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Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Feb. 05, 2007
Feb. 05, 2007

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Feb. 5, 2007

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Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Having battled to the top in a man's world, Torrey Pines South course superintendent Candice Combs is on the verge of making history

Dawn arrives atTorrey Pines the way it does at all golf courses, but given Torrey's perchabove the Pacific on the cliffs of La Jolla, Calif., first light can be evenmore serene. Candice Combs, the superintendent of Torrey's marquee Southcourse, especially enjoys watching the moon set over the ocean, though there'sno moon to see this morning, not with the thick winter fog rolling in, and notime for reverie: The Buick Invitational looms, and, in the distance, the 2008U.S. Open approaches.

There's much to do. The new kikuyu-grass fairways need tending, as do thegreens, which are completing the delicate transition from troublesome bentgrassto poa. Then there's the aerating, top-dressing, sodding, fertilizing,irrigating, supervising ... enough tasks to make a man tired. And isn'tmaintaining a golf course a man's job? "I can't think about that," saysCombs, 53, the divorced mother of two who has been the South's super for thepast year. "My focus is elsewhere."

This is an article from the Feb. 5, 2007 issue Original Layout

Still, as shebegins another day on the job, Combs admits that her entry more than 30 yearsago into a universe without a Y chromosome made her an anomaly in a professionthat has skewed almost exclusively male since Old Tom Morris invented the job.And she knows that no woman has ever been the superintendent of the course thathosts the U.S. Open.

"She's probably the most prestigious woman in the industry right now,"says Carmen Magro, a former course superintendent who is head of the turfgrassprogram at Penn State, one of the foremost training grounds for supers in theU.S. "If she has a successful Open," he says, "that will be hugefor women in this industry. It will absolutely open doors." Andthat--breaking golf's grass ceiling--makes Combs proud. "That meanssomething to me," she says. "Hopefully, I'm going to give one for theteam."

Of the roughly10,500 superintendents and 5,500 assistants who belong to the Golf CourseSuperintendents Association of America, only 79 supers and 72 assistants arewomen. Of the 2,000 members who have reached the association's highest level ofcertification, women--Combs among them--make up barely 1%.

"We're few andfar between," says 27-year-old Patty Reedy, who was recently elevated fromassistant to head super on the South course at Los Angeles Country Club, makingher one of only 16 women supers at private clubs. The lack of numbers isn'tsurprising. The job entails exhausting physical labor and grueling hours and iscomplicated by nature's whims and golfers' demands. "This is no place forsuits and high heels," says Andrea Bakalyar, 34, super at the Wee course atWilliams Creek in Knoxville, Tenn. "It's not for everybody. It's not aneasy career."

Women in theindustry also must overcome sexism and tradition. "Can a woman ride atractor? Can she jump on a backhoe? Can she give directions?" asks BillSpence, the longtime superintendent at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass."Sure, but subliminally some men can't see that." Adds Hannes Combest,staff liaison to the GCSAA's diversity task force, "It doesn't appear to bea welcoming profession."

Welcoming, no.Fulfilling, yes. "I love this job," says Nancy Dickens, 47,superintendent and head agronomist of Westin Kierland Resort in Scottsdale,Ariz. "Every day provides me with an interesting challenge that tests whatI know." When she was in her early 30s, Dickens jumped off the corporateladder at Hallmark Cards after realizing that she didn't want to be chained toa desk. An avid golfer, she began researching jobs in the industry. "Backthen I never thought that a woman could do this," she says.

The profession haschanged dramatically in recent years. The old greenkeeper was a manual laborerwith a green thumb. Says Bruce Williams (a third-generation super who as headof the grounds at L.A. Country Club hired Reedy), "The key to the old dayswas, you had to withstand the physical part of the job to move yourself throughthe ranks. Back then, unloading a fertilizer truck was backbreaking. Today wedo it with a forklift. The physical aspect is still there, but it isn't make orbreak anymore."

The path torunning a course now runs through university programs like Penn State's, whereone or two women (out of a total enrollment of 45) matriculate annually, upfrom one every few years a decade ago. Reedy was in one of those programs, atTexas A&M. Initially, though, she had no interest in golf or golf courses."Growing up, I liked doing yard work," she says. "It's as simple asthat." In 2001 when a friend took a summer internship in Boston, she wentalong and found one too, in Brookline under Spence. "The rest is prettymuch history," says Reedy, who went on to work at Skokie (Ill.) CountryClub for three years before moving to L.A. Her first history lesson came whenSpence told her about another Patty--Patty Knaggs--who had preceded her at theCountry Club. "[Knaggs] had a meteoric career," says Spence. "Interms of the pioneers, I don't think anybody has been where she'sbeen."

Now 52 and aboutto be married for the first time, Knaggs landed her first job on a temporarycrew when she was 22 and fresh out of Syracuse University. She became anassistant at Echo Lake, a Donald Ross course in New Jersey, and then at theCountry Club before and during the 1988 U.S. Open, after which she was hired asthe head super at Westchester (overseeing three Buick Classics) and Hazeltine(1994 U.S. Mid-Amateur) and, finally, Bass Rocks in Gloucester, Mass., beforeleaving the profession three years ago to become a Realtor. "I ate, drankand slept it," she says. "There wasn't much associated with it I didn'tenjoy, especially starting out." Except the guys who put snakes in hertruck and the super who regularly teamed her with the crew's most notedslackers and the résumés she sent out that weren't acknowledged. (Bakalyar saysshe solved this problem by using her initials, A.C., instead of her first nameon her curriculum vitae.)

