Great expectations at the 2023 Ryder Cup

Lara Arias has followed a remarkable journey to become the first woman superintendent to host a Ryder Cup.


Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Lara Arias has served as head superintendent at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club since its renovation and grow-in in 2020. Photos courtesy of Lara Arias

The best way to deal with the obvious is head-on: Yes, Lara Arias, the four-year GCSAA member who in just a few days’ time will become the first female superintendent to host a Ryder Cup, is expecting her first child, a girl, due just under two months from the start of the Cup.

But it would be a mistake to dwell on the fact the woman helping lead maintenance for a course that, from Sept. 29-Oct. 1, will be at the center of the golf world’s attention is expecting. 

“I wanted to be an example,” says Arias, superintendent at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club just northeast of Rome since its wall-to-wall renovation in 2020. “I wanted to be the first woman superintendent hosting a Ryder Cup. Then the pregnancy arrived. It’s true, now that I’m pregnant, that it’s a plus: ‘She’s the first woman superintendent to host a Ryder Cup, and now it’s one step more.’ Now, many people know I’m the golf course superintendent. Other people think I’m not the golf course superintendent. They see me as pregnant. They say to me, ‘Congratulations. You’re pregnant.’”

Case in point: During a Sept. 11 visit to Marco Simone, some of Team Europe’s players complimented Arias after a tour of the course.

“They said, ‘Congratulations,’” Arias recalls. “I wanted to ask, ‘Are you congratulating me for the golf course, or congratulating me because I’m pregnant?’ I want to make sure everyone focuses on the golf course, not that I’m pregnant, because I’ve been working hard on this for 3 1/2 years.”

As far as the 33-year-old Arias is concerned, there’s only one event on her radar for now: the Ryder Cup. 

“We’re going to host a Ryder Cup, then in less than two months, we’re going to have a baby girl,” she says. “We’re super happy. I knew I was pregnant a few weeks before the (May 4-7) Italian Open, but I was so focused on the tournament that I didn’t have time to go to the doctor. I waited until the week after the Italian Open. We were very happy. But it’s true, as soon as I shared the news with everyone, people would start counting the weeks: ‘If you’re pregnant now, you’ll be five, six months pregnant during the Ryder Cup?’ Don’t worry, I’ll be like 6 1/2, seven months pregnant, but I feel so good. I feel lucky. It was on my mind all the time, ‘You’ll be tired.’ After 3 1/2 years of work, this is not the time to think I’m tired.

“I think now that everyone can see I’m pregnant and speaking more about it … my first priority now is the Ryder Cup. I’m happy to be pregnant during the Ryder Cup. It’s very special. I’m taking care of myself, making sure I’m healthy and the baby is healthy, but the Ryder Cup is my priority. Probably the day after the Ryder Cup, I’ll realize I’m pregnant and about to have a baby.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Arias, along with crew from Marco Simone, showed the course to members of Team Europe ahead of the Ryder Cup.

A whirlwind education

Though she’s only a few years into her first stint as a head superintendent, Arias is no stranger to big-time golf at big-time facilities.

A native of the north of Spain, Arias graduated from Universidad de Valladolid with a degree as a forestry technical engineer. She fell in love with golf, she says, the first time she set foot on a golf course. That led to a master’s in management of golf courses and football fields from Estudios Universitarios.

With her two Spanish degrees in hand, Arias headed off to the United States with her family’s blessing to study through Ohio State University’s international program and its renowned internship program.

“She impressed me from the beginning,” says Mike O’Keeffe, Ohio State’s global intern manager and 27-year GCSAA member. “When she did her application, she also sent in a video she had put together, and she put music to it. That’s how you put yourself above the competition. She always went above and beyond. Always.”

Three other women were part of that same OSU cohort, and O’Keeffe paired up Arias and Denise Fitzsimons, an intern from Ireland, as a package deal. Their first stop was a six-month internship at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Va., that in 2024 will host the Solheim Cup.

“That was a dynamic I put together, knowing the quality of individuals and knowing they were kind of opposite characters,” he says. “She was very different from Lara. She grew up around golf. But she was very helpful to Lara. Lara’s skills and her ability were wonderful, but her English was minimal, and the Irish girl was always there for her.”

Arias jokes now, seven years removed from that first internship, she only understood 25% of the instructions that came from her first staff meeting with Scott Furlong, CGCS, Robert Trent Jones GC’s superintendent and 26-year association member.

Despite the language barrier, Arias made a quick impression.

