Golf course with sand bunkers and trees in the background at sunset

RTF at Oak Hill for the 2023 PGA Championship

Jeff Corcoran’s two decades leading the turf program at one of America’s most storied clubs have included major championships and big renovations. Find out how Barenbrug’s RTF turf has played an important role in readying Oak Hill for the future. 

By Pat Jones

Golf course with green grass and trees in the background with blue sky
RTF turf at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York

If you’ve been in our happy little industry for more than a minute or two, you should definitely know about Jeff Corcoran.

Just in case you need a reminder, Corcoran is best known as the manager of golf and grounds at the legendary Oak Hill Country Club, the Rochester, N.Y., a Donald Ross-designed classic that’s hosted a pile of championships including three US Opens, three PGA Championships and a Ryder Cup. And there are more big events coming, most immediately the 2023 PGA Championship this May.

Corcoran has been an industry leader, mentor and deliverer of outstanding conditions at Oak Hill since 2003. It’s not often you get to celebrate your 20th anniversary on the job by hosting a major, but he and his team are ready for whatever comes their way with the new springtime PGA Championship schedule.

He was born and raised near Ithaca in the Finger Lakes region of New York. His brother got him addicted to playing golf as a youngster and working on a golf course seemed like an awesome idea: “Working on the course was a means to an end to play more golf. I asked my oldest brother one day, ‘Can you do this for a living?’ I was 13 or 14 years old and I was hooked.” After high school he was off to the great SUNY Cobleskill turf program and, after two years there, he transferred to finish his degree at Penn State.

He actually had his first taste of working at Oak Hill thanks to an internship in 1994. He stayed on to work at the Ryder Cup in 1995 and then became an assistant. “A big turning point in my career was in 1998 when Paul B. Latshaw became the superintendent at Oak Hill,” says Corcoran. “It was a watershed moment for me. I felt like I knew a lot but Paul really helped me turn the corner agronomically, professionally, and relationship-wise. And in the process he became one of my best friends.”

He headed to Massachusetts in 2000 to become golf course superintendent at Weston Golf Club outside of Boston. A few years later he came back to Oak Hill to volunteer at 2003 PGA Championship. It was then he learned that Latshaw was leaving to go to work for Jack Nicklaus at Muirfield. Corcoran was hired and started October 2003. “I get a major as a 20th anniversary present,” he say with a laugh. 

After two decades in a high-performance position like Oak Hill, he’s still jazzed about being there. “I think what holds you here so long is the constant preparation for major championships. We’re always doing something to improve the courses and it just isn’t ever boring. I never get tired of looking at it.”

I talked with Corcoran recently about his experiences at one of the world’s greatest clubs, their most recent renovation with Andrew Green, and how Barenbrug’s RTF helped in his all-important bunker faces and surrounds. Here’s our conversation.

Was what you did at Oak Hill’s East Course four years ago a renovation or a restoration?

I think Andrew Green said it best when he called it a “sympathetic restoration.” The idea was being sympathetic to the modern game but holding Donald Ross’s original design intent very close to our heart as we went through this.

The East Course has a long history of renovations prior to championships. There were four holes that really stood out that we needed to rectify some things: 5, 6, 15 and 18. That was a big part of what we tried to do. On the other holes, the goal was to make the bunkering appropriate for hosting a championship but also recognizing that we had daily play. We had some very penal bunkers for high-handicappers. We widened the approaches to allow for some better run-ups to the greens. 

Overhead photo of a golf course with green grass and sandy bunkers
RTF turf at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York

So, the goal was to find ways to enhance the member experience and meet the demands of championships?

There were things we did specifically to host championships at Oak Hill and there were other things to make the East Course a little less daunting for the average player. We also removed a lot of things that weren’t original to the golf course those changes benefitted both the high and the low handicappers.

Andrew did a really good job of capturing that spirit. The East Course has championships in its DNA back as far as the 1930s. We wanted greens that were firm and fast and we found ways to improve our control over moisture and open up some new cupping areas – particularly a few that were in the proximity of hazards – which we hadn’t had since I’ve been here.

