A superintendent's path from Austria to New Jersey

One year after moving to America from a land far, far away, superintendent Vanja Drasler has overcome obstacles to find her niche.


Vanja Drasler stands in front of the clubhouse of Montclair Golf Club
Vanja Drasler, a native of Slovenia, started as superintendent of Montclair Golf Club in West Orange, N.J. in 2022. Photos by Katie Albright

Vanja Drasler brings her own meaning to “going the distance.”

In 2022, Drasler traveled roughly 4,120 miles from Attersee Golf Course in Austria to Montclair Golf Club in West Orange, N.J. The long plane ride was nothing compared to the days, weeks and months it took to make this monumental chapter of her life a reality.

The process was extensive. Red tape was thick. Zoom calls were endless. The unknown … well, that was a frequent companion. Her pursuit, however, was constant. Ultimately, she viewed it as a now-or-never deal.

“I didn’t know whether I’d get another chance,” Drasler says.

No need for another chance after all. Drasler’s chance of a lifetime is playing out in real time.

On July 24, Drasler will celebrate the one-year anniversary of her first day at work as a superintendent on U.S. soil. The whirlwind of it all over the past 300-some days — during which she had to pack patience and eventually every suitcase she could muster in order to reach America — has calmed. But it has not diminished expectations she harbored to make a splash in the land of red, white and blue.

“We want to be the leaders in the world of greenkeepers,” Drasler says.

The course at Montclair Golf Club
The course at Montclair Golf Club, where superintendent Vanja Dresler will celebrate her first year of employment July 24.

Carving a path

How Drasler ascended in this industry borders on amazing.

She wasn’t exactly raised in a golf haven. A native of central Europe — specifically, Maribor, Slovenia — Drasler grew up in a country with only 13 golf courses in a population of 2.1 million. Although she was educated in agriculture at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, her first job was processing data in an office. That type of work didn’t compute with her wants, so she kept looking.

Drasler, meet turning point.

Slovenian Gorazd Nastran, who heads the Slovenian Greenkeepers Association and once worked on the crew at Whippoorwill Club in Armonk, N.Y., informed Drasler that a golf club opening might be available. Three months later, he contacted her and said to bring her résumé to Diners Golf Course in Ljubljana. She joined the greenkeeper crew. Inexperience was trumped by intrigue. “I had zero experience, no idea about golf,” she says, “but they got this new mower. From the first day I was there, it was not always easy, but I loved it.”

Her passion traveled well. Drasler often paid her own way to make it possible. That résumé of hers would be the envy of anyone in the industry who is interested in exploration and marquee tournament exposure to see how others in her profession do it. Some examples, much of it on her own dime: Drasler volunteered in 2012 for the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco; Waste Management Phoenix Open in 2017 at TPC Scottsdale and the same year for the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland; The Players in 2019 at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and the same year for the PGA Championship at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course in Farmingdale, N.Y; and The Ryder Cup in 2021 at Whistling Straits in Haven, Wis. She has volunteered 14 times.

“I learn how superintendents run their crew, how they maintain their course — learned something new every place,” says Drasler, a seven-year GCSAA Class A member who speaks four languages. “You have to have open eyes and observe, see what they use in the shop, find ways to improve.”

“We want to be the leaders in the world of greenkeepers,” Drasler says.

Vanja Drasler (center), Michael Campbell (left) and Mike Sharpe (right)
Drasler in the center is flanked by Montclair GC Director of Golf Course Operations Michael Campbell, left, and superintendent Mike Sharpe.

Drasler’s inaugural visit to America happened in 2010 when she took the UMass Winter School for Turf Managers program. Meanwhile, she became the only woman greenkeeper in Slovenia by taking over the position at Diners GC from 2010 to 2013. By that time, Drasler aspired to become a superintendent in America. As years went by, she got after it. While volunteering during the 2016 PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., Drasler wanted more than ever to take that next step. Instead of pushing the envelope, she chose to temper her wishes. “I didn’t think I was ready at the time. I didn’t want to ruin a golf course in America,” says Drasler, who also was a superintendent at St. Johann Golf Course in Austria (she worked there a few times weekly while at Attersee the rest of the time), Prosper Golf Resort in the Czech Republic and was a sales representative in Europe for Toro.

