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Dawn arrives at
Torrey Pines the way it does at all golf courses, but given Torrey's perch
above the Pacific on the cliffs of La Jolla, Calif., first light can be even
more serene. Candice Combs, the superintendent of Torrey's marquee South
course, especially enjoys watching the moon set over the ocean, though there's
no moon to see this morning, not with the thick winter fog rolling in, and no
time for reverie: The Buick Invitational looms, and, in the distance, the 2008
U.S. Open approaches.
Still, as she
begins another day on the job, Combs admits that her entry more than 30 years
ago into a universe without a Y chromosome made her an anomaly in a profession
that has skewed almost exclusively male since Old Tom Morris invented the job.
And she knows that no woman has ever been the superintendent of the course that
hosts the U.S. Open.
Of the roughly 10,500 superintendents and 5,500 assistants who belong to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, only 79 supers and 72 assistants are women. Of the 2,000 members who have reached the association's highest level of certification, women--Combs among them--make up barely 1%.
"We're few and far between," says 27-year-old Patty Reedy, who was recently elevated from assistant to head super on the South course at Los Angeles Country Club, making her one of only 16 women supers at private clubs. The lack of numbers isn't surprising. The job entails exhausting physical labor and grueling hours and is complicated by nature's whims and golfers' demands. "This is no place for suits and high heels," says Andrea Bakalyar, 34, super at the Wee course at Williams Creek in Knoxville, Tenn. "It's not for everybody. It's not an easy career."
Women in the industry also must overcome sexism and tradition. "Can a woman ride a tractor? Can she jump on a backhoe? Can she give directions?" asks Bill Spence, the longtime superintendent at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass. "Sure, but subliminally some men can't see that." Adds Hannes Combest, staff liaison to the GCSAA's diversity task force, "It doesn't appear to be a welcoming profession."
Welcoming, no. Fulfilling, yes. "I love this job," says Nancy Dickens, 47, superintendent and head agronomist of Westin Kierland Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Every day provides me with an interesting challenge that tests what I know." When she was in her early 30s, Dickens jumped off the corporate ladder at Hallmark Cards after realizing that she didn't want to be chained to a desk. An avid golfer, she began researching jobs in the industry. "Back then I never thought that a woman could do this," she says.
The profession has changed dramatically in recent years. The old greenkeeper was a manual laborer with a green thumb. Says Bruce Williams (a third-generation super who as head of the grounds at L.A. Country Club hired Reedy), "The key to the old days was, you had to withstand the physical part of the job to move yourself through the ranks. Back then, unloading a fertilizer truck was backbreaking. Today we do it with a forklift. The physical aspect is still there, but it isn't make or break anymore."
The path to running a course now runs through university programs like Penn State's, where one or two women (out of a total enrollment of 45) matriculate annually, up from one every few years a decade ago. Reedy was in one of those programs, at Texas A&M. Initially, though, she had no interest in golf or golf courses. "Growing up, I liked doing yard work," she says. "It's as simple as that." In 2001 when a friend took a summer internship in Boston, she went along and found one too, in Brookline under Spence. "The rest is pretty much history," says Reedy, who went on to work at Skokie (Ill.) Country Club for three years before moving to L.A. Her first history lesson came when Spence told her about another Patty--Patty Knaggs--who had preceded her at the Country Club. "[Knaggs] had a meteoric career," says Spence. "In terms of the pioneers, I don't think anybody has been where she's been."
Now 52 and about to be married for the first time, Knaggs landed her first job on a temporary crew when she was 22 and fresh out of Syracuse University. She became an assistant at Echo Lake, a Donald Ross course in New Jersey, and then at the Country Club before and during the 1988 U.S. Open, after which she was hired as the head super at Westchester (overseeing three Buick Classics) and Hazeltine (1994 U.S. Mid-Amateur) and, finally, Bass Rocks in Gloucester, Mass., before leaving the profession three years ago to become a Realtor. "I ate, drank and slept it," she says. "There wasn't much associated with it I didn't enjoy, especially starting out." Except the guys who put snakes in her truck and the super who regularly teamed her with the crew's most noted slackers and the r�sum�s she sent out that weren't acknowledged. (Bakalyar says she solved this problem by using her initials, A.C., instead of her first name on her curriculum vitae.)
Knaggs's r�sum� crossed Spence's desk in the winter of 1985. "I'd never met a woman in the business before," he says. "I had to talk to her." They sat down in the club's unheated dining room--the heated grill room was off-limits to women then. "I couldn't let that upset me," says Knaggs. "I was there to get a job, not to change the laws."