Knaggs's résumécrossed Spence's desk in the winter of 1985. "I'd never met a woman in thebusiness before," he says. "I had to talk to her." They sat down inthe club's unheated dining room--the heated grill room was off-limits to womenthen. "I couldn't let that upset me," says Knaggs. "I was there toget a job, not to change the laws."

Spence hired andmentored her. "She was hands down the most qualified person for thejob," he says. "That she was also a woman was kind ofrefreshing."

Some members ofthe club's U.S. Open committee were less than thrilled, but not for long."Seeing someone work so hard on a daily basis and achieving results woneveryone over," says Spence.

In the end, threedecades of keeping courses playable while constantly feeling the need to proveherself took its toll. "I had done stuff that people dreamed about,"Knaggs says, "but I wasn't willing to compromise on my life anymore. It wasmy turn to be selfish. When I started out, my career was a lot more interestingthan those of most of the men I met, but it asks for more than most people wantto give to their career. That's not a bad thing, necessarily, but I didn't findout until I left the profession how out of balance things were." Plus, awoman may be Speaker of the House, but there are grill rooms--like the oneReedy is not allowed to enter at L.A. Country Club--that remain off-limits towomen. "That's one of the reasons it was easy for me to step away,"says Knaggs.

Candice Combs tookher first step toward becoming a super 29 years ago at Balboa Park Golf Course,which like Torrey Pines is part of the San Diego municipal system. As anemployee of the city she was protected and promoted by the system.

When she firstarrived in San Diego with her boyfriend in 1976, Combs had no idea what shewanted to do, other than escape the harsh winters of her hometown, Dearborn,Mich. She had a degree in botany from Michigan and liked plants, the outdoorsand physical labor (her father was a mason), but she wasn't a tomboy. "Iwas a real girl-type girl," she says. "I cooked. I sewed. I crocheted.I gardened."

She worked as awaitress and got a pilot's license and eventually landed a job in the city parksystem, spending a year picking up whatever dogs and people left behind. Shehated it. Then came what Combs calls "a happy accident." She wastransferred to the maintenance crew at Balboa. "I didn't know what a greenwas," she says. "I didn't know what a tee was." But Combs was aquick study, and in addition to keeping up with her coworkers, she alsoimpressed her supervisors by taking turfgrass courses, learning advancedmaintenance techniques and earning a pesticide license.

She became asupervisor and then, in 1984, the assistant superintendent. In 1993 she wasnamed Balboa's head super. The news did not go down well in all quarters."On the first day I was told flat out by one of the retired Navy men on thecrew that he wasn't taking orders from a woman," says Combs. But she wasbetter qualified for the job than anyone else in the system, and the citypromotes from within with gender-blind eyes. "I'm a diversity queen,"she says.

Combs becameactive in the local GCSAA chapter. "I went to the first meeting in a dressand high heels," she says, "and no one took me seriously." Not forlong. She was elected chapter president and named superintendent of the year in2001.

Then another happyaccident occurred. After the smashing success of the 2002 U.S. Open at BethpageState Park, the USGA sought another public venue for its signature event andawarded the '08 Open to Torrey. The consensus was that the bone structure ofthe South course was superb but its skin was a wreck. In 2005 the city wentinto overdrive, hiring GCSAA president Mark Woodward, a certifiedsuperintendent with years of experience in the municipal system of Mesa, Ariz.,to manage Torrey's golf operations and improve the conditioning of thefacility's two 18s. When he decided to hire a new super for the South course,"I had to first look internally," Woodward says, "and Candice wasthe only certified superintendent in the system."

The road to TorreyPines (Combs calls Torrey "the glory place") has had a few twists.Woodward gave Combs and her assistant, Bill Sinclair, three months to provethemselves. They did enough--improving bunker drainage, ramping up overallmaintenance schedules--to warrant a three-month extension, taking her throughthe 2006 Buick Invitational. "You could feel the pressure," saysSinclair, "but she's a rock. I'd panic, but not Candice."

Meanwhile,Woodward had compiled a list of potential replacements in case the rockcrumbled. But, he says, "she came through. I saw she had a real sense ofurgency and follow-through, and she was hungry enough to keep up that level ofintensity. She and Bill put on a pretty darned good Buick."

At last February'sGCSAA convention in Atlanta, Woodward took Combs to dinner, formally offeredher the $60,000-a-year position, then announced the news to her fellow supers."Everybody clapped and came up to me," she says. "I guess it was apretty big deal."

Combs savors thechallenge. "We are expected to produce the best," she says. "I mayhave come from a more mom-and-pop approach, but I'm good at change. I feel asif I'm having to prove myself every day, and I think we're on the rightpath."

If all goes well ayear from June, more than grass might grow. "If some young woman or littlegirl watching on television hears my name and that I'm the super at TorreyPines, that will filter down," Combs says. "It might plant the seedthat they can do this too."

"This is no place for suits and high heels,"says Williams Creek's Bakalyar. "It's not for everybody. IT'S NOT AN EASYCAREER."
"I was told flat out by one of the retired Navy menthat he WASN'T TAKING ORDERS FROM A WOMAN," says Combs.
TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Robert BeckGENDER BENDER Of 16,000 GCSAA members, Combs (inset) is one of only 151 women. PHOTOPhotographs by Robert BeckTRAILBLAZER Hired as an assistant in '88, Knaggs doggedly won over members of the Country Club's U.S. Open committee.PHOTOPhotographs by Robert BeckTOUGH ROW TO HOE Reedy, super at the South course at L.A. Country Club, is not allowed to enter the men-only grill room.