Drasler also interned at Baltusrol for Mark Kuhns, CGCS. Kuhns first met her at the GCSAA Conference and Trade Show. “She had a backpack like she always does. She was looking inside the door where we were having the certification luncheon,” Kuhns says. “I came over to her and said, ‘Well, are you going to come in?’ She told me she’s not certified. I told her to come sit with me,” says Kuhns, GCSAA president in 2009. “When she was with us at Baltusrol, I think she wanted to be part of something bigger. She was a worker. She just didn’t stop.”

Drasler with Campbell and his teenage son, Ethan, wearing racing clothes
Drasler participated last year in the Tunnel to Towers 5K in New York City along with Campbell and his son Ethan. Photo courtesy of Michael Campbell.

Visas, Zoom and exultation

The route that led Drasler to her ultimate landing spot was buoyed by a massive effort of a who’s who in the industry.

Kuhns; past GCSAA President Mel Lucas Jr., CGCS Retired; and the late Stan Zontek, legendary USGA Green Section veteran, saw a rising star in Drasler, and they worked tirelessly on her behalf to find that special place in the U.S. Her first impression sold Lucas on her. “It was the enthusiasm she had. In time, she was just so far ahead of other people I knew in Europe,” says Lucas, GCSAA president in 1980 and a 61-year association member who has championed greenkeepers overseas for decades. “To get through the barrier wasn’t easy. We just had to find a club that wanted to hire her. If you had someone that wanted her, with everything spelled out, it became very acceptable. Possible. You just had to find a person that wanted her and make it happen.”

That person turned out to be Montclair GC Director of Golf Course Operations Michael Campbell, CGCS, who originally was seeking an assistant. In June 2021, he connected with Tyler Bloom, a GCSAA Class A superintendent and 12-year association member whose consulting company identifies top talent, such as he did with Drasler, and matches them with golf operations.

Initially, Campbell explored options to secure Drasler’s opportunity to work at the club, including the H-2B program (which allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the U.S.), but struck out on that front.

Not to be deterred, Campbell took the effort up a notch. On club stationery he wrote a letter of intent for Drasler with the purpose of inviting her to be an assistant. He forwarded that letter to her so she could deliver it to the Slovenian embassy (the letter included what was being offered, such as salary, travel to America, dues and other customary benefits). The embassy informed Drasler she should apply for an O-1 nonimmigrant visa for an “individual who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics or who has a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry and has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements.” Sciences, arts and education would fall into the category of being in her line of work.

Drasler with Campbell and his teenage son, Ethan, wearing racing clothes
Drasler, right, in action with, from left, Florencio Cadillo Tahua, Angel Pastor Sr. and Michael Sturdivant.

Drasler completed the paperwork and returned it to Campbell who, with the club, finished the paperwork and filed it with U.S. immigration authorities.

This was no quick, simple union. Consider it a slow, methodical crawl to the finish line.

“We were working with a lawyer. Vanja called in every favor (such as gathering a written referrals and recommendations from people for whom she served as a volunteer and included it in her qualifications to get that O-1 visa). At one point, we thought she met all the requirements, and another one would come up. And another one. And … ” says Campbell, who in the meantime introduced his team to their potential co-worker. “We had Zoom calls for her to meet our staff. She has an infectious personality. She fit right in with our staff. We traded emails. It was like having a long-distance relationship.”

Meanwhile, Campbell halted interviewing for additional crew. “I put all the chips on the table with Vanja. Didn’t have any other candidates in the pipeline. Our assistants were carrying the extra weight. The risk was there,” says the 23-year GCSAA member.

Throughout all this, Drasler continued to work at Attersee, which uses Engelmann Turf Care for outsourcing support of turf care needs. “Those eight or nine months before we knew anything was really hard. I had been treated really well there (Attersee), but I couldn’t say anything at the time,” Drasler says.

Following a prolonged waiting game, the risk that Campbell mentioned trended to reward status last June. That’s when the U.S. embassy awarded Drasler the O-1 nonimmigrant visa.

Drasler was driving back to Austria from visiting her mother, Nada, when Campbell texted the good news. “I didn’t cry. But maybe close to,” she says.

