Dave Johnson, a native Massachusettsan, came to The Country Club in 2018. He describes the transition as “turnkey” thanks to the experience of the staff he inherited. Photos by James Sylvia/westtenthmedia.com
If Dave Johnson felt any anxiety over the thought of overseeing care for some of the most hallowed golf grounds in all of America, he didn’t let it show.
“Oh, my word, it was such a huge job to apply for,” says Johnson, GCSAA Class A superintendent and director of grounds at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. “Just to get an interview was a huge accomplishment for me. During my interview,
I was able to relax, be myself and stay grounded to who I am and what I know. I had a mindset that I made it to this point for a reason, and this search committee will either want the person I am and the value I bring, or they will pass. I showed
them who I was as a leader, and I stayed true to those fundamentals.
“It was intimidating, but I stayed focused and was able to communicate my story effectively. My goal through the interview process was to show what I know, who I was and what I could bring to them, and I think that came through. I was able
to relax and be myself, and it worked out.”
But don’t let Johnson’s unflappable approach to taking the reins at TCC, as he did in February 2018, fool you into thinking he doesn’t appreciate the gravitas of the gig. He was — and is — well aware of the history there,
of its special place in American golf lore.
Lest Johnson’s recollection ever wanes, all it takes is a quick spin around the grounds — which later this month will host its fourth U.S. Open — to snap it back into focus.
“When you pull into this property,” says Johnson, a 22-year GCSAA member, “it just feels like stepping back in time. I do not take it for granted. It’s a special place. The whole property has a special aura about it. I feel very
fortunate to be here.”
‘A happy place’
Johnson’s golf industry origin story isn’t unique, except in the details.
When he was in seventh grade, his parents moved across the street from Nichols College Golf Course in Dudley, Mass., where he and his friends sneaked on to play. As a junior in high school, he started working on the grounds crew and “fell in love
with the game,” he says. “I fell in love with the work.”
After high school, he headed off to college with no real plan for a post-college career. After a few stints back on the grounds crew between semesters, he found his path.
“I realized it put me in a happy place every time I was on the golf course,” Johnson says. “I decided it was a career I wanted to go after.”
The TCC grounds team applies compost to the rough on Open Course No. 17. The 122nd U.S. Open will be contested on a composite course not used for any of the three previous Opens.
After graduation with a bachelor’s degree in plant and soil science with a concentration in business management from University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1997, Johnson — a native Massachusettsan — had a few assistant roles before landing
his first head superintendent job at Whitinsville (Mass.) Golf Club. In his 10 years at Whitinsville GC, Johnson worked with Gil Hanse on a master plan to restore the 1925 Donald Ross design. Then it was off to Wianno Club in Osterville, Mass., where
he served four years as golf and grounds superintendent and oversaw projects that included rebuilding most of the course’s bunkers and tees and a drainage overhaul.
When the job at TCC opened with the retirement of director of grounds Bill Spence, who had filled that role a whopping 33 years, Johnson couldn’t resist. The looming U.S. Open wasn’t a factor.
“I didn’t apply for this position because the U.S. Open was coming,” he says. “I came here because I knew what type of membership belonged here. I came here because of the history of the club. I came here because the most professional
individuals in our industry work at this club.”
Really? The lure of hosting an Open didn’t play into it?
“Honestly, four years ago, it was … out there,” Johnson says. “It seemed so far away. Now, it’s very exciting to me. Back then, there were other priorities to address. It wasn’t a goal of my career to host a U.S. Open.
My goal was to work at The Country Club. Now, every day I look at the countdown clock, and every day it gets more exciting. The vibe around here gives you the chills each time I take a moment to think about it.”
TCC’s Open Course No. 2 from on high. Photo courtesy of the USGA
Golf’s launching pad
In the realm of golf course management, it would be hard to conceive many posts more coveted than that of director of grounds at TCC. There just aren’t many lateral moves into or out of the place.
