New Orleans native Michael Knoll has been part of the assistant-in-training program at Pebble Beach for three years. Photos by Scott Hollister
From his office just north of downtown San Francisco — a space earned through hard work and plenty of success in what had been a swift ascension in the corporate world — Michael Knoll could look out and see the greens, fairways and tees of Lake Merced Golf Club.
“I had the big corner office with windows from floor to ceiling, but I kept finding myself with my forehead on the window, looking down on the golf course,” he says. “And I knew deep down that I didn’t want to be in that office anymore. I wanted to be down there, on that golf course.”
And that’s exactly where he is now.
After much soul-searching and hand-wringing, Knoll traded in his corporate career for one in golf course management, a decision that eventually led the 35-year-old to his current position as an assistant-in-training at Pebble Beach, where he’s helping prepare the famed links for this week’s U.S. Open.
“Back then, I had more than one person ask me what my dream job would be — what I would do for free,” Knoll says. “And each time I said, ‘take care of a golf course or a baseball field.’ And here I am.”
Turfgrass management wasn’t exactly a new concept to Knoll. Growing up in New Orleans, he began mowing lawns as a kid and, gradually, built that into his own lawn maintenance company, a venture that paid his way to undergraduate degree in finance and economics.
Straight out of college, Knoll went to work for a company that provided inventory consultant services to retailers such as Victoria’s Secret, Dollar Tree and Walgreens. Knoll shot up the company ladder, earning a district manager position within his first year on the job and a reputation as a “fixer” — someone who could take struggling offices and turn them around.
Despite his success, which stretched into a nine-year stint in that industry, Knoll wasn’t content. “I just got to the point in life that I didn’t want to chase titles or the money anymore. It wasn’t making me happy,” he says.
So, he quit. And all that time spent staring down at Lake Merced inspired him to chase a job in golf course management.
Knoll (left) waters a green (with a hand from Kenton Brunson, assistant superintendent at Spyglass Hill Golf Course) on Tuesday ahead of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
“I went to the nearest golf course to my house (Poplar Creek Golf Course in San Mateo, Calif.) and met Tim Sedgley, who is now retired but was a 45-year certified superintendent,” Knoll says. “I did not know him at all, but went up and told him I wanted to work for him for free. He thought I was nuts.”
Sedgley ultimately hired Knoll — paid him, too — and encouraged him to pursue a two-year turf certificate from Rutgers. He also sold Knoll on the benefits of internships, and Knoll investigated the idea of doing one such internship at Pebble Beach. The interview process for that opportunity soon turned into a job offer as an assistant-in-training at Pebble, and before he had finished his first semester of study in Rutgers’ online program, Knoll was on his way.
Not that the new post came without pitfalls. “There was a ton I didn’t know,” Knoll admits. “At that point, I had never walk-mowed, never ran a fairway unit. One of the first things they had me do was hand-water a green. They told me to puddle it up just a little bit, but I did a little more than that. I ended up just flooding it.”
But just as he did during his corporate career, Knoll proved to be a quick study. “I learned my lesson. And now I’m in charge of watering greens at a U.S. Open (he’s monitoring moisture levels on the front nine this week),” he says. “Go figure.”
Scott Hollister is GCM’s editor-in-chief.