Established in 1911, Salina Country Club welcomes the Senior LPGA Championship July 22-24. Photo courtesy of Salina CC.
Golf course superintendent Chris Rice, a Salina, Kan. native, is in the center of a rebirth at Salina Country Club (SCC). This month the club hosts arguably the most prestigious sporting event in the city’s history.
From July 22-24, SCC hosts the Senior LPGA Championship. The 78-player field is scheduled to welcome icons of the game, including World Golf Hall of Famers Annika Sorenstam and Juli Inkster. Inkster triumphed in the 2002 U.S. Women’s Open at Kansas
venue Prairie Dunes Golf Club in Hutchinson. Sorenstam, who has not played in the Sunflower State since that championship 20 years ago, was runner-up.
For Rice, overseeing the grounds on this momentous occasion is dream-come-true stuff.
“A lot of my friends are members. I never thought I’d be a superintendent here. For me, it’s not just another golf course job,” says Rice, a 14-year GCSAA Class A member who graduated from Kansas State University in Manhattan.
Rice is a key component of the club’s current renaissance. Established in 1911, Salina Country Club is still ascending over a century later. As recently as early 2021, there was doubt that SCC would still exist. What a difference a year makes.
Now, the future looks promising with the upcoming championship, membership growth and new local ownership. This comeback has legs, and Rice is thrilled by it.
“Everything has an electrical feel to it around here. It’s great to be here now,” he says.
GCSAA Class A superintendent and Salina native Chris Rice is ecstatic to oversee the Senior LPGA Championship. Photos by Tanner Colvin.
A man with plans
SCC’s saga isn’t unique among country clubs. Across the nation, clubs have fought for relevance, viability and longevity as they try to retain and gain membership. It appears they may be turning the corner. According to the National Golf Foundation,
in 2021 the inventory of private clubs increased for the first time since 2007.
At SCC, membership dropped over a 20-year period, but things are currently looking up.
“We are a net positive. One hundred new members this year,” General Manager Chris Nickell said in late spring.
It took a boost from one of Salina’s own to snap that two-decade trend. The man behind the movement is Jason Ingermanson, founder, CEO and president of JRI Hospitality, who bought Salina CC in May 2021. Ingermanson owns 75 Freddy’s Frozen
Custard & Steakburgers owns nationwide, as well as other restaurants across the country.
Ingermanson says getting involved in the club’s rebirth was an easy call.
“JRI Hospitality, the company I founded several years ago, has had a long-standing business based here in Salina. It is very important to me to always be looking for ways that I can give back to the community through the success that we’ve
had in Salina and across the country,” Ingermanson says. “I decided to purchase SCC because our community needs the country club, and I wanted to do what I could to continue its tradition.”
Ingermanson says community involvement also powers his plans to make the club sustainable long-term.
“The objective is to create financial success at SCC by creating and delivering on member expectations and giving back through SCC on behalf of our generous members (projects to update and upgrade SCC include a new driving range, parking lot and
dining area). We focus on doing this mainly through youth sports and providing opportunity to folks and organizations that we engage with in the community.”
What Ingermanson has accomplished in a short span is a welcome development to Randy Syring, a Salina native who served as SCC club professional from 1988-2017.
“They’re trying to come up with long-term solutions. Jason turned out to be such a blessing. The club is part of the community. Jason wants it to not only survive but thrive. That’s his vision,” Syring says.
For a while, speculation of the club’s unsettled situation, including the possibility of it being sold, wasn’t a town secret. Once Ingermanson stepped to the plate, SCC’s outlook dramatically improved and heartened those who want it
to remain a bedrock of Salina.
“We want the club to be in a position for the future to continue to be an outpour of support and an attraction for the City of Salina and our loved members,” Ingermanson says.
Salina CC superintendent Chris Rice has benefited from the ownership change. His staff has been beefed up in the past year.
From tee sheets to turfgrass
Ingermanson endorses Rice for what he means to SCC.
“The experience and commitment to our club is very evident as Chris Rice takes pride in what he does for us. There have been many projects going on to improve and update SCC, and many more to come. Chris has provided great leadership
and we wouldn’t be on the upward path that we’re on without him,” Ingermanson says.
The good vibration at SCC is evident in the maintenance department.
