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Super Star The praise for Bethpage Black was music to the ears of course superintendent Craig Currier, who spent five years whipping the place into shape

June 24, 2002
June 24, 2002

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June 24, 2002

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Super Star The praise for Bethpage Black was music to the ears of course superintendent Craig Currier, who spent five years whipping the place into shape

I'm just a dirt farmer from upstate New York," Craig Currier told
a well-wisher last week.

This is an article from the June 24, 2002 issue Original Layout

"Yeah," came the reply, "but it's a better class of dirt."

Currier's grin acknowledged the accuracy of that statement. Even
in the dull overcast and rains that prevailed throughout the
U.S. Open, the Bethpage Black course produced a bountiful
harvest of praise. The players said the greens were as fast and
true as any they had played, the roughs the densest in memory.
The bunkers, all 12 acres of them, looked as if they had been
raked by an army of Zen gardeners. "I've been around major
tournaments since 1989," said Frank Rossi, a turfgrass
specialist from Cornell, "and I doubt if there has ever been a
finer-conditioned course."

The praise lavished on the course inevitably fell on Currier,
who has been superintendent of the five courses at Bethpage
State Park since 1997, when the USGA awarded the 2002 U.S. Open
to Bethpage Black. "What Craig has done here is outstanding,"
said Tim Moraghan, the USGA's director of championship agronomy.
"When he started, the fairways were mostly weeds, the bunkers
were a disgrace and everything was overgrown. Now everybody says
it's the best-conditioned U.S. Open course." Surprisingly the
turnaround was accomplished by a young man who had not
previously held a head superintendent's job. Course architect
Rees Jones, when introduced to the tall, guileless Currier in
1997, had to ask how old he was. Currier answered, "Twenty-six."
Jones smiled and said, "When the Open is over, you're going to
be 41." Jones, who worked closely with Currier while renovating
Bethpage Black, now hails him as a greenkeeper's greenkeeper. "I
can't say enough about the guy. He's no excuses and all
solutions."

Normally the superintendent at a major championship doesn't draw
attention unless he provokes the golfers a la John Philp (who
defended his brutal setup of Carnoustie at the 1999 British Open
by saying, "Christ, [the players] don't know what a low ball
is"). By its very nature the job enforces anonymity. Like a
playwright the greenkeeper does his work before either the
actors or the audience arrive; and like a janitor he has to
clean up everything after the show. "I'm kind of overwhelmed by
the attention we're getting," Currier said last week, carefully
avoiding the use of the first-person singular. "Obviously we're
happy that people like what we've done."

Currier was similarly low-key at 4:30 last Thursday morning,
when he briefed his battalion of salaried workers and sleepy
volunteers in the lunchroom of Bethpage's sprawling maintenance
compound. Without preamble he went over mowing assignments, told
the crew members who would be rolling the greens to "keep
rollin' until you run out of time" and reminded everyone to use
plastic rakes to fluff up trampled rough. "The last few days
have been fun," he said. "Now we get to see some scores go on
the board. This is what we've been waiting for."

Watching everyone pour out the door into the darkness, one could
easily have mistaken it for D-day of a military operation. But
to Currier, sliding behind the steering wheel of a flatbed
utility vehicle, the analogy was overblown. "Everybody thinks
this is such a hard week," he said. "This week is easy. The
course is right where we want it, and I've got 110 guys who know
what they're doing."

Only 110? It seemed like hundreds when, as first light suffused
the eastern sky, Currier turned off Round Swamp Road and drove
up to the 1st green. Four mowers cruised up the fairway in
staggered formation, their cutters raised. ("We're mowing in
only one direction from green to tee," Currier explained.) A
half-dozen men with blowers and rakes worked around the fairway
bunkers. In the distance, at the elevated 17th green, 15 or so
more swarmed over a bunker complex of Pharaonic proportions.

Hopping out of his cart, Currier strode onto the 1st green,
where USGA officials and a hole-cutting team were plotting cup
locations. Handed a putter, Currier stroked three balls from 20
feet at the existing hole. He missed wide right, sent the next
racing 12 feet past and rolled the last well to the left. "Glad
I'm not playing today," he said, handing over the putter. Behind
him a worker pushed a purring reel mower over the luxuriant
fringe grass. Another worker, seated on a yellow speed roller,
scooted sideways from one side of the green to another.

"Flat greens," someone muttered sarcastically. A ball on a test
roll was veering as if attracted by a magnet.

"That's all we've heard for five years," Currier said, "how flat
the greens are, and how the pros are going to eat 'em up. But
there are so many subtle breaks that people don't see, and
nobody's putted on these greens at the speed they are today." In
fact the fastest the Black greens had ever played, in state
tournaments, had produced readings of about 12 on the
stimpmeter. Currier now had those same greens rolling at a
lightning-fast 14-plus. "Not bad for a muni," he said.