Founded in 1882 as a horse racetrack, TCC is one of the five charter members (joining Newport Country Club, Chicago Golf Club, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and New York’s Saint Andrew’s Golf Club) that founded the USGA in 1894. It has since
played host to 16 USGA national championships. Only Merion Golf Club, with 18, and Oakmont Country Club, with 17, have hosted more.
This year’s Open will be TCC’s fourth. The three previous Opens, in 1913, 1963 and 1988, all ended in playoffs.
Though The Country Club has hosted several other signature events — including the scintillating 1999 Ryder Cup — perhaps none was as defining as its first U.S. Open, when amateur Francis Ouimet, a Brookline native who had caddied at TCC, at
20 won the 1913 U.S. Open in a playoff over British pros Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.
With 10-year-old(!) Eddie Lowery on his bag in the so-called “Greatest Game Ever Played,” the blue-collar Ouimet became the Open’s first amateur champion and picked up the nickname as America’s “father of amateur golf.”
Ouimet’s childhood home, just across the street, remains. In a fitting parallel a half century prior, Ouimet — just like TCC’s current director of grounds at his literal home course — used to sneak across the street to play.
“In my mind, no, there’s no place more important to golf here in the United States,” Johnson says. “I really believe the story of Francis Ouimet was the launching pad for golf in our country, especially amateur golf. He exposed
golf to a segment of our population that hadn’t been exposed. The house he grew up in is just across the street. There’s a big tree between the 16th and 17th holes, a sand wedge from his house. I can imagine he climbed that tree when he
was growing up. It is surreal just thinking about it.”
Some of the key members of the grounds staff, from left: Adam Bennett, grounds superintendent; Aidan O’Sullivan, senior assistant superintendent; Anthony Howard, golf course superintendent; Johnson, director of grounds; Toby Christoun, equipment and shop manager; Josh Tucker, senior assistant superintendent; and Brad Gale, senior assistant superintendent.
What’s old is new again
TCC’s first six holes, designed by club members, opened in 1893. A year later, the club’s first golf professional, Willie Campbell, expanded it to nine holes and then to 18 by 1899. Two club members designed three more holes in 1908, and the
final six were completed in 1927.
Today, The Country Club features three nine-hole courses — the original Clyde and Squirrel nines, plus the Primrose. TCC refers to the Clyde and Squirrel together as the Main Course, but this year’s Open will be played on a composite of 15
holes from the Main Course and three from the Primrose. It will be set up as a 7,264-yard par-70.
“The routing they’re going to play for this championship has never been used in past championships,” Johnson says. “We came up with it more for logistics than anything. Our member practice facilities couldn’t handle an event
of this magnitude, so we had to build a driving range tees in the middle of two unused golf holes. It’s by no means easy to build a composite course and practice range. There are challenges, but we’re figuring them out.”
One of the benefits was the inclusion of a 131-yard par-3 that will be played as No. 11 on the Championship Course. That hole, guarded by a brook and four bunkers, hasn’t been included in TCC’s U.S. Opens since, you guessed it, 1913. Playing
then as the 140-yard No. 10, Ouimet parred it in the 18-hole playoff, while Vardon and Ray three-putted to bogeys. Ouimet led the rest of the way.
“It’s a great hole,” Johnson says. “It’s probably the most publicized hole on the property leading up to this. It was suggested by one of the members that we take a look at this alternative routing, and it made total sense
to the USGA.”
The routing isn’t the only change from previous TCC championships. Geoffrey Cornish made tweaks to the course prior to the 1963 U.S. Open, and Rees Jones led revisions prior to the 1988 Open. Prior to the 2013 U.S. Amateur, Gil Hanse oversaw a restoration,
and he returned for another renovation in 2019.
“Our goal in the beginning of all this was to make it look like it’s 100 years old,” says Adam Bennett, TCC’s grounds superintendent and 14-year GCSAA member. “It’s a lot more work to achieve that, but I don’t
think we could have done anything different.”
Much of the most recent rejiggering involved drainage, tee boxes, bunker work and expansion of the greens complexes to their original forms. Bennett, Hanse and crew referred back to 1930s-era photographs, in many cases, to see how the course looked back
in the day.
