Lancaster Country Club prepares for 79th U.S. Women's Open

Josh Saunders and crew are ready to welcome players and attendees May 30.


Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
The team that will oversee the U.S. Women’s Open this month includes, from left, Cameron Foreman, Eli Thompson, Matt Wolfe, director of grounds Josh Saunders, Nathan Schell and Zachary Smith. Photo by Mark Pynes

Josh Saunders was born in Ridgeway, Va., home to the Martinsville Speedway, one of the first paved stock car racing oval tracks.

Saunders certainly seems to be running on all cylinders at his golf course.

Saunders, director of grounds at Lancaster Country Club in Lancaster, Pa., will oversee the 79th U.S. Women’s Open from May 30 to June 2. “We’re here for the best players in the world, and we want to make it an unbelievable week for them and our team,” says Saunders, a 20-year GCSAA member. “We want to focus on walking away from this week and remembering it.”

For USGA Senior Director of Championship Agronomy Darin Bevard, Saunders is impossible to forget. “First of all, he’s a great superintendent. He’s super organized, extremely thorough,” says Bevard, a 34-year GCSAA Educator member. “He stated to me the reason he wanted to be golf course superintendent is to host championship golf events. The bottom line is, we’re going to be very prepared for whatever comes our way.”

Saunders’ path includes school at Virginia Tech and internships, one of them at Westchester Country Club in Rye, N.Y., under 49-year GCSAA member Joe Alonzi, CGCS Retired, then David Dudones, a GCSAA Class A superintendent and 25-year GCSAA member still at the club. 

And here’s another internship moment in Saunders’ life that happened 20 years ago that never gets old.

He came home one summer day in 2003, following his internship at WCC, and friends were there. One of them said, “‘You’ve got to listen to this message.’” So, back in the days of answering machines, Saunders pushed the button. He heard the voice of Brad Owen, senior director of agronomy and 38-year association member at Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters. Saunders’ response to Owen’s offer to intern at ANGC? “Kind of shocked. Excited. Humbled. I felt my future was ready to take off with that on my résumé,” says Saunders, who more than likely soared higher in that moment than Phil Mickelson’s jump for joy after he birdied the 72nd hole to win his first major with Saunders in attendance on the maintenance team in 2004.

The team that Saunders has at Lancaster CC includes superintendent Matt Wolfe; senior assistant Nate Schell; and assistants Zach Smith, Cameron Foreman and Eli Thompson. They oversee a club that hosted the U.S. Women’s Open in 2015, and it has changed somewhat in the past nine years. Starting in 2017, a new Rain Bird irrigation system was installed. Five years later, a $2.5 million renovation was launched, featuring restoration of 11 original bunkers mapped out by designer William Flynn more than 100 years ago. Also, a 14,500-square-foot putting green went into the former pool location on the back side of the clubhouse near the first tee. Forward tees have been installed to the course, fairways have been altered, and nearly a dozen acres of native grasses have been added. Trees were cleared, providing improved views. “Now you can see 14 holes on the property,” Saunders says.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Lancaster Country Club in Lancaster, Pa., is home to this month’s U.S. Women's Open. Photo courtesy of the USGA

In March, Saunders was wishing it would stop raining, with weekly showers a common occurrence up until that point (also of note is that the Conestoga River runs through the course). Lancaster CC has A1-A4 bentgrass greens, which were redone in 2011 (from a bentgrass/Poa annua blend). “We’re not pushing it (the greens) as we get closer to the championship,” Saunders said. “We’ve developed good organic matter, have a lot of body, so firmness is our main focus.”

Bevard, who visited Saunders twice in a three-week span from March into the first days of April, saw lots to like. “In theory, it’s a fantastic time to host a championship in this neck of the woods. With the work that they’ve done with tree removal, renovation and that type of stuff, it’s really a pretty good site for growing grass now,” he said. “Their greens are such that they don’t have to be 13 feet on the Stimpmeter to be fast. With the bunker renovation, they relocated some bunkers that are going to provide a great challenge for these ladies that play the golf course.”

Pete Wendt, CGCS, has no doubts that Saunders will provide something special. He saw Saunders deliver daily when he worked for Wendt at Kinloch Golf Club in Manakin Sabot, Va. “He was the first guy at work, the last to leave. He showed a thirst for learning,” says Wendt, a 30-year GCSAA member who is director of golf courses and grounds at famed Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. “He’s dedicated to his craft, has a crazy work ethic, and he’s dedicated to the club. I know he loves the game of golf. I know, too, I wouldn’t be where I am without guys like Josh.”

Plenty will be on Saunders’ mind during the U.S. Women’s Open. “I want to make the membership proud and the community proud. That will be in the back of my mind,” says Saunders, who came to Lancaster CC in 2019 from Longue Vue Club in Verona, Pa.

His father, Mitch, never is out of his mind. They played at Augusta National while Josh was an intern there. A highlight for him was seeing his father, who didn’t play a lot of golf, knock a 3-wood onto No. 6 to 3 feet and record a birdie. “It was the last round of golf I played with my dad,” Saunders says of Mitch, who died in August 2016. “This (Women’s U.S. Open) will be tough. I wish he’d be by my side.”

His mother, Gayle, will be there. After all, she is one of his biggest fans. And she has been instrumental in his becoming an effective golfer, whose handicap was once a 2 and now hovers around 6, a casualty of his dedication to Lancaster CC, the focus of women’s golf worldwide this month. 

“As a teen, mom dropped me off at the golf course every morning,” Saunders says. “She considered it my daycare, and it definitely led to the path of my career.”

Howard Richman is GCM's associate editor