Alister MacKenzie designed some of the world’s most famous golf courses: Cypress Point, Augusta National, Royal Melbourne, and Pasatiempo Golf Club. The man in charge of maintaining MacKenzie’s vision for Pasatiempo is head superintendent Paul Chojnacky (pronounced “Shah-naski”). In the following golf conversation, Paul reveals how a “young buck from Wyoming” ended up in Santa Cruz, California … with a few stops along the way.
Golf Conversations: How did you get involved in golf?
Paul Chojnacky: I grew up in Wyoming which is not known for a lot of high-quality golf courses.There are some really nice ones in the Jackson Hole area. Down in Saratoga, you’ve got Old Baldy, which is kind of an exclusive club.
GC: Old Baldy? Isn’t that what they call Dick Cheney?
Where in Wyoming did you grow up?
PC: Just outside of Casper; a small town called Glenrock.
GC: When I was in college I drove from New York to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. That is some w-i-d-e open country, pardner.
PC: Yes, very open. Drive a few miles and you’re by yourself. Wyoming isn’t known for golf. I didn’t get into the business until I was in college at the University of Wyoming. I was getting my degree in psychology and one summer I was working at the University’s golf course, Jacoby Golf Club.
GC: You did this just to make some money?
PC: Yeah, just a summer job. I’d watched golf on TV and knew it was kind of this exclusive sport.
GC: But you’d never played golf growing up?
PC: Nope. Not until I got into the business. But growing up, my parents would ship us out to Idaho to my grandparents’ farm and we’d stay for two weeks or so. We’d be put to work, whether that was picking rock or plowing fields or baling hay. I think that exposed me a lot to the outdoor working environments.
GC: Sounds like slave labor to me.
Did you do outdoor work at home?
PC: Yeah. I mowed lawns for the neighbors. I had a paper route and that exposed me to working outside. And when I was folding papers in the morning and loading my bag up, I’d always watch The Weather Channel. And I do that how many times now? Paying attention to weather charts and information.
GC: Do you watch the Weather Channel for the weather or to see Stephanie Abrams?
PC: Hey, easy now!
Having a paper route, you’re in any sort of element. Doesn’t matter if it’s a blizzard or whatever: you’ve got to have Mr. Johnson’s paper there on his doorstep by 5:30 in the morning. So it was a demanding job that required me to provide results … yet I wasn’t paid a whole lot for it in the end.
GC: Let’s get back to college.
PC: The summer of 1999 at Jacoby Golf Club. It was a very basic golf course. No bunkers, a lot of native areas.
GC: Any bison roaming the fairways in Wyoming?
PC: Pronghorn antelope. My next summer, I had the opportunity to visit Columbine Country Club in Colorado. That was my first experience with an exclusive, private country club.
GC: How’d they let you in there?
PC: I had friends who were members. And where I grew up in Wyoming, a country club was big deal.
GC: You’re preaching to the choir.
PC: When I first walked in to Columbine Country Club, I was like, “Holy crap!” It was almost like fake it was so nice.
GC: No cow pies, huh?
And that opened my eyes to what a really nice golf course looks like. A couple of conversations later, I was able to stay at a friend’s house in Colorado and work at that golf course.
GC: You spoke with someone on the maintenance staff?
PC: Yeah, I talked with the superintendent. His eyes lit up. I was an English-speaking guy who wanted to work on his crew so it was easy to get that position. That was the summer before my senior year at the University of Wyoming.
I spoke to the superintendent and asked him what I needed to do to pursue this as a career. He said, “Nowadays you have to have a degree and here are some of the better schools.” He also said, “Hey, you’re so close to getting a psychology degree, you may as well finish that.”
GC: What was the superintendent’s name at Columbine?
PC: Bruce Scott. I have no idea where he’s at now. I’ve tried to locate him.
GC: Maybe he’ll read this and find you.
PC: You’re right. So I graduated from the University of Wyoming in May, 2001. Three days later, I was headed on a plane from Denver, Colorado to Newark, New Jersey. I was going to Plainfield Country Club.
I had done some research and looked at clubs that were offering internships that summer and was lucky enough to find one at Plainfield. They thought it would be cool to have some young buck from Wyoming…
GC: More likely they called you a “young hick” or a “young hayseed.”
I don’t think they called you a “buck.” What is this: Midnight Cowboy?
PC: They expected me to arrive at the airport wearing Wrangler jeans and a cowboy hat.
But I spent the summer of 2001 at Plainfield Country Club. I lived in the clubhouse; they had a little dorm set up.
GC: Is that a Tillinghast course?
PC: Donald Ross.
GC: Ok, I knew it was one of those guys.