“She was awesome,” Furlong says, “one of the best we’ve had come through the operation. She was a bundle of joy — excited, passionate. She was eager and wanted to impress and wanted to make people happy. The only thing though is, she was so high-strung, so excited to go, when she got talking, her accent was so strong, a lot of us couldn’t understand her. It’s a good thing she spoke Spanish. My whole crew is Spanish.

“The thing is, the great ones — and we’ve seen a lot of them in our operation — the ones who get excited, they’re confident in themselves, but they’re not cocky. Lara was excited to be a sponge and just learn. She jumped in like she’d been here forever, learned fast, worked hard, was easy to talk to. The members loved her. She deserves everything she gets. She’s fought for everything she’s gotten, and continues to strive for greatness.”

Furlong and Arias have kept in touch and will reunite in person soon. Furlong was part of the RTJGC contingent headed to Finca Cortesin in Casares, Spain, for this week’s Solheim Cup. While on the continent, Furlong planned to head for five days in Rome to help out with Ryder Cup prep with his former intern at Marco Simone.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
As an intern at Quail Hollow Club in the lead-up to the 2017 PGA Championship, Arias showed she had the "Midas touch," according to Keith Wood, director of green and grounds. Photo by Travis Dove

Building a glowing résumé

After six months in Virginia, Arias headed off on another six-month internship at TPC Scottsdale. In the Arizona desert she had her first experiences with warm-season turfgrasses, overseeding and tournament golf, in this case the Waste Management Open.

Then it was off to Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C., a stint that included an introduction to bermudagrass and more tournament experience — the 2017 PGA Championship — for more red-letter entries on her résumé. 

“She came in knowing what she was doing,” says Keith Wood, Quail Hollow’s GCSAA Class A director of green and grounds and 27-year association member. “She could walk-mow greens, rake bunkers … she was able to do the things we needed her to do. What we quickly found out was, she had the Midas touch. Everything she did, it didn’t matter what we asked her to do, it came to her naturally. All the mowing, the weed-eating, everything she was tasked to do, hand-watering — she just picked it up so quickly, so easily. We all knew she was a natural. If we could clone Lara, that would be great. I tell all the interns now, she’s the model intern.”

Wood admits now that he had reservations, not that Arias wouldn’t be up to the task but that Quail Hollow, which before hadn’t had women on the maintenance staff, wasn’t ready.

“I was worried that our facilities weren’t going to be at the standards they needed to be at,” says Wood, noting at the time there was no designated women’s restroom in the maintenance facility. “But Lara wasn’t only a natural with equipment. She was a natural in the mental preparations, too. None of that mattered to her. She didn’t want to be seen as a woman in a men’s dominated industry. She was just part of the team.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Arias and her dog, Ryder, are eagerly awaiting the first Italian Ryder Cup, Sept. 29-Oct. 1 at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club outside of Rome. Photo courtesy of Lara Arias

A brief hiatus

Armed with a year and a half of bullet-proof agronomy work — not to mention volunteer experience at the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., where she first met fellow Spaniard Alejandro Reyes, her fiancé and Marco Simone’s director of agronomy — Arias returned to Europe and waited for the job offers to roll in.

They didn’t.

She did land a gig working the renovation of Real Club Valderrama in her native Spain, but that gig was short-lived.

“I did that for three months,” Arias recalls. “I was a little disappointed I was having trouble getting a job. For a long time, I thought it was because I was a woman, but it’s fine. What’s most important is that I was very positive, fighting to get back on a golf course.”

After another short stint working on a sod farm, Arias got back on a golf course to take basically an entry-level post working for Reyes at Le Golf National outside of Paris in the run-up to the 2018 Ryder Cup.

“I wanted to be back on a golf course, and Alejandro gave me that opportunity to be a greenkeeper at Le Golf National,” Arias says. “The position was lower, and I left a good salary, but I went to Paris to get more experience, more tournament preparation experience with the Ryder Cup. When I think about it now, it was the right decision.”

After six months at Le Golf National, Arias landed her only assistant superintendent job, at Real Club Pineda in Sevilla, Spain, where she served a year and a half before Marco Simone called in June 2020.

Arias says the powers-that-be at Marco Simone — which at that time was in the middle of its massive renovation — wanted to hire Reyes as superintendent, but since leaving Le Golf National in 2018, he had co-founded, with Sylvain Duval, the consulting company Turfgrass Agronomy & Services. TAS agreed Reyes would serve as Marco Simone’s director of agronomy, and the course directors selected Arias, also part of the TAS team, as the day-to-day superintendent. In the early stages of their contracts, Reyes continued his consulting duties at Marco Simone and elsewhere, but since midsummer he has been exclusively on-site at Marco Simone daily to oversee Ryder Cup prep.