When he heard Drasler would be coming to America, it was a tears-of-joy kind of response from Tom Brodeur. The retired 42-year GCSAA member welcomed her to volunteer when he hosted tournaments at TPC Boston, and he spoke at greenkeeper events in Slovenia at Drasler’s request. When he speaks about her, it’s glowing. “Everybody knows Vanja. She’s so talented it’s ridiculous,” Brodeur says. “She doesn’t mess around.”

Drasler in 2012, being interviewed on a golf course by a TV crew.
A television crew talks with Drasler in 2012 about her volunteer experience during the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Vanja Drasler

Making the grade at Montclair

The layout at Montclair GC is unlike anything Drasler encountered in Austria.

A Donald Ross original design more than 100 years old, Montclair hosted the 1973 U.S. Women’s Amateur and 1985 U.S. Amateur. The 36-hole facility is four separate nines, which Campbell describes as preparing for a daily modified shotgun. Drasler is responsible for the third nine plus a level of oversight on the fourth nine. She and the other superintendent, Mike Sharpe, each work with an assistant. “She’s been a huge help,” says Sharpe, a 23-year association member. “She’s really good with the crew, getting people on second and third jobs and keeping them going. She came here as a superintendent so, ag wise, she knows what’s going on.”

Campbell’s one-year evaluation of Drasler rendered high marks. In fact, it was more than he hoped. He restructured his staff because of her presence. “I was looking for an assistant. What I got out of it was a superintendent,” Campbell says. “Plus, she not only changed jobs, she changed her geographical situation in a big way. She was cautious to be very polite when she came here, cautious not to push people. Now, she’s less worried about stepping on toes. That’s the Jersey edge in her now. Her energy is infectious, and she earned the crew’s respect. She’s done a good job with that. That’s all her. Montclair is an animal, a big beast, and she’s adapted to the size of the operation.”

Drasler cannot thank her team enough for their support. “I am so happy here. Excited to learn more,” she says.

Drasler’s O-1 visa runs through 2025.  She’d need a green card to stay beyond that time. Campbell says, “For her professionally, I’d like her to stay. She’s got the pedigree. Maybe get her some more education through Rutgers and learn more about a club’s budget, politics, prep and the business side of running a high-end property in the U.S. She’s already got the desire, the knowhow, to manage turf in the U.S.”

The course at Montclair Golf Club
A view of the course at Montclair Golf Club.

A taste of the dream

Life in America for Drasler includes Chipotle.

The burrito bowl with chicken, guacamole and tomato will do. The broccoli cheddar soup at Panera suits her tastes, too. Yet she enjoys cooking at home. Her go-to meal? Risotto with chicken and asparagus.

Drasler lives 10 minutes from work in an apartment she furnished mostly from Ikea. That drive is a whole lot better than when Kuhns picked her up at the Newark Liberty International Airport to begin her internship. Talk about culture shock — and traffic. “We took (Interstate 78). He was going 5 miles per hour. I said, ‘There’s probably an accident.’ He says, ‘Vanja, there’s no accident.’ I’ve got guys I work with now who drive an hour to work. Back home where I came from, in an hour you could be in a different country,” Drasler says.

When she finishes work and goes home, Drasler refrains from contacting her mother, who is six hours ahead. “I can’t call her that late to ask about her day,” says Drasler, who connects with her when she can on Messenger or What’sApp. Her father, Marjan, died in 2018. Yet his words from those days when she was unhappy working in an office and he told his daughter to ask herself what she really wanted to do with her life still resonate.

Her brother, Aljosa, visited last October. He asked if they could attend an NBA game, so it hit close to home when they went to see Brooklyn play at the Barclays Center against the Dallas Mavericks and their Slovenian megastar, Luka Doncic. The pennant she purchased at the game is on the wall, right behind her desk, where she often takes a moment to reminisce while simultaneously envisioning the future.

“As far back as 10 years ago, so many times I would be sitting in my office, dreaming about being a superintendent in America. My dream came true, and I’m happy about that,” Drasler says. “Now I sit in my office and think about what I am going to do tomorrow. If you work hard and believe in what you want to do, you never know what may come of it.”

Howard Richman (hrichman@gcsaa.org) is GCM’s associate editor.