We were fortunate to have the original design drawings so you could see what Ross’s intent was. Andrew pulled those out a lot. Some lost areas were expanded. We recaptured a lot of those squared corners and reestablished those pin positions with proximity to various hazards. We were also trying to overcome the impact of having bunker sand splashed on the green for 60 or 70 years. We took those volcanoed areas and dropped them down to make them more suitable for cupping.

Describe Andrew Green for those who don’t know him.

He’s the guy next door who’s that super neighbor you want to have a beer with. He’s very unassuming, extremely humble and passionate. He geeks out on golf history and being able to put stuff back the way it was in the context of the modern game. He’s so easy to work with. He listens, he’s amenable but he also gets his point across so well.  He can sell a membership as well as anyone I’ve seen. He was largely unknown when he presented his ideas to us and went in and sold them. Everyone in the room said, “This is the guy we want to work with.” And, all these years and a bunch of big projects later, he’s still the same.

When did you start thinking about turfgrass choices for the “new” version of the east course?

This seems counterintuitive but the grassing choice on greens was actually less important than the greens mix. I would recommend that anyone doing a project like this should focus a lot of attention on the mix. There are a lot of good varieties for putting surfaces today. When problems with new greens happen, I think it’s more often the mix than the seed choice.

We wanted the best of all worlds. I was fortunate that my friend and mentor Paul B. Latshaw was going through the same process at Merion at the same time. We both wanted greens that were firm, moved water and had aeration porosity. The need for firmness drove everything else.

Without a good subsurface mix, you’re always trying to dry them down and get firmness. You’re battling to control moisture. But wouldn’t it be nice to inherently have firmness within the green without having to stress the plant to the point of death?

So, the goal became to build greens that had some of these components of everyday green speed inherent in them. Frankly we felt that the variety choice on greens was less consequential as the medium you’re growing it on.  

Closeup of a golf bunker face with trees, blue sky in background
RTF turf at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York

So, as you’re going through this process and beginning to work on other areas, where did RTF fit in? 

One of the people that I talked with about grassing around greens and on bunker faces and such was Mike LoPresti from Canterbury GC in Cleveland. Mike worked here and understood what we were trying to do. He’d used RTF during their renovations so I picked his brain about it and what he liked about it.

What did you learn?

We knew we wanted a turf-type tall fescue. I liked the fact RTF was rhizomatous. Honestly, I knew I was going to get good performance out the RTF, but I didn’t know how good it would be. I think I found that out in the first year and we actually had to make some agronomic changes to allow it to flourish even more.

 How did it exceed your expectations? 

Typically, back in the day we would put down Kentucky bluegrass on green surrounds and it would be one more thing we had to worry about keeping alive. But with RTF, we don’t even have to touch it with a hose. We barely water it through the course of the season. And from a nutritional standpoint, our inputs probably went down close to 50 percent.

Performance throughout the summertime has just been phenomenal. I mean, the amount of time we used to waste with guys watering bunker faces by hand…we just don’t have to do that anymore. It could be blistering hot and dry and we’re barely touching the bunker faces with the RTF. 

What else did have you observed about RTF?

The other facet I’ve seen is it seems extremely resilient against Poa invasion. That’s been a pleasant surprise. I think it’s the density of the turf plus good management practices with pre-emerge and timing. But the grass is definitely part of that. It’s extremely competitive. At those heights of cut, RTF definitely has a distinct advantage over Poa annua. It’s been four seasons now and the RTF remains strong. If it had been KBG I think we would have seen at lot more Poa by now.

What’s the feedback been like from your team and the members? 

The feedback from our team has been awesome, particularly from the standpoint of not having to waste a lot of man hours watering bunker faces. The members do notice the balls tend to hang up on those faces a little bit more. It made the hazards a little more hazardous. It will be interesting to see how the pros handle it during the PGA.

Overall, as far as the rough is concerned and how we manage it and the inputs and labor we had to put in, it’s been a gamechanger for us.

What do you hope everyone will see in May when the PGA Championship comes to Rochester?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the weather might present a few challenges. (Laughs) But I hope that people know that regardless of whatever the weather is going to throw at us, the East Course is going to be good test of golf. I think it will stand up well to the best players in the world. 

Learn more about RTF Rhizomatous Tall Fescue.