Not bad for a dirt farmer, either. "He's unbelievable," putting
guru Dave Pelz had said on TV the night before. "I think the
greens are going to be the most consistent these players have
ever seen." However, Pelz had stumbled over Currier's name, so
when their carts met on a path on Thursday morning, Currier
couldn't resist the needle. "Mr. Leadbetter, hi!" he said as he
went by. Pelz shook his head and grinned.

Several hours later, with the first round under way and 42,500
spectators packing the grandstands and pressing against the
ropes, Currier had time to join a couple of dozen volunteer
maintenance workers watching the tournament on TV in a tent
behind the lunchroom. Some of the younger men had dozed off with
their heads on the cafeteria tables. Others were stretched out
on the floor, snoring.

"Tired as I am, I don't feel tired," Currier said. "It doesn't
get more exciting than this." Like his team he was going on five
hours of sleep a night. Unlike his team he was playing host to
15 or 20 houseguests at his bachelor cottage in the woods
nearby. He had erected a dormitory tent in the backyard, hooked
up a portable shower and even invited a friend, magician Kevin
(the Jolly Jester) Dawson, to perform. "My house is the party
house this week," he said, "and I've got more friends arriving
tonight."

Some of those friends were Currier's classmates at Mount Markham
High, in West Winfield, N.Y., where he played center on the
basketball team and something resembling golf on the golf team.
("Actually, he was a good golfer," said a classmate. "He was
medalist 95 percent of the time.") Others had met Currier in
Cobleskill, N.Y., where he earned degrees in turfgrass
management and plant science at the branch of the State
University of New York there, or at the Piping Rock Club and the
Garden City Golf Club on Long Island, where he worked as an
assistant superintendent. Currier made even more friends, as
well as a good impression, when he took a seasonal job at
Augusta National in 1994 and '95. That experience, plus a rave
recommendation from Piping Rock's respected super, Richard
Spear, convinced USGA executive director David Fay that Currier
was the man to run Bethpage. "Craig was young," says Moraghan,
"but he'd seen golf course maintenance at the highest level."

What Currier hadn't seen, until he arrived at Bethpage in June
1997, was maintenance at the lowest level. The Black course had
a skeleton staff of five or six, and nobody had turfgrass
experience or a college degree. "The greens were decent,"
Currier said last week, "but the course was overgrown and the
bunkers had become round saucers with filter cloth showing
through. It looked like what it was--a public course that had
been played for 60 years." Was he overwhelmed? "No. I knew I had
a lot of work to do, but I also knew I had five years."

He also had money. The USGA contributed about $3 million to the
restoration of Bethpage Black, and the state of New York and
private investors poured in millions more. Currier now heads a
full-time staff of 75. Twenty of them have turfgrass degrees.
But neither money nor manpower could have revived the Black,
says Moraghan, if Currier hadn't shown exceptional judgment and
leadership. "It's a highly technical job involving staff,
budgets and equipment. You're dealing with two things you can't
control: Mother Nature and people." Cornell's Rossi, evaluating
Currier's $80,000 salary, says, "The state got a deal when it
hired Craig. There are guys five miles from here making 250
grand who only run 18 holes."

A greenkeeper of Currier's stature can command top dollar, but
he discourages talk of a bidding war for his services, saying,
"I like the freedom I have here and the challenge. I'm not sure
I'd be happy at a club where the course is set and doesn't need
tweaking." Rossi, sounding like Currier's agent, says New York
should put Currier in charge of all its courses on Long Island,
or even in the whole state. "If they do that," Rossi says,
"they'll have him for life, and New York's courses will be the
envy of the nation."

Even that might not give Currier half the buzz that he got from
Open week at Bethpage. As light faded on Sunday evening, he
stood on the 18th green and heard the champion, Tiger Woods,
describe his greens and fairways as perfect. Later, at a rock
'n' roll party in the compound, the greenkeeper got on one knee
and proposed to his girlfriend of two years, Joanna Ryan--who
accepted. "It's Craig's night," Ryan said afterward, laughing at
photographers who crowded in for a picture of the engagement
ring on her finger.

It was Currier's night, all right. And on Monday morning he could
sleep in.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH EARLY BIRDS Currier (standing opposite right) briefed part of his 110-man crew in the predawn hours before the opening round.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH THE BIG TEST Currier was curious to see how Tour pros like David Duval would fare.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH TASK MASTER Currier (with his dog, Tillie) was in constant motion, making sure jobs such as cutting the holes were done properly.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH COLLECT CALL Having built the staff that shaped up Bethpage, Currier will get offers to rake in bigger bucks at a private club.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH TAKING A KNEE Currier capped his big week by proposing to Ryan (she said yes) on Sunday night.
"There are guys five miles from here making 250 grand who only
run 18 holes," says Rossi.
"I can't say enough about the guy," Rees Jones says of Currier.
"He's no excuses and all solutions."