PC: They were restoring the course to the original Ross design. And they were prepping for the 2005 US Women’s Open.
GC: When you graduated from college with your degree in psychology, you decided not to go to school for turf maintenance?
PC: Hold on. I knew that at Plainfield, I wasn’t too far from Rutgers. The assistants there all graduated from Rutgers.
School didn’t start until January at Rutger’s. It was a 10-week, super intensive program. So they let me stay in the Plainfield clubhouse – which was closed for the winter time. It was good for them because they basically had a security person on premises.
GC: And you were walking around wearing a different shirt every day – trying the hats on… the rain jackets ….
PC: There was nobody around, it was the middle of winter.
GC: Sounds like The Shining with Jack Nicholson.
PC: It was an old, old clubhouse. Everything creaks when you’re walking through it. So you can just imagine me – I’m going from Wyoming to 30 miles outside of New York City, living in a clubhouse in the middle of winter.
I, of course, freaked myself out several times … thinking that you see ghosts or hear stuff.
GC: You were there by yourself?
PC: Oh, yeah.
GC: What did you do for food?
PC: A lot of strombolis.
GC: Whaddya think of those?
PC: If I ever go back, I know exactly where I’m going!
GC: They don’t have strombolis in Laramie, do they?
Those will probably kill you if you eat them for too long.
GC: Yeah, but what a way to go!
PC: The Rutgers program required you to do a 10-month internship. I went to Peachtree Golf Club in Atlanta. I had the opportunity to go to Augusta National, which would be good for the resume but I knew that if I went there for 10 months, I would probably start out weed eating, push mowing, and maybe at the end of 10 months, change cups.
GC: And at Augusta, they don’t let you say the word “fan.” You have to say “patron.”
PC: At Peachtree, I was more or less the second assistant for a 10-month period and got a lot more experience.
GC: And they paid you?
PC: Yes. There was a superintendent’s house at Peachtree but he chose not to live there so it became the house for the assistants. During the interview process, the superintendent, William Shirley, was traveling a lot that summer. And the assistant superintendent was taking a 3-4 week vacation in Alaska. So I knew there was going to be a lot of cool experiences there for me. That threw me into the fire. I was able to set up the crew, manage the crew, organize projects and basically do pretty much everything.
GC: At that point, did you know what you were doing?
PC: Not necessarily. No. I was still young.
GC: You still hadn’t finished your Rutgers classes?
PC: Yes. It was all the stuff that they can’t teach you in school. Dealing with HR stuff.
GC: What about using fertilizers and chemicals? Did you have any background in using that stuff?
PC: Not necessarily. But there was a lot of communication between myself and the superintendent.
GC: Bermuda greens?
PC: Bent grass greens. Bermuda fairways, rough, and tees.
GC: So you were at Peachtree gaining experience.
PC: It was cool to be part of the overseeding process in September and October. I went back to Rutgers in January of 2003 and finished up in March. There were plenty of opportunities in the Southeast but I knew I didn’t want to go back down there.
GC: Because I live there. Is that why?
GC: Why didn’t you want to go to the Southeast?
PC: I think it was more the Atlanta area. The traffic was a disaster. But I preferred the cool season grasses at the time and wanted to stick with that. But I didn’t want to be in the Northeast either.
GC: Afraid of all those strombolis?
PC: About a week before graduation, I heard back from one of the listings I’d seen on the Internet for an NCGA superintendent-intern training program.
GC: Northern California Golf Association?
PC: Yes. It was based in Northern California. There were 4 positions available in 2003. It was a 2-year program where you come in and have to accomplish like 10 things. They don’t tell you which courses are available until you go through the interview process.
They flew us into San Jose and I had a series of interviews with NCGA officials and the 4 superintendents from the respective courses.
GC: Which were?
PC: The Olympic Club, Monterey Peninsula Country Club, Poppy Ridge which is over in Livermore, and Lake Merced Golf Club.
GC: These were paid internships?
PC: They were paid and subsidized by the NCGA. They put in $30,000 for each person and the club would pick up the rest.
The Olympic Club is the Olympic Club. But I was concerned that with a staff of 54, if you’re coming in as an intern … it’s the same thing as Augusta: what are you really going to be allowed to do there? Poppy Ridge: I did not want to go there because it was more or less a public course and I knew I wouldn’t enjoy that.
GC: You young bucks from Wyoming are real snobs!
PC: After being at Plainfield and Peachtree…
GC: “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?”
PC: Exactly. And Monterey Peninsula Course, they were getting ready to re-do the short course.
GC: The Mike Stranz design?
