Restoring tradition: Olympia Fields Country Club

Superintendent Sam MacKenzie and PGA professional Brian Morrison collaborate to carry on a venerable Chicago-area facility’s history of major championships and top-notch turf.


Filed to: Illinois

Restoring tradition: Olympia Fields Country Club
The Olympia Fields Country Club leadership team, made up of superintendent Sam MacKenzie, CGCS, and director of golf Brian Morrison, is dedicated to maintaining the club’s traditions of high-level conditioning and championship golf. Photo courtesy of Olympia Fields Country Club

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series highlighting the important relationship between GCSAA superintendents and PGA of America professionals. These stories are being published simultaneously in both GCM and PGA Magazine.

Founded in 1915, Olympia Fields Country Club in suburban Chicago was once proclaimed “the world’s largest private golf club” by golf historian Herbert Warren Wind. In those days, Olympia Fields was home to four distinct golf courses, with its iconic 80-foot, four-faced clock tower visible from the first tee of each course.

Since that founding more than 100 years ago, Olympia Fields has been dually dedicated to providing members with a quality, challenging golf experience and hosting regional, national and international championships. That mission has included an ongoing commitment to course maintenance and management that inspired the aforementioned Wind to characterize Olympia Fields as “one of the finest manicured marriages of teeing areas, fairways and greens in all of golf.”

Today, Olympia Fields is a slightly smaller compound, consisting of the 18-hole North and South courses, but its commitment to members and hosting championships remains unchanged. As current stewards of the grounds and golf operations, Sam MacKenzie, CGCS, and Brian Morrison, PGA director of golf, understand they have a hallowed tradition to uphold.

Championship DNA

MacKenzie and Morrison make up 50 percent of a four-person management team entrusted with overseeing daily operations at Olympia Fields, which is in full preparation mode for the 2017 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in June. The event will make the club the first venue in the U.S. to have hosted two PGA Championships, two U.S. Opens, a U.S. Senior Open, a regular event on the PGA Tour, a U.S. Amateur Championship and a Women’s PGA Championship.

“Hosting championship golf, which today includes major professional, amateur and collegiate championships, has been part of the club’s DNA since it was founded,” says Morrison, who came to Olympia Fields in 2001 and is serving as the general chairman of the Women’s PGA Championship in addition to his daily duties as director of golf. “The expectations of our members are higher than ever, but we have consistently exceeded those expectations while maintaining the tradition of excellence at Olympia Fields. Sam and I have the same 365-day commitment to our members and guests. Our members come first, and then we love to conduct a major championship every 10 or 20 years.”

A challenging situation

Given that Olympia Fields does not have a general manager and relies on MacKenzie, Morrison, a clubhouse manager and a chief financial officer, the roles of the superintendent and director of golf are magnified.

“Each manager is responsible for their own area, and we meet on a regular basis to ensure everything is on track,” says MacKenzie, a 34-year GCSAA member. “Communication is extremely important to make sure we’re all on the same page. There isn’t a day that goes by that Brian and I don’t communicate several times. I learned a long time ago that forging a positive and productive relationship with the PGA professional is imperative to success at any club. At a club like ours, with the amount of activity we experience, if we didn’t communicate and work well together, any flaws would be exposed quickly.

“I’m happy to say during the 28 years I’ve been a superintendent, I have gotten along and worked well with all of the golf professionals at each of the clubs I have worked. Brian is no different.”

Morrison, who was elected to PGA membership in 1980, served as PGA head professional at Canoe Brook in Summit, N.J.; Westchester Country Club in Rye, N.Y., and at Baltimore Country Club in Maryland while serving as the PGA director of golf at The Landings Club in Savannah, Ga., before coming to Olympia Fields. His relationship with MacKenzie is one built upon trust and mutual respect.

“Sam is our expert on the grounds, and I’m our expert in the golf shop. We have a great respect for each other, and we have each other’s back,” says Morrison, who was the 2009 PGA Merchandiser of the Year for private facilities. “If he says the golf course is too wet to take golf cars on the course, I respect that decision and we don’t allow them. When it comes to making decisions on capital improvements or other projects, we discuss the issue and make an educated decision. We’re in constant communication to make sure we’re on the same wavelength every hour of every day.”

