Welcome to Atlanta and East Lake Golf Club, home course of World Golf Hall of Famer Bobby Jones, and home of the PGA Tour Championship since 2005. Here’s a peek at how the historic venue has been prepping for the event’s 2019 chapter and its latest turn in the spotlight:
In a year of schedule changes to some of golf’s biggest professional events, Ralph Kepple, CGCS, knows the adjustment he and his team at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club have faced — a result of the season-capping Tour Championship being bumped up from late September to late August — has been minor in comparison.
In 2019, the Players Championship moved from May to March, which, for host course TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., meant going from furnishing a playing surface of bermudagrass recently awoken in May to hosting on prime overseeded conditions in March. The PGA Championship left its traditional end-of-August slot — a slot now occupied by the Tour Championship — and jumped all the way to May.
Right: Banks Woodrick, an assistant-in-training at East Lake Golf Club, prepares to paint the cup on the par-3 15th hole in advance of Tuesday practice rounds at the Tour Championship. Photo by Scott Hollister
Those are significant changes, especially from an agronomic perspective. The shift in where the Tour Championship resided on the overall schedule wasn’t anything like those, Kepple admits. Still, the run-up to this week’s event hasn’t been without some bumps in the road related to that earlier date.
“Losing a month is still losing a month. It crunches you a little bit,” says Kepple, East Lake’s director of agronomy and a 37-year member of GCSAA. “And like a lot of courses in the country, we were short-handed pretty much all year, anywhere from eight to 11 people. It just meant a lot of extra work for the people we did have.”
In the end, though, Kepple thinks the move to August — despite pulling the event deeper into Atlanta’s hot and humid summers — has yielded more good than bad from a golf course management perspective.
“One of the main things is we’re going to be able to do some repairs under structures now that we couldn’t do in the past,” he says. “It takes them a couple months to get everything out, so that used to take us into November, and I’m not sodding anything in November. Now, we can start looking at that in late September and early October, give the sod a chance to root in.”
“We’re also going to have a whole September where we’re open for play instead of being closed for three weeks when we typically see some of the best weather of the year.”
A crew member hand-waters the forward tee on the par-4 10th hole at East Lake Golf Club. Even though seasonal temperatures are expected this week in Atlanta, crews have remained vigilant after an uncharacteristically hot and humid previous week. Photo by Scott Hollister
The bigger challenge the team at East Lake encountered in preparing for the final 30 competitors in this year’s FedEx Cup Playoffs was the weather during advance week, where that usual heat and humidity was ratcheted up.
“We were in the upper 90s all week, even over 100 one day,” Kepple says. “It really changed how we deployed people, how much time we spent with moisture meters, checking not just greens but the whole course. Advance weeks are always sunup to sundown, but this one was pretty rough on everyone.”
Thankfully, a crew of more than 60 volunteers — the most the Tour Championship has attracted in many years — has descended on the property to assist East Lake’s full-time crew, and, at least so far, it has been all systems go.
“Our guys were just amazing last week,” Kepple says. “They just plowed through, kept good attitudes and kept working. I couldn’t have been any prouder. Now, we get a lift from the volunteers. They’ve been great so far, just giving us that extra help that lets us dial in the detail stuff. Having a team like this gives us the opportunity to really go through and make sure everything is the way it needs to be for an event of this magnitude.”
August at East Lake
Nearly 70 volunteers are on hand in Atlanta, many of them college students looking to learn the tournament-prep ropes and forge valuable industry connections. East Lake Golf Club superintendent Charles Aubry and others gave GCSAA TV a glimpse inside the Tour Championship volunteer experience:
The bunker team at East Lake Golf Club is committed to turning out a flawless product. Take a look at how this handiwork happens:
Meet Khloe, a feline fixture in the shop at East Lake Golf Club:
‘Golf with a purpose’
In the past quarter-century, Atlanta’s East Lake neighborhood has been transformed from one of the nation’s worst public housing projects into a thriving community, and East Lake Golf Club itself has been part of that revival.
The club was purchased by a local charitable foundation in 1993, and its renovation was a catalyst for revitalizing the surrounding East Lake community. Proceeds from operations — more than $20 million to date — are returned to the community via the East Lake Foundation.
Bryce Zelazoski (left), a senior at East Lake’s Drew Charter School, interviewed golfer Justin Thomas ahead of the 2019 Tour Championship. (Read about the interview here.) Drew Charter School serves the children and families of Atlanta’s East Lake community and, like East Lake Golf Club, is a cornerstone of the revamped neighborhood’s identity. Photo courtesy of the East Lake Foundation
The East Lake Golf Club mission — “Golf with a purpose” — aligns with the values of the entities within the greater East Lake community, whose overall goal is to foster a mixed-income community that offers quality education and affordable housing.
In addition to the club’s financial support of the community, the golf course maintenance staff makes its own unique contributions via educational outreach focused on science and math skills. Read more in Growing young agronomists in Atlanta.
Scott Hollister is GCM’s editor-in-chief.