Olympia Fields North Course superintendent Francisco Velasquez has waited a while for this shining moment, and it comes this week during the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs BMW Championship. Velasquez has worked his way up at Olympia Fields following his time as a student at Michigan State University. Photos by Mattie Korneta
There was a time that Francisco Velasquez didn’t want anything to do with being a student. Now, he acts more and more like a teacher every day.
Velasquez loves nothing more than instructing his crew on the ins and outs of working at a high-profile golf facility. This week, that’s an apt description for Olympia Fields Country Club’s North Course in Olympia Fields, Ill. From Aug. 17-20,
Olympia Fields hosts the BMW Championship, the penultimate event in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs. Working under Director of Grounds Sam MacKenzie, CGCS, Velasquez has blossomed into a leader as superintendent.
Even he never imagined all this coming to fruition the day he was supposed to attend his first class at Michigan State University nearly a decade ago.
“I missed my first day of class. I didn’t want to go,” says Velasquez, known by many as Kiko.
Call it nerves. Uncertainty. Change. “Change is hard. I wasn’t ready for it,” he says.
His family, including his mother Maria and father Antonio, who moved the family from Mexico to California in search of a better life, encouraged him to give college a try. So did Adam Roels, director of golf course operations at Point O’ Woods in
Benton Harbor, Mich., where Velasquez worked for him while holding down two other jobs as a teen.
When he somewhat reluctantly went back the next day to Michigan State, Velasquez embarked on a major change of heart. Sitting in a class by Trey Rogers, Ph.D., and learning about aerification, Velasquez was intrigued, inspired, and on his way.
“I think I said, ‘This isn’t so bad. It’s everything I like.’ From there, everything started working out perfectly,” he says.
Following his internship at Michigan State while at Olympia Fields, Velasquez escalated his status and never looked back. He went from assistant in training to assistant superintendent to South Course superintendent. Two years ago, the eight-year GCSAA
member was put in charge of the North Course.
MacKenzie, a fellow Michigan State graduate, has been around long enough to know a winner when he sees one. Velasquez, now 27, had the look.
“He’s one of the most unique guys to work for me. He’s worked his way up in every way possible and now he’s at the North (Course), the jewel of the club,” says MacKenzie, a 41-year association member who has spent nearly
18 years at Olympia Fields. “It’s his work ethic. I’m here probably more than I should be, but I can’t kick this guy out of here. I just can’t teach that.
“He’s a big deal. He’s a young Hispanic man coming up in this business for a major type of tournament. I can’t be prouder of this young man in every aspect. He motivates them (Velasquez’s crew), and gets them to follow, and
that’s a great attribute.”
Olympia Fields is no stranger to high-profile hosting. Through the years, it has welcomed U.S. Opens, PGA Championships and other must-see events.
When Olympia Fields hosted the BMW championship in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented fans at the event. This time, spectators will be back in person. “This year people get to see in person what we do,” he says.
This isn’t Olympia Fields’ first marquee event. The country club, located 25 miles south of Chicago, has been the site of a slew of major events, including the 1925 and 1961 PGA Championships, 2003 U.S. Open and 2015 U.S. Amateur.
For Velasquez, the club’s history is something he wants his team to embrace and feel a sense of pride in. That class taught by Rogers all those years ago set the stage for quite a future.
“Not sure I remember his first class that year. I do remember Francisco,” Rogers says. “Coming to a big school as a young man from a small town was a big challenge, but Kiko was determined. He was very likeable in a great class, and
he soon fit in very nicely. It was fun to watch him progress. I was not surprised at his interest in interning in Chicago, nor that Sam MacKenzie wanted to hire him after school. It was a great fit. I had a chance to visit him (Velasquez) in September
2022, and my first observation was his growth and maturity. I also noted his confidence. He will make a very good superintendent.”
The young man who had second thoughts about what school could do for him is now fully in the live and learn mode, and he is determined to pass it on.
“I want to teach the generation under us because I was brought up by those ahead of me,” Velasquez says. “I want to make sure the generation under us can get through this and do it by teaching them. It can be easy if you have the right
teachers. It’s doable. It’s possible.”
Howard Richman is GCM's associate editor.