David Johnson has overseen conditions of Mission Hills Country Club and the Kraft Nabisco Championship for 22 years.
By Angela Nitz
When Amy Alcott made the first Champion’s Leap in 1988, David Johnson was there.
When Dottie Pepper won with a record breaking 19 under in 1999, David Johnson was there.
When Grace Park won her first Major by just one stroke in 2004, David Johnson was there.
In fact, for the last two decades David Johnson has been there for every stroke, win and jump into the water of the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Johnson, a 23-year member of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, has overseen operations of the event as director of course operations at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho, Mirage, Calif., since 1988.
In that time, Johnson has seen champions come and go and the expectations of how the course should be conditioned change dramatically.
“I remember when the officials wanted greens speeds to be no more than 10 (on the Stimpmeter). If I pushed it a bit and they were 10.3 or 10.4, I was told that was too fast for the ladies,” Johnson said. “This year we were over 13. Now 10 is considered way too slow.”
To get those faster speeds, Johnson and staff have lowered mowing heights to a level unimaginable in the early days. But now the mantra for championship play is fairly simple – firm and fast.
The increased level of skill needed to play under such conditions has also brought a greater public awareness – and appreciation – of the LPGA Majors and players, Johnson said.
“I think the Majors are now much more in the public eye,” he said. “I think you can really see an improvement in the quality of play, and the public responds to that. I think the average golfer can really identify more with LPGA players. The average golfer is never going to have a swing like Tiger Woods, but they can look at LPGA players and see something more comparable.”
The job at Mission Hills was not supposed to last this long. It was Johnson’s first time as a head superintendent, and he was originally brought in to oversee creation of a new course at Mission Hills. When that project fell through, he stayed on to oversee his first Kraft Nabisco Championship, known then as the Nabisco Dinah Shore.
But despite being his first time in charge of a golf facility, it was not the first time Johnson had been involved with a Major. From 1984-1988 he was the assistant superintendent at The Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, which hosted the 1986 PGA Championship.
It is perhaps only fitting that a career focused so much on a ladies’ event was inspired by a woman golfer. While toiling away in business classes in his native Michigan, Johnson left that unfulfilling career path to join his sister at a course in Florida where she was employed as the assistant golf professional.
“I came from a family of golfers, and being there made me realize how much I enjoyed working outdoors and working with the game,” Jonson said.
He eventually returned to Michigan and college, and received a degree in turfgrass management from Michigan State University.
Despite the changes in expectations and exposure of the Tour, some basic principals of preparing for the event have remained constant.
“Working with the officials, making sure all the details are set,” he said. “You have to plan out well in advance. But in the end, our prep is affected the most by what our winters are like.”
Johnson has been fortunate to not only have a good relationship with his employers and club members over the years, but also with the string of good weather that seems to come at tournament time. He has also made some great memories.
“I was lucky to be here in 1991 when Dinah Shore challenged Amy Alcott that if she won, Dinah would jump in lake with her. I think Dinah was getting a little nervous as the tournament went on, but she did it,” Johnson said.
Another highlight was the 2008 victory of Lorena Ochoa. She became an instant favorite of the maintenance staff’s largely Hispanic population when she came and served breakfast for the crew that year.
“When she won, it was really special for the staff,” Johnson said.
The victories and subsequent winners’ jumps in Champions’ Pond or Poppy’s Pond, as it’s also known, have garnered a lot of attention and some great photo ops. And while pond maintenance is important at any golf facility, at Mission Hills, one particular body of water gets a little extra attention.
Care of Champions’ Pond is aided by a smaller isolated pond within the main body of water that is filled with fresh water. This makes it easier to maintain between the twice a year cleanings.
“We always want to make sure it looks great and is clean for the ladies,” he said.
As his time in the golf course management profession hits the quarter-century mark, Johnson shows no signs of leaving it behind anytime soon.
“I haven’t really looked that far down the road to retirement. I am really thankful for everything here. It’s always a challenge and there is always something different to keep you busy,” Johnson said.
With another successful tournament under his belt in 2010, Johnson’s attentions turned to the other day-to-day operations and special events at Mission Hills. In June the club hosted the AJGA Desert Championship (the longest running AJGA event in the country), and in September, the facility was host to LPGA Sectional Qualifyier on the Palmer and Dinah Shore Courses. And of course, he is already planning for the 2011 Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Angela Nitz is the manager, corporate communications for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. GCSAA is a leading golf organization, which has as its focus golf course management. Since 1926, GCSAA has been the top professional association for the men and women who manage golf courses in the United States and worldwide. From its headquarters in Lawrence, Kan., the association provides education, information and representation to more than 20,000 members in more than 72 countries. GCSAA’s mission is to serve its members, advance their profession and enhance the enjoyment, growth and vitality of the game of golf. The association's philanthropic organization, the Environmental Institute for Golf, works to strengthen the compatibility of golf with the natural environment through research grants, support for education programs and outreach efforts. Visit GCSAA at www.gcsaa.org.
Topics: Kraft Nabisco Championship