Though it was only founded in 1990, the Solheim Cup has staked its claim as one of the most historic signature events on the collective golf calendar. The biennial match play competition has given us unforgettable heroes, incredible moments, and is much looked forward to by fans, players, and industry professionals across the game’s landscape.
To host such an event is a great honor for a club considering the Solheim Cup counts courses like Gleneagles, Interlachen, and Muirfield Village amongst its previous venues. But for John Zimmers, Director of Grounds at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, host of this year’s competition, the 17th playing of the Cup is set to be an experience unlike any other in his tenure as an agronomy professional.
However, with support from partner John Deere, and a wealth of knowledge gleaned from his time spent at Oakmont, Zimmers is up for the challenge. He takes fans inside the ropes, detailing the specifics of pre-tournament setup for the 2021 Solheim Cup.
Coming from a facility like Oakmont, what championship experience have you brought to your position at Inverness?
Any time you work at a place like that, it's an honor. Oakmont is such a special place in the world of golf. I got to do two U.S. Opens, a U.S. Amateur, and a U.S. Women's Open there but more importantly, I got to be a part of the history of Oakmont in the renovation—taking the trees down and expanding the golf course, redoing the church pews, and all those things that came along with it.
I had the fortune of being around a lot of people over my time there. I had the chance to be a mentor and I had great assistants. I think that’s the thing that you look back on. People talk about the championships, but to really work with people, have great relationships, and then see them go on to start their family and build their career—those are all the things I think you look back on. We're excited because I have several assistants that used to work for me coming for the Solheim Cup so it's kind of like a little reunion.
What has the preparation for the Solheim Cup been like? How does it compare to preparation for other events?
Since I've been here at Inverness, we've had the U.S. Junior Amateur in 2019 and then the Drive On Championship. We didn’t do a lot in terms of an outside building structure, hospitality, or grandstands for either one of those events so this one is different. This is big. This is a big build-out. This reminds me a little bit of the U.S. Women’s Open in 2010.
It's been challenging because we didn't fully know if we were going to do this until May because of COVID-19. We’ve taken the mindset in terms of the club and the Solheim Cup team and our staff that let’s plan like this is full go. If it is full go, we're anticipating 20,000 fans a day and that's pretty exciting. That's big—that's getting up into major championship level of people. It's different because the Solheim Cup brings people tighter. The ropes are a little bit closer than what you have for a U.S. Open and it's really encouraged in terms of fan participation. So it’s exciting. I’ve never been through anything like this where they encourage you to make noise and they're promoting coming to the golf course to watch golf but yet we want you to have a good time.
I think it’s a wonderful thing for golf and I think it's wonderful that Inverness last year said okay we will kick off Drive On. Hopefully, it gives them a little advantage and I think they're excited to be here. I think doing what we did last year they have more of an appreciation for Inverness and I think they're excited to come back.
Are there differences in readying a course for match play versus grooming it for stroke play?
The golf course is going to play very similarly to how our membership plays it most of the time and probably at the same yardage as well. From our perspective, everybody's like we want the golf course to be tough and we want it to win no matter if it's men or women. We want it to win and it's like okay but it's match play, so it changes things a little bit. It’s just fun golf. You want to see people hit exciting golf shots and execute shots, not chop it out of the rough.
What work are you doing ahead of time to make sure Inverness is in pristine condition before the Solheim Cup?
A lot of the structures are pretty much being taken care of so now you start seeing a lot of people and lighting and carpet and all that changes with people. But, on the golf course, we just start doing more detailed things like making sure that our divots and landing areas are netted and trying to make sure we are caught up on our applications. For us, it's never good enough. We go out, we're looking for all of our problems and we want to solve them all. We still are doing that. But we’ll get to a point that we are who we are. It really changes once they put the rope line up because then everything else outside it doesn't mean nearly as much because fans fill in.
They're all different because [hosting events] at the end of August beginning of September time frame means you had to prepare your golf course to come through for the entire summer and it's tired. It's not the same as preparing for a U.S. Open where your golf course is peaking in June. You always know that when you do tournaments in these seasons there is always going to be something—crazy weather or something else bizarre—so you just kind of say okay, we're going to hope for the best and stick to the plan in place.
How does John Deere help both your day-to-day maintenance responsibilities at Inverness and championship tournament setup?
I've had a long relationship with John Deere. Back at Oakmont, I had a relationship with John Deere. When you make transitions at jobs, everybody wants things a little different that use different equipment so I didn't have everything I really needed the first probably 2-3 years. They jumped in right away and said what is it you need and how can we help. We know that you're there for the long haul and we're going to participate from day one. And they did that here at the Inverness Club and the board, they recognized that that wasn’t normal practice.
That’s about relationships as well. I think that the relationships I have continued to build upon from day one here have really paid dividends for us to do our daily maintenance. They were a big part of day one and they're even bigger today. As we sit here, they've sponsored us with all the U.S. Junior Amateur extra equipment and support for the volunteers and the staff with uniforms and meals and hotels. They did it last year for Drive On and they're doing it again.
This season, we're really excited because we entered into a new equipment program with pretty much the entire John Deere fleet. I think the club is excited about that too and it's easy for us to say that Inverness and I have a wonderful partnership with John Deere.
How does John Deere’s commitment to excellence motivate you and your staff to do the same?
When you see people that are willing to take the time to come to town to make sure that the equipment is set up right and give you support it goes a long way because it’s day-to-day operations and they are always responsive.
These things only work if it's a partnership. I believe that at times we keep asking and asking but we also have to make sure that we communicate with them as well. I think that's the most important thing. When you build upon that, they understand when you ask for something and we understand what they've also taken the time to do for us.
I give John Deere a lot of credit. When you have events like Solheim, those guys are bringing extra equipment and bringing things that are a lot of extra work for them. It’s just a lot more additional work and we are really lucky because we have several of our reps and our John Deere people who not only do the work to bring this equipment, but they come and they volunteer their time to actually work here with us for that week. There’s a lot that goes into it and everybody does a lot of extra work for huge events like this.
What do you want the casual fan to know about golf course maintenance and turfgrass management?
If they're a fan and they enjoy the game of golf, I’d encourage them to try to learn what it takes to prepare a golf course every day. I think personally, and I’ve said this all along, I think we do an absolutely terrible job in our profession of educating the average golfer. We seem to educate ourselves and we send it all around the circle to ourselves, but we’re not getting it to the right people. It's not just mowing grass. It's chemistry. It’s soil. It’s a responsibility for the environment. It's people management and public speaking and writing and helping people with their resumes. It's a very unique business that we’re in.