Behind the Scenes of Tournament Setup: Lukus Harvey, Director of Agronomy at Atlanta Athletic Club presented by John Deere
Pre-tournament setup isn’t just mowing greens, cutting cups, and raking bunkers. Golf course maintenance and agronomy are incredibly technical sciences so when it comes to preparing for an LPGA major championship, it’s important to have equipment and a staff that run like no other. This week’s tournament host, the Atlanta Athletic Club, is kept in championship shape thanks to John Deere.
There will be 252 cups cut this week by 85 members of the maintenance team including 18 holes on the Highlands Course and an additional 18 holes on the practice greens. Eighty-eight greens will be mown each day after the double-cutting of each one, typical of major championships, making for a total of 616 mows over the course of the tournament.
In simple terms, it is a lot of work to get a golf course ready for an LPGA Tour major championship. But Lukus Harvey, Director of Agronomy at Atlanta Athletic Club since 2010, knows that the effort will be worth it on Thursday when the first shots are struck at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. Harvey gives an inside look at what it takes to be a turfgrass professional, how a golf facility prepares to host the world’s best players, and how advancements in John Deere technology help his team maintain a high level of excellence in their tournament setup.
What led you to your current role? Why did you choose turfgrass management as your career path?
I grew up in Northeast Ohio and had a job answering phones back when the old universal remotes had battery covers with an 800 number you could call for help with programming it. I was doing that when I was 16 just to get gas money and insurance money for a car. It was Masters week and a guy that I became friends with told me that he went to work at this golf course. He said that you just had to mow greens, cut some cups and you can play golf for free every Monday. I said “sign me up,” having no idea what I had gotten into. So it was just by chance.
I fell in love with it and when I went to school, I chose Ohio State because they had a program for golf course management and agronomy. That’s how I got into this line of work. As my career went on, I got to work at Doral Golf Resort as a course superintendent and really got the bug for tournament venues. I went on to work at PGA National and that was great but, day-to-day, you want to work at a high-end, private club. The Atlanta Athletic Club was a no-brainer for me because of the history of hosting tournaments and when I came and interviewed, they shared the mission statement with me and to see that they were always going to pursue these kinds of events was awesome.
How much does the history of a venue play into the preparation of it for tournament play?
The funny thing is we renovate here every five to seven years. It never ends up being the same golf course whether it be a change in bunker lines or a change in turf types. We just want to live up to the same great history the club has already had. All the way back to Jerry Pate’s 1976 U.S. Open win on through all the majors we’ve hosted, we want to keep putting Atlanta Athletic Club in a great light in the golf world when it’s on a global stage.
Is there a difference between the preparation that is required for a regular LPGA or PGA Tour event versus a major championship? How are the courses set up differently?
In terms of the playing surfaces—the greens, the tees, the fairways—it’s fairly similar to a certain degree. It’s actually nicer with a major championship because you don’t have a whole bunch of pro-ams like you would with a regular Tour event. Look, this is a major. It’s one of the five majors for women. It’s a PGA of America event. You definitely turn it up a couple of notches. Just like the greens, we’ll be out double-cutting fairways.
If you said for a Tour event, on a scale of one to ten, we are trying to get it to a ten, for a PGA Championship we are trying to turn that dial at least a couple of more notches. It might be a 10.5 or a 10.75, but we are going to try to turn it a couple more.
What does it mean for the Atlanta Athletic Club to host the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship? What does it mean to you personally?
It’s in our mission statement for the club. It says that we will continue to host golf championships throughout the entire history of the club so it’s everything. It’s something that the Board is always looking at. It’s something that the membership gets excited about. I think if this club went 10 years without a tournament no one would be happy because hosting tournaments is what we strive for.
I put a lot of weight on myself and my team because if we don’t perform and do our best, they’re not going to want to come back. It’s the club, it’s the history with Bobby Jones, it’s the great golf course, it’s the Highlands Course, and the awesome championship layout that are the reasons they come. We want to make sure we are not a reason that they would decide not to come back.