MacKenzie came on board at Olympia Fields in February 2006 following 11 years as the superintendent at Broadmoor Country Club in Indianapolis. The club’s North Course played host to the 2003 U.S. Open, but in the intervening years, conditions on that layout began to suffer, and the once-immaculate greens had become a source of concern rather than pride.

“The greens on the North Course were not in good shape, and everyone at the club was upset. When Sam was hired in 2006, he inherited some real issues,” says Morrison. “But what he accomplished in his first year was nearly miraculous. We discovered quickly that Sam is a terrific problem-solver and troubleshooter. He also inherited a grounds staff whose morale was very low, but he interacted quickly with his staff and got everyone working together with a confidence that had been lacking.”

‘A stunning turnaround’

“The club was three years removed from the U.S. Open in the spring of 2006 when I arrived at Olympia Fields,” remembers MacKenzie, a 1983 graduate of Michigan State University. “Unfortunately, a number of greens on both courses, but especially on the North, were in disrepair. Because of the condition of the courses, I inherited not only a staff that was demoralized, but a membership as well.

“I set about creating a maintenance regimen that emphasized sound turf management practices to repair the turf and restore the golf course. I think it is safe to say we restored more than turf that first summer — we restored confidence in the grounds department as well.”

When MacKenzie came to Olympia Fields, a three-year master plan for the grounds had just started. In addition to reviving the North Course greens, the plan called for renovations on the South Course and new landscaping responsibilities. Jeff Goldman, the former head of finance and vice chairman of grounds at Olympia Fields, says the club was also under stress because of poor economic conditions, but that MacKenzie produced immediate results.

“Sam’s performance that first year resulted in a stunning turnaround,” says Goldman. “He lived at the club for the first two months of his tenure to get a running start.”

MacKenzie used several strategies to improve turf conditions and win the members’ trust, from turning off the water to starting biweekly aerifications. He also convinced the board and the membership to undertake a tree removal project — one that had been rejected when it was first proposed before the 2003 U.S. Open — to improve sunlight and air movement on the greens, and to delay the South Course renovation by a year.

MacKenzie managed the renovation of the South Course in 2007 while continuing to improve conditions on the North Course. He oversaw all grassing operations in the renovation, which included 29,000 square feet of green expansions, all new tees, one new green and the regrassing of all fairways.

MacKenzie and Morrison worked closely with lead golf course architect Steve Smyers on the South Course makeover, during which 49 bunkers were restored, repositioned or added. Tees were renovated and others added to lengthen the course by 700 yards to almost 7,200 while maintaining the 6,500-yard distance for member play. And greens that had shrunk significantly over time were expanded an average of 1,450 square feet to their original size and shape.

MacKenzie brought the renovation project in slightly under budget, at a cost of $2.87 million on a budget of $2.9 million. In the years since, the team also supervised the building of a new maintenance facility and turf care center along with a renovation of the short-game area, and worked with architect Mark Mungeam on an extensive North Course renovation project in preparation for the 2015 U.S. Amateur.

Tournament prep

With a medley of capital improvement projects now complete and both courses at Olympia Fields restored to immaculate condition, MacKenzie and Morrison are busy accommodating a busy schedule of autumn outings, member events, and even a special visit from President Obama, who played the course Oct. 8 — all of this while preparing for the Women’s PGA Championship, the first women’s major to be conducted at the revered venue.

MacKenzie and Morrison note that Kerry Haigh, the PGA’s senior director of competitions, has already visited Olympia Fields several times, and course preparation is already well underway.

“Actual preparation for the tournament with regard to the golf course will be minimal,” says MacKenzie. “The rough height and greens speeds being requested are not any different than what we provide the members on a daily basis. That said, setup for patrons this time around will be entirely different. There will be a huge pavilion built behind the 18th green, along with a number of grandstands on the preceding holes. Add to it the gallery control measures, concession installation along with television tower setup, and the two or three months before the tournament will be hectic.”

Given all that MacKenzie and Morrison have accomplished at Olympia Fields, however, players and spectators at the 2017 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship should expect the same outstanding conditions that members proudly enjoy at the club.

Roger Graves is the senior writer for PGA Magazine.

Filed to: Illinois

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