“My resources got bumped up last year. Usually, I had 10 to 12 employees including myself. I’ve got 16 now,” says Rice, who has greater latitude since the ownership change, along with a crew that includes first assistant superintendent
Tanner Stover and equipment operator Tonio Stevens. “With more employees, it’s a big help. You can do drainage and other projects. I’ll be able to plan projects and get more done. Having the resources has helped us for this event
and I’m excited to show what we can do. Decisions on (adding) equipment now is only made by a couple people making the decisions rather than a board of 12 to 14.”
Womack says his end of the operations is also advancing. Part of that is educating members on new options, including the reduction of paper tee sheets.
“Jason’s into technology. We have apps for members booking reservations and using it heavily for leagues. You can book tee times at home through the app,” Womack says. “With Chris (Rice), just this year alone there is improvement
on the course. With the crew being more robust, new, they’re getting things done.”
Rice says a key to the event this month is keeping the rough (a combo of fescue/bermudagrass) healthy. Six inches of rain in a two-week period into early June promoted those areas.
“The rough is doing great,” Rice said in early June. “We plan to add wetting agents to most of the rough and also have a couple fungicide applications.”
Rice adds he also had a truckload of fescue sod delivered in June for where seed did not take last fall. “A combination of all of the above should help with what Mother Nature will throw our way.”
The A-4 bentgrass greens are accompanied by Meyer zoysiagrass fairways. High temperatures can be an issue in late July, but it’s no sweat at SCC. “Greens do great in summertime and zoysia is at its peak in July,” Rice says, noting the
course will play to par 72 on approximately 5,800 yards.
Rice and his crew oversee A-4 bentgrass greens and Meyer zoysiagrass fairways. The rough is a combination of fescue and bermudagrass. The par 72 course will play approximately 5,800 yards.
A monumental moment
Looking for a landmark sporting event in Salina history? Arguably, it might be what happened July 30, 1983, when a junior-to-be at the University of North Carolina named Michael Jordan scored 30 points and led the U.S.’s Pan American Games’
basketball team to a victory in an exhibition game against NBA players at what then was known as the Bicentennial Center (now Tony’s Events Center). Now, the town will have another marquee event to add to its athletic history.
When discussions about the Senior LPGA Championship heated up in January, Ingermanson, Nickell, Rice and Director of Golf Erick Womack traveled to Orlando, Fla., to meet with LPGA officials at the annual PGA Show about the prospects of hosting the event.
It wasn’t the first time SCC was considered to host a professional tournament.
“We were in Salina four, five years ago examining the possibility of bringing the Symetra Tour (now the Epson Tour, the official qualifying tour for the LPGA Tour) to Salina,” says Tim Kramer, senior director of tournament business affairs
for the Epson Tour. “When the Senior LPGA Championship was looking for a home, this membership group was interested in showcasing their facility. Chris Nickell and Jason were super supportive. It came down to the enthusiasm of the club. I think
Kansas is a great golf state, sports state. To have Annika and Juli, people can identify with them quickly. They resonate.”
For her part, Sorenstam, a 10-time major champion, is excited for the opportunity to play at SCC.
“I’m looking forward to getting back to Kansas for the first time in years to compete in my first Senior LPGA Championship,” Sorenstam says. “The LPGA has meant so much to me and my career, so I want to support this event. We appreciate
the opportunity to play.”
When it was announced Sorenstam would be in town, club member Marc Sheforgen was elated. “When I heard that Annika Sorenstam was going to play at our golf course, I was blown away. To have a player of that caliber, a golf legend playing in Salina,
is amazing,” Sheforgen says. “It’s a great time here. The club has rebounded very nicely. And I’m no agronomist, but what I can tell, he (Rice) is talented and very dedicated and committed. What he was able to do before on
a limited budget and resources, his ingenuity is impressive.”
For Rice, who started at SCC in 2014 as an assistant before ascending to superintendent a year later, what’s about to happen this month renders many emotions. He says he has every intention of bringing his A game at a club that has every intention
of remaining a Salina institution.
“People here know you. You know them. It brings added pressure to show off the golf course, but it’s fun to show it off and bring exposure to what Jason’s doing here and I’m excited to show what our team can do,” Rice says.
“So, for me, it’s personal.”
Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.