Have the basics of pre-tournament course setup changed over the years?
Everything evolves. You still have the same basics that you’re doing, but the actual process, yes. You look at the mowers for the greens. Almost everybody uses a floating head versus a fixed head.
We have all learned—sometimes the hard way—that you don’t have to mow the grass super, super short anymore. You’re talking about mowing the greens at one-tenth of an inch or 80 thousandths of an inch but what we’ve found is that we don’t have to mow it at 60 or 70 thousandths of an inch anymore which really stresses the grass out.
We use brushes and spinning metal groomers. What we’ve really learned about is managing the surface better and really grooming the surface which minimizes or gets rid of grain and creates that truer ball roll. A lot of the time, we’ll talk nowadays about how a 12 on the Stimpmeter with grainy greens is nowhere near as fast as greens that are an 11.5 that have no grain with a surface that is really managed. That has changed dramatically.
All that intense management on the surface of the greens has carried out now—especially for major championships—into the fairways and the tees. You’re brushing them and grooming that surface as well because you want the ball to sit just perfectly upright.
Being a John Deere facility, how has technology changed pre-tournament course setup? What products and systems, in particular, make your job much more streamlined than in the past?
Probably the biggest change in the last few years is GPS technology from day-to-day routine equipment and for the build-up for a tournament. Things like the GPS-guided sprayers so you’re always super accurate on your applications and your rates and what you’re putting out is going exactly where you want it to.
GPS as a whole has changed our whole industry. For example, if you go back to 2016 when we did the renovation on the Highlands Course, we scraped the greens off and got down to the clean USGA greens mix, but we were able to put it back because we took all the measurements. We measured 1ft squares of green and you’re able to put them back exactly how they were. It’s funny because Kerry Haigh comes and does the setup. He did the 2001 and the 2011 PGA Championships and those greens, with the exception of 14 which we did a complete redesign of, are exactly the same.
How many women do you have on your maintenance staff? Why is it important to encourage more women to join the golf industry, specifically in golf course agronomy and maintenance?
Within the last year, we have had a couple of ladies come on board with our maintenance staff and started to show them our operation. They were kind of our ambassadors at first and now the word is out there. Our hourly staff is now 35-percent female. It has totally changed the quality of work that we get and our efficiency. It’s just really been fantastic to have them.
One of our interns this year, Elizabeth, is the first female intern we’ve had. She was attracted to be here for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. I volunteer for the Green Start Academy every year and to see more and more women attend is awesome, it’s an amazing industry.
I think it’s such a rewarding career and there’s so much availability out there. There are so many golf courses right now looking to fill their superintendent roles with qualified individuals so the ceiling of opportunity for women in the golf industry is boundless. Being the father of a 4-year-old daughter, I would love it if she would one day pursue agronomy. It would just be the coolest thing ever.
What advice would you give to the next generation of turf professionals?
You cannot get enough real-world experience. I tell them all if you’re going to school and they tell you that you’ve got to do one internship, every summer should be an internship. When I went to school, not only would I work in the summers and do internships, I’d go home on Christmas break and work for the local golf club and learn how to fix engines or learn how to sharpen reels. You just can’t get enough experience. You have to get the science part down and learn all the technical parts that they teach in school, but there’s not enough real-world experience. I would also tell them that tournaments are great and you should experience that and you should get to those venues. But just as much, you should go to places that are doing renovations. Learn how to do the construction side of it or re-grassing.
And make as many contacts as you possibly can. This business is built on that. Not too many weeks go by that the phone of a former assistant doesn’t ring looking for another job or a mentor of mine looking to replace one of their people. I’d tell them to forge relationships with not just agronomy professionals but with the general managers and golf pros because we’re all in this thing together. The strongest clubs have a good GM, a good golf professional, and a good superintendent that all work together.