PC: Yes. That would have been a neat experience. But the other guy had a lot more construction experience and that was what the search committee was looking for. I flew back to Wyoming and two days later I get a phone call from the NCGA; they selected me to work at Lake Merced Golf Club.
Lou Tonelli was the superintendent at Lake Merced Golf Club. I called him and said, “Hey, this is Paul Chojnacky. I just did the interview with you a little less than a week ago.” He had no idea who I was. Absolutely no idea. I had to spell my name, say my name phonetically.
GC: “I’m Paul! I was wearing a Plainfield Country Club shirt, a Peachtree hat, and Wrangler jeans!”
PC: I started at Lake Merced on April 15, 2003. I wasn’t allowed to do a lot. I was basically relegated to changing cups, mowing approaches, mowing tees. You gotta start somewhere, you gotta develop respect from the crew. I understand that. But I felt that I wasn’t going to be able to complete the 10 steps of the program.
Mike McCullough from the NCGA met with Lou and said, “This is how this program works. Yes, he’s an intern but he’s not an $8 an hour kid who’s going to be here for a little bit. You committed to this program … you need to take care of this guy and show him the ropes and allow him to move up.”
That helped. I took over spraying the greens and then the fairways. The conditioning got better. The playability improved. Which the members loved.
After about a year and a half, he developed trust in me and gave me the reins to literally everything. He was gone a lot and I essentially ran the place and had that as grounds to experiment with. Whether it was spraying Trimmit on poa greens – which is a product that kills poa, but if you spray it at a low enough rate, it actually acts like a nice growth regulator.
GC: Lake Merced was your little testing lab?
PC: Yes. If I didn’t have that position, I wouldn’t be here now. The head pro at Lake Merced was good friends with the GM here at the time.
GC: What was the pro’s name at Lake Merced?
PC: Dan Burke. When this position came open in October, 2007, I applied for the position here at Pasatiempo, not thinking much would come of it. I was just an assistant.
GC: The position here was for the head superintendent’s job?
PC: Yeah. A very well respected course – I figured, nah, I won’t have a shot at that. I got through the several stages of phone interviews and finally had a chance to do a face-to-face with the GM. And I did a tour of the golf course. I was asked to do an evaluation of the course and how I would make it better … and it had to be done in 48 hours or less. That was December of 2007. My evaluation of the golf course was 11 pages long. That sealed the deal for me.
GC: What kind of things did you recommend?
PC: Things like removing the seed head from the greens … a lot of detail work that I don’t recall at the moment.
GC: So they were impressed with your evaluation.
PC: There was a lot of attention to detail that the course had been lacking for a long time.
GC: The previous superintendent here?
PC: Dean Gump; he’d been here 27 years and decided to retire. He knew he wanted to retire at age 55 and that’s what he did. The interview was on the 10th of December and I didn’t find out until New Year’s Eve.
GC: Happy New Year!
PC: My family just went nuts. It was pretty cool.
GC: When did you start here?
PC: January 15, 2008.
GC: What was it like the first week in charge? How did that feel?
PC: It was weird. It was very, very weird.
GC: All of a sudden, everyone’s looking up to you.
PC: My assistant at the time was 72 years old and he was like, “What do you know? I’m twice as old as you are. What are you going to tell me to do?”
GC: How old were you when you got the job?
PC: 29. It was awkward. The first 30 days, I kind of let the assistant run everything and I just wanted to evaluate things. And I also wanted to be out there with the crew because the first 30-60 days, you’ve got to earn that respect before you can make any changes.
At the same time, I think they had gotten word that I was going to come in and get rid of everybody. Because they eventually told me that. I told them: “No, you guys have been here for a long time, you know the property, you know how to do the job. We’re just gonna find ways to improve on it and make this club better.”
GC: “But if my brother-in-law needs a job, you’re gone!”
PC: It was a tough summer because of a lack of rain. 2009 was even worse because they forced water restrictions on us. Our water comes in straight from the city of Santa Cruz. They forced me to cut 17 million gallons of water usage from the previous years.
That’s how all these native areas on the course developed. We started that in the summer of ’09. And that saved us a lot of water and money.
GC: How much money do you spend a year on water?
PC: In 2008, we spent $480,000 on water. We’re down to about $305,000 now. Which is still a lot.
GC: And that’s due to more efficient irrigation?
PC: More efficient irrigation but we also took out 30 acres of previously irrigated grass. So any of the native areas that you see right now, that used to be all irrigated.
GC: Isn’t that what Alister MacKenzie wanted?
PC: Exactly. You look at the old pictures and that’s what MacKenzie would have wanted. That’s how it was back in 1929. So a lot of this restores that look.