“They knew her greenkeeping skills were more than capable,” O’Keeffe says. “She could do anything on a golf course. They knew she earned the respect of the team in Paris. When she went there, she didn’t speak French, and they saw that she learned French. The lady who owns Marco Simone, a very rich lady in charge of all the perfumes in Italy, had three proposals, three different superintendents. This lady in Italy said, ‘If I’m going to do this, I want the woman.’ She saw her résumé, saw she’d already done a Ryder Cup. There was no question about her ability.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Arias proved she could handle any task at Quail Hollow, Wood says, including wrangling the tricky fly mower. Photo courtesy of Mike O'Keeffe

More language lessons

So Arias — who learned most of her English after she landed in the United States, most of her French after touching down in Paris and most of her Italian after setting foot in Rome — and Reyes (and their dog, named, appropriately, Ryder) packed up and moved to Italy.

What they saw on the ground at Marco Simone, still very much in the throes of the early stages of the pandemic and all that entailed, was a stripped golf course far from being ready to host what was then supposed to be the 2022 Ryder Cup.

“Even in 2018, when I was at Le Golf National with Alejandro and we hosted the Ryder Cup, we said it looked like Marco Simone was not ready for the Ryder Cup,” Arias says. “They hadn’t even started the renovation. Finally in 2020 when we came here, the golf course was under full renovation, totally closed. But 2020 was a really good year. We did 18 holes grow-in and opened the golf course for members. That was the first step. Later on, we continued with the work. Every year, we had some renovation. When you go from a full renovation and in 2021 host the Italian Open, that was very special, even if the golf course wasn’t in the best shape. But coming from grow-in in one year, even though we had many weak areas where we didn’t have 100% density, it was really good for the team to say, ‘Yes, now the golf course is open. We’re ready to host a tournament.’”

Those three Italian Opens provided valuable tournament experience to the crew and a feedback loop in the run-up to the Ryder Cup.

Now, in retrospect, it seems every stop on Arias’ journey has helped her prepare for this moment. Though neither the renovation job at Valderrama nor the job at the sod farm felt ideal at the time for Arias, they gave her experience that proved invaluable during the early days at Marco Simone.

“I was frustrated,” she says, “but I tried to see everything from a positive point of view.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Arias and her pup, Ryder, with some of the Marco Simone crew. Arias says the regular greenkeeping staff numbers around 23, but she expects close to 100 with volunteers for the Ryder Cup. Photo courtesy of Lara Arias

‘In good shape’

Marco Simone is a challenging mix of cool- and warm-season grasses — Pure Distinction creeping bentgrass greens; Pure Dynasty paspalum tees, fairways, approaches and collars; and tall fescue roughs.

The paspalum grow-in — from seed, no less — was particularly nettlesome. Because the fairways aren’t sandcapped, weeds in the soil seed bank could establish when soil temperatures were low.

“It was very, very difficult,” Arias recalls. “The first two months, all you’d see is weeds everywhere.”

Looking back, Arias says, perhaps those challenges made her first months as a first-time superintendent, paradoxically, easier.

“I was super focused on the project,” she says. “People might have thought I was too young, or a woman, but I just tried to look at the golf course and focus on the golf course, to prepare the golf course for the Ryder Cup. I didn’t have time to think. I was just going to do my job, and I’ve done that the last 3 1/2 years. I think my work at Marco Simone is very good. The work is there. I think that’s the best way. I don’t need to talk about it. I don’t need to explain it. The work is there.”

The teams have made their official visits and their remarks are favorable. Now it’s just a sprint to the finish.

“We did have one very stressful week, when the teams were here to practice,” says Arias of the course which otherwise has been closed for play since Aug. 28. “We had to do set-up for them, and they were expecting to have the same conditions they’d have for Ryder Cup Week. We only have 20 greenkeepers instead of the 100 will have for Ryder Cup week. So that week was stressful.

“But the golf course is in good shape. This is a good time of year for all the turfgrasses. The feedback from the players was very good. We just need to keep going. We’ll be focused on the details and to not make mistakes. I say to the team all the time, ‘Guys, take your time. Make sure you don’t make mistakes. Make sure your lines are perfect. We have time.’ We’re looking forward to it. It’s all very exciting.”

Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s senior managing editor.