“We did most of the work in-house,” says Bennett, one of two superintendents — Anthony Howard, an eight-year GCSAA member, is the other — who serves under Johnson. “We did a lot of research, going through the archives, using
pictures to recreate the greens, to put things back the way it was. It was really an amazing experience to be part of.”
A peek inside the shop at TCC.
A ‘turnkey’ turnover
Johnson is quick to credit his crew, including Bennett; Howard, who is concerned primarily with the day-to-day operations of the courses; and senior assistants Aidan O’Sullivan (a two-year GCSAA member), Brad Gale (six-year member) and Josh Tucker
His appreciation goes well beyond their work in the leadup to the Open.
“Obviously, when I came here, I was handed a great product. It was obviously turnkey,” Johnson says. “The crew that was in place was solid and remains solid. A lot of long-tenured employees welcomed me and helped me with the transition.
Tenure was everything. They knew the property like the back of their hand, and they knew how the club ran. I’m comfortable with the property now. We worked hard to make it better in four years. Agronomically, it’s a stronger course. We’re
growing a lot of healthy grass now — for the Open, but also for the members.”
Johnson would get little argument from the person who would know best. Johnson took over from Spence, who retired in 2018 after more than three decades at TCC, where he oversaw the 1988 U.S. Open, the 1995 U.S. Women’s Amateur, the 1999
Ryder Cup and the 2013 U.S. Men’s Amateur. Spence also served as head superintendent at Pebble Beach Corporation from 1975-78 and had a hand in the three annual Bing Crosby Pro-Ams played at Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill, as well as the 1977 PGA
Championship at Pebble.
“I played (The Country Club) in October,” Spence says, “and it’s spectacular. It’s just gotten better.”
Spence was the first person to have an inkling the Open would be returning, even if he didn’t know when. He recalls riding the course with Mike Davis, then the USGA’s executive director/CEO, during the semifinal round of the 2013 U.S. Men’s
“We drove around a little, and he said, ‘This course is so good. You prepared it so well,’” Spence recalls. “That was a nice little pat on my back. He said, ‘I want to make sure the Open comes back here,’ and
he went into a meeting and more or less made the announcement he was going to do everything he could to get it back here.”
Though the formal announcement came years later, Spence didn’t yearn to be there for a second Open.
“Doing events is a lot of fun. In my career, I’ve seen a bunch of them,” he says. “Obviously, the U.S. Open is a big deal. But I thought it best if it was left to somebody younger than me. I’ll be 70 by the time this thing
ends. For everything, there is a season, and I think I sure as hell had my share. I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. I was able to meet people I never would have met if I had gone into another field. I met presidents,
actors. I’m a very lucky retired person.”
He’s not really retired. He still consults as part of Spence Golf and Greenspace Advisors. He played a role on the committee that interviewed Johnson to replace him and still consults with TCC from time to time.
Though he doesn’t have much advice for Johnson and crew in the leadup, he does have a bit for the immediate aftermath.
“Once it’s all over, you have to be involved in putting everything back together,” he says. “I remember our tournament manager in 1988 telling me, ‘Bill, there’s no lower feeling in the world than the day after the
U.S. Open.’ It’s true. You gotta do your job. The hardest thing in the world is getting up the next day and going to work. When it’s over, you have a membership that’s been tremendously inconvenienced, by the USGA or PGA, probably
for a year in advance, preventing them from playing their golf course as they usually did. The rerouting … the whole flow of the membership changes. What I found out was, gee, when it’s over, it’s like it never happened. They want
their golf course back. The world moves on in a hurry.”
Hole No. 18 on the Open Course at TCC, where this month the USGA will hold the U.S. Open, the 17th USGA national championship there and the fourth Open.
Of course, the day after is hardly a concern for Johnson and his crew now. The days before are all-consuming.
But if Johnson’s nerves are frayed, he hardly lets that show.
“We’ve been working hard for four years,” he says. “We’re prepared, and we’re going to get it done. We will be successful. That’s my take on things. If I were scrambling, I’d be more nervous. I can’t
say I’m not nervous. If you say you’re not, you’re probably in the wrong position. But things are lining up, and I’m surrounded by good people.”
