AUGUSTA, Ga. — Before Marsh Benson mastered the art of fairway grooming as superintendent of Augusta National Golf Club, he first had to learn how to set a table properly.
That was part of his course work in Penn State’s turf science program, where students study everything from the proper height to mow Kentucky bluegrass to which forks and glasses are used for a formal place setting.
For the first time, the school has produced all three superintendents for this year’s U.S.- based major golf tournaments -- the Masters, which began Thursday in Augusta, Georgia; the U.S. Open; and the PGA Championship. At Penn State, Benson was schooled by Joseph Duich, a man who stressed that proper comportment was part of the job and force students to take an etiquette course.
“Mrs. Franz; I can’t believe I still remember her name,” Darren Davis, a 1989 Penn State graduate, former Augusta National grounds crew employee and superintendent of Olde Florida Golf Club in Naples, Florida, said in a telephone interview. “It was such an aggravating class. Many students hated it and begged him to get rid of it, but he knew that how we presented ourselves was huge. If you can’t talk to the CEO of Ford, you can’t work at a place like Augusta. I still have my notes from that class.”
The 77th Masters began Thursday morning under a cloudy sky with former champions Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hitting the ceremonial first tee shots.
Including this year’s Masters, U.S. Open and PGA, 10 of 16 major championships dating back to the 2008 Masters will have been conducted with a Penn State-educated superintendent in charge of the course.
The school’s two-year Golf Course Turf Management Program, the oldest such curriculum of its kind, also produced Augusta National assistant superintendent Brad Owen, who did his Penn State internship at Augusta.
Benson and Owen declined to be interviewed, according to club spokesman Steve Ethun.
Matt Shaffer, who oversees Merion Golf Club, site of this year’s U.S. Open in Ardmore, Pa., and Jeff Corcoran, superintendent of PGA Championship host Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., also studied at Penn State, as did Curtis Tyrell at Medinah Country Club, host of last year’s Ryder Cup matches outside Chicago.
“A lot of the students coming in, their end goal is to host the U.S. Open or become a superintendent at a top club,” said John Kaminski, who has overseen the 56-year-old program since 2009. “We can say, ’Look, our alumni are there and if you work hard and put in your time, that could potentially be you.’”
Kaminski, 38, said Benson was among the students learning etiquette as well as turf science during his time at Penn State, which was chartered in 1855 as the Farmers’ High School.
With about 150 students in Penn State’s two- and four-year campus-based programs and “hundreds” of others taking courses online, Kaminski said the school has the largest turf science curriculum in the U.S. Mark Kuhns, who cares for the grounds at New Jersey’s Baltusrol Golf Club and is a former president of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, is a 1977 graduate of Penn State’s program.
Kuhns hosted the 1994 U.S. Open at Pennsylvania’s Oakmont and 2005 PGA Championship at New Jersey’s Baltusrol.
Course superintendents make, on average, $82,573 a year, according to their industry group.
While Benson and Owen are among Penn State’s most high- profile superintendent alums, the school isn’t alone when it comes to producing marquee grass groomers.
New Jersey’s Rutgers University educated Glenn Burton, who developed the Tifway 419 Bermuda Grass hybrids, known as Tif grasses. They cover more golf courses than any other types of grass in the southeastern U.S., including Augusta National.
During the Masters, Augusta National’s Bermuda fairways, which remain dormant through the winter months and early spring, are covered by green rye grass developed at Rutgers. Every April, students from Rutgers, Penn State and other programs descend upon Augusta for hands-on learning.
The Augusta experience, Merion’s Shaffer said, might be just as important as the time spent at Penn State.
In 1985, with 13 years of experience as a superintendent at a rural Pennsylvania course, Shaffer applied for a job at a new club in North Carolina. The Wade Hampton Golf Club, ranked No. 20 on Golf Digest magazine’s U.S. course list, never interviewed him for the position.
“I thought ’Oh, they’re going to hire me,’” Shaffer said. “I was totally crushed.”
The job at the Tom Fazio-designed course went to Bill Knox, a former assistant superintendent at Augusta National. Shaffer, 51, realized that he needed to get that experience on his resume, so he moved to Georgia to work at the club. Shaffer said he needed to get a “Masters degree” to go with his Penn State education.
Beyond grass growing, programs such as Penn State’s prepare enrollees for country-club life. Like Davis, Shaffer has not-so- fond memories of the etiquette course, which taught working- class students how to dress and write proper English.
“Most of the guys come from a humble background, but you’re going to be working with bluebloods,” Shaffer said. “The very first way to show your ignorance is to be uncomfortable in their presence.”
Carl Spackler comes to mind, Penn State’s Kaminski said, referencing actor Bill Murray’s grass- and dirt-stained greenskeeper character in the 1980 movie “Caddyshack.”
Spackler is fiction.
“It’s a lot of science,” Kaminski says of the modern-day superintendent’s work. “But it’s starting to morph into a lot of business management. In truth, 15 percent of what you’re doing is related to agronomy and 85 percent is those other areas.”