club and Murder Rock Golf Club in Hollister, Mo. Obviously, Hogan made an impact on them, too.
"Attention to detail is something he quickly caught on to. It helped us create something we wanted, day in and day out," says Dalhamer, a 23-year GCSAA member.
Huesgen, a 24-year association member, says of Hogan: "Almost daily, at the end of the day, he would come to ask if there was anything else he could do. I'd take as many of those types as I could get. He went back and forth (from being a superintendent to sports turf), but all of it comes down to managing people, managing to high standards, being professional. Now, he's at Arrowhead, which is kind of a mecca. I'm happy for him."
Steen, a 17-year GCSAA member who was an assistant at Pebble Beach in those days, describes Hogan as persistent. "He wasn't afraid to call a spade a spade," Steen says. "I admire his can-do attitude. Travis has put himself in a place to be successful agronomically. I'd give him the shirt off my back to help him, but he doesn't need it."
Seven years ago, Hogan transitioned back to sports turf when he returned to the Chiefs as a crew member, and in May 2016, he was promoted to sports field manager and oversees a crew of eight. Another difference between what he does now and his previous experiences as a superintendent is that he serves as caretaker for more than football games. Arrowhead Stadium hosts a fantasy camp, as well as a 5K that finishes on the field. Topgolf staged an event there late this summer, and on Sept. 12, U2 will perform there. Five days later, the Chiefs will play their home opener against the Philadelphia Eagles.
"We'll re-sod the field (after the concert). Then, we'll paint lines, numbers, hashes and end zones on Friday. If we have time, we'll topdress, but we probably won't have time. And, we'll be concerned about what Mother Nature throws at you," Hogan says.
Here's an example: The night before the Tennessee Titans played at Arrowhead Stadium last season, the temperature dropped below zero. What did Hogan encounter when the tarp was removed game day morning? "The grass died as we took the tarp off. It was green as we removed it and was as black as your pants five minutes later," he says.
On home game days, Hogan sits behind the west end zone, helping to raise the netting for extra points and field goals. Before the opening kickoff, he has one thing on his mind. "Safety. Good footing, good traction. We want to see divots. I'm always nervous until we get a cleat in the ground," he says. "We want the grass to absorb the force, not the player's leg."
Hogan, a member of the Sports Turf Managers Association, also works about 40 Kansas City Royals games a year on crew setup at neighboring Kauffman Stadium, and enjoys the change of pace offered by baseball. "It's kind of like a fraternity for grown men. We enjoy being around each other. It's hard to leave that," he says.
What does Hogan miss about golf? "I miss taking care of greens the most, because they are the most challenging. There is nothing better than having a healthy green rolling fast and smooth," he says.
Hogan hopes to retire someday with the Chiefs. And if his wife, Vanessa, and children, Ella and Marlee, support his dream, following his football days, "I wouldn't mind going back and working at Pebble Beach," Hogan says.
Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.