They had done a major restoration for the last seven years, adding the bunkers back that had filled up over time. We gained almost an acre of green space because the greens had shrunk over time. And the next step was to incorporate all these native areas.
GC: So after the first few months you must have thought, “Hey, I can do this.”
PC: As far as the management side of things, yes. But at Rutgers, they’re never going to teach you what you’re going to be faced with at a green committee meeting, what you’re going to be faced with at a board meeting.
One of the things I don’t think turf schools concentrate enough on is writing. I would say that the majority of superintendents don’t write very well. I think that’s helped me and I’m able to communicate to the members pretty well.
GC: Your blog is really well done. I think it’s a great idea to communicate with the members and explain what you’re trying to do.
PC: You’re pulled in all sorts of different directions on any given day. That’s one of the cool things about this profession and why I like it so much: you never know what you’re going to be faced with on any given day.
You know what you’re going to do on a daily basis – mow greens, mow tees, mow fairways, rake the bunkers, all that general course setup. But it’s all the other stuff that forces you to go crazy and pull your hair out.
GC: You mean the dealing with people stuff? The political stuff?
GC: Let’s talk about the golf course itself. Were you nervous about working on an Alister MacKenzie course. “Oh, boy, this is a masterpiece – I don’t want to…”
PC: Sacred ground. I don’t want to screw this up.
GC: … I don’t want to screw this up.
PC: Exactly. Nothing against the previous superintendent and his assistant, but it was all green here. If it was green, it was good. But that summer in ’08, I think it was Golf Digest that came out with their new ranking system that was going to focus on playability. And if there’s a little bit of tanning or browning in some areas, that’s ok because we’re focusing on firmer, faster conditions. And to achieve firmer/faster, you can’t be lush/green.
But that was a bad summer to play around with that because it was so hot; there were 10 days when it was over 100 degrees here in Santa Cruz.
GC: That’s not normal for here, is it?
PC: That’s not normal at all. You can imagine how the poa responded to that. It just checked out.
GC: This is a semi-private club but it’s open to public play. I suspect most of the public wants to play here because it was designed by Alister MacKenzie.
PC: You’re right. If you can’t get on Cypress, if you can’t get on Augusta, come play Pasatiempo because there’s a lot of similarities.
GC: When you first started working at Pasatiempo, young buck from Wyoming, were you familiar with Alister MacKenzie and what a big deal it was to work at one of his courses?
PC: Not necessarily. Obviously, I’d heard of him, but it wasn’t until I started here that I got into the classical architecture, the golden age of architecture. I did research on him, specifically regarding this property: when he was here, when he was at Cypress, how much time did he actually spend on site.
I’ve read his book and learned how he envisioned a golf course to be maintained. In fact, he was labeled as the first superintendent here at Pasatiempo. Which makes sense because he lived on property.
GC: When you say you did some research, what sort of things were you reading?
PC: A couple of his books, publications. Sean Tulley, up at the Meadow Club in Marin Country, does a tremendous amount of research and work.
GC: MacKenzie wrote that book, “The Spirit of St. Andrews.”
PC: Yeah. And I’ve got an architectural book he did with H.S. Colt. It’s pretty neat. MacKenzie didn’t believe in having much rough. He wanted more shorter grass than anything. We’ve kind of done the same thing here; the rough is a lot shorter than it used to be. His defense was around the greens; his courses were relatively short by today’s standards.
GC: When you’re doing your day-to-day work, are you always cognizant of MacKenzie’s intentions? Or is the club’s Green Committee telling you to be sure to stick to what MacKenzie would have wanted?
PC: A little bit of both. Some of our members could care less about what MacKenzie thought. They just want the golf course set up by today’s standards. At the same time, this club, Pasatiempo, has made a commitment to being one of the most intact MacKenzie golf courses.
GC: Are there original MacKenzie plans that you can consult and work off of?
PC: I’ve got copies in my office that we look at and go by. There’s plenty of documentation out there. The land has changed a little bit, where areas have settled a little bit. So there are some subtle differences. A lot of the areas on the back nine … the canyons are a lot less severe, a lot less steep than they used to be. So that’s certainly changed the way the golf course looks.
GC: Speaking of canyons, tell me about the goats that were brought in to clear out the brush.
PC: Holes 10 and 18 are in two large canyons filled with brush. It’s very difficult to clear out those areas with human labor so we brought in a goat brigade on two occasions to do the job for us.
GC: Tell me about the logistics.
PC: We fenced off about an acre at a time. It was done in September of 2010 and that lasted about 10 to 11 weeks. The goats eat through about an acre per week.
GC: How does one go about renting goats?