He does have his concerns.
“My biggest fear is weather. In the New England area, winter can be harsh,” Johnson said in early May. “Luckily, we came through unscathed in good shape. Courses 40 or 50 miles from here experienced some significant winterkill. Spring
hasn’t really arrived here. It’s been cool, and soil temps aren’t where they need to be, but the trees are starting to bud out, and the golf course is in tremendous condition.
“If wet weather comes … we have an old golf course that can hold water in areas. Lately, we have been focused on fine-tuning the surface and working to grow more uniform and dense primary rough. We’ve been composting and overseeding
to grow a better turf stand. The rough is in great shape this spring and should present a good test for the Championship.
“I’m looking forward to watching the best golfers in the world play the course we work at every day,” he says. “It’s the pride of every golf course superintendent, to have the best of the best play on your product. It’s
a very exciting time, and my team feels the same way.”
Johnson makes sure he emphasizes to his staff to enjoy the ride. He certainly plans to — along with wife, Maryann, and daughters Val (18) and Sammy (16).
“To have my family here with me, this is the highlight of my career,” he says. “I’ll have them by my side. That’s exciting.”
Movin' on up
Andrew Updegrove began as head superintendent at Baker Hill Golf Club in Newbury, N.H. in October 2021.
Those unfamiliar with Dave Johnson’s management style might think he was gnashing his teeth over the thought of losing his director of U.S. Open operations and projects just months before the U.S. Open.
Johnson was thrilled to learn in October 2021 that Andrew Updegrove, who had spent 15 years at TCC, was leaving for his first head superintendent job at Baker Hill Golf Club in Newbury, N.H.
“It was a great time for him,” says Johnson, director of grounds at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., which June 13-19 will host its fourth U.S. Open. “He was completely ready for that position. It’s a great job, and he’s
deserving of it. We supported him in going after that job. Was it a great time for us? It was, because I had other staff members, Anthony Howard and Adam Bennett, there to fill any voids. They all worked together for so long. Everybody behind him
learned from him. Like any good business, you just keep on trucking. We’re proud of him, the entire club.”
With Johnson’s blessing, Updegrove, Class A superintendent and 16-year GCSAA member, nearly finished out the year at TCC and was able to take 2½ months off before reporting for duty at Baker Hill GC in February. As much as it pained him to
walk away from The Country Club and the Open, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I think a lot of people looked at it as weird this winter when I accepted this job,” Updegrove says, “and a U.S. Open is a great thing to have on a résumé. But it comes and goes. When I decided to make this move, when
it came to the rest of my career, Baker Hill checked all my boxes. I knew Baker Hill was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I couldn’t pass that up. I’m thrilled I had the full support of Dave and the whole staff back there and all
the members. They all had my back. A lot of it is the culture there, what senior leadership has established. They want to bring people in, give them the tools to succeed, and promote them.”
Updegrove had two internships at TCC under then-director of grounds Bill Spence before he spent a year as an assistant at the Seawane Club in Hewlett Harbor, N.Y. He returned to The Country Club in 2008 and played key roles in the leadup to the Open,
including the Gil Hanse-led renovation of greens, tees, drainage and bunkers in 2019.
“All of the improvements for the golf course weren’t for the U.S. Open,” Updegrove says. “Yes, it was a benefit to the U.S. Open. But 90% of the things we did had a member benefit. We weren’t doing it for the U.S. Open, but
it was probably streamlined because the U.S. Open was coming. You think about the infrastructure we improved, the winterkill we used to get, some of the wet fairways where every year we’d have to go out and resod … they don’t have
to do that anymore.”
Though he was able to take some time off between posts, it wasn’t stress-free. Along with the new job came a big move, and he and wife Courtney learned they were expecting their first child. She’s due in August.
“We’d gotten married and moved twice, so I wanted to make sure she was comfortable,” Updegrove says. “Then we found out we were expecting our first kid, and I accepted the job all within a four-month period. I told her, ‘If
we can make it through the first year, we’re golden.’”
Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s senior managing editor.