PC: I did a little bit of Google research and there are two companies here in Santa Cruz County … and a larger company down in Santa Barbara County. I contacted each of the companies; the one in Santa Barbara was much more receptive to the idea.
They came up and we spent 4 or 5 hours walking through every canyon and barranca and they said, “Ok, no problem.”
I kept asking them, “Are you sure that the goats can do this? It’s very steep and our guys can’t get any mowers down there.”
The guy said to me, “Paul, if you put a cupcake on top of a refrigerator, a goat will figure out how to get to it.”
They can literally climb anything and they’ll eat almost everything. So they started in September, 2010.
GC: When did they finish?
PC: Probably the end of November.
GC: How many goats were brought in for this project?
GC: Wow. What did the goats do at night? Did they have a pen?
PC: No, they were all fenced in with an electric fence. And they had 2 Anatolian dogs that stayed with them to guard them from mountain lions, coyotes, and other dogs.
The goat herder, he could pet them, but they’re not like your normal dog. If I got too close to the goats, the dogs would definitely tell me to back off.
GC: I felt the same way today when you sat too close to me in the golf cart.
What did the club think when you said, “Hey guys, I’m bringing in a couple of dozen goats to clear out our canyons.”
PC: I first presented it at a green committee meeting. They all were kind of surprised. But I had my documents prepared with a cost-benefit analysis that said, “It’ll cost us about $15,000 using the goats. If we do it in-house, it’s gonna take 4 years and it would cost about $115,000.”
The green committee was so excited about it … members wanted to know when the goats were coming.
GC: That was a brilliant idea, Paul. When do you think you might have to bring the goats back?
PC: We won’t bring them back this year but we’re looking at doing it next year.
GC: I know there’s a Donald Ross Society; is there a similar organization for Alister MacKenzie?
PC: There is a MacKenzie Society and that’s where I got a lot of my information. One of the guys that leads that up is Neil Crafter. I think he’s based out of Melbourne, Australia. He sent me a chronological timeline of MacKenzie’s life. It’s amazing; he’d be in Scotland one week. Then he’d be in Canada, then he’d be in California, then he’d be in Australia, then he’d be in Augusta, then back to California. Around 1930 is when he stopped traveling and that’s when he built a house here.
GC: Which hole is MacKenzie’s house on?
PC: The 6th fairway. MacKenzie felt that Santa Cruz had the best weather in the world. And he wanted to build his final house in a place where he could walk out to his backyard in his pajamas and hit chip shots onto a green. And that’s exactly what he did. His house is a little less than 150 yards from the 6th green.
GC: Paul, if MacKenzie were alive today, how do you think he’d react to the present condition of Pasatiempo?
PC: I think he would certainly appreciate the native grasses. Re-creating those mowed-down areas that flow right into the bunkers – I know he’d approve of that. He’d probably feel that the golf course was too green.
GC: The course underwent a restoration in 2000. Who was the architect that oversaw that?
PC: Renaissance Golf Design.
GC: Oh, Tom Doak.
PC: Yeah, Doak and Urbina.
GC: So what’s the percentage of member play?
PC: About 80% of the play is member play. Members and their guests. There’s only about 4 or 5,000 rounds a year that’s true public play.
GC: How many rounds are played a year?
PC: About 45,000.
GC: What’s the best part of your job?
PC: To know what you’re doing and be confident in what you’re doing and know that it’s working out there. Yesterday is a good example: one of the guys was telling a story to another member, saying how his drive on 13 had never gone that far before. And his second shot landed on the green, so he had a chance for eagle.
I looked at him and said, “So the fairways must be rolling pretty nice, huh?”
He said, “Oh, my God, these fairways have never been better. It’s just awesome to play like this.”
So we’ve still got the nice, green color but the playability is ten times better.
GC: I know you’re a married man; does your wife play golf?
PC: She used to. We used to play a lot. We’d go out every Sunday afternoon or evening at Lake Merced or here. Now that we’ve got a 3-year old, that changes a lot. We’ve tried to bring her out to play golf. We put a ball down and she grabs it and runs away.
GC: Is that really what happens? Or is that your daughter doesn’t like the way your greens are rolling?
PC: She loves coming out here. She’ll go for the bunkers, first thing. She loves sand.
GC: Ah, a student of golf course architecture who appreciates the MacKenzie bunkering. Next thing you know, she’ll be yapping about “shot values.”
PC: But it’s fun to bring her out here. And we have another girl on the way. She’s due in a month or so.
GC: Best of luck to you and your wife. Thanks for showing me around Pasatiempo, Paul.
PC: You’re welcome.
Postscript: Gracelynn Chojnacky was born on July 15, 2012. Congratulations to the Chojnacky family!