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Wendy O'Brien: Career chess moves

Jon Kiger

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Whether of intention or happenstance, Wendy O'Brien has used many of the time-tested, tried-and-true strategies to propel her turf management career from casual summer job in North West England through the Ohio Program to a course manager position in Latvia... with various stops, twists and turns along the way. Oh, and volunteering at The Masters 18 times as well.

wendy_obrien.jpgFollow your heart. Listen to your gut. Step outside the comfort zone. Meet people, learn from all. Establish relationships. Find a mentor. Network. Take a step back to regroup if and when needed. Taken individually, all are of merit. In total, they can form a patchwork of career success.

For Wendy O'Brien, it all started as a teenager "without wheels" looking for a summer internship within a reasonable distance from her home in Cheshire, England, so her parents could drive her back and forth to work.

"I was only 16 or 17 at the time, working toward a national diploma and vocational qualification in landscape management, like countryside park management," O'Brien explained in a Skype interview. "As part of my qualification, I had to find my own work placement for the summer." 

"My parents were members of a local golf club called Aldersey Green, out of Chester. They approached the owners -- two brothers -- and asked them if I could work at the golf course," Wendy recalled. "So my mum and dad would drive me to the golf course in the mornings and I would work there with the three guys on the golf course crew. They had me doing everything from raking bunkers to cutting greens with a big old Dennis hand mower. They really took me under their wing for the summer."

When she returned to college in September, she had a leg up on the 15 others in the program: she was the only one to have been paid for her summer work, the others having done voluntary internships.

"I think I had to buy the coffees the first week, if I remember rightly," she said. "It was quite funny, really."

O'Brien returned to work at Aldersey Green during school holidays and weekends when she could. Upon finishing college, she worked as a landscape gardener for a small nursery for a year.

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A mantra of "working harder than the guys" has done well for Wendy O'Brien.

"I was looking for a bit of a move with that, so with a car and a bit more independence. I went to an open day for careers at a large hotel resort, which was at the time DeVere Carden Park. Andrew Campbell was running the estates and the golf courses, and they were building a Jack Nicklaus-designed a course at the time.

"I interviewed for a gardener's job, thinking I've been landscape gardening for a year," she said. "But Andy knew Aldersey Green Golf Club because it was only down the road, and he knew the brothers. So he said, you know, you've worked on a golf course a little bit, would you like to work on the greenkeeping team instead of the gardening team? You've got greenkeeping experience and that's what we'd like. And I said 'Yeah, why not?' And that's where it all began, really. The formal career, I should say." The first door had opened.

You've got greenkeeping experience and that's what we'd like." And I said 'Yeah, why not?'

Carden Park supported her through an apprenticeship program with further training at Myerscough College along with practical work experience. After three years there, the Nicklaus course opened and The Ohio Program beckoned O'Brien.

"One of the guys I'd worked with, Phil I'Anson, had been on the Ohio state program with Mike O'Keeffe previously and was really talking about it," Wendy said. "So I contacted Mike, we had a long conversation and I moved over to the States on the Ohio internship program in 2001." Door Number Two.

Her first internship position was at the Kingsmill Resort in Virginia, which was owned by Anheuser-Busch and had three 18-hole and one 9-hole courses.

"It was the biggest site that I'd ever been, you know, a really big resort," she recalled. "They had the Michelob Championship there, so it was the first time I'd worked a big tournament as well. The other interns were from all over the world, so it was great to meet other people. They moved us as a team around the three golf courses, working at each for a couple of months before moving to another. We got to work on all of the golf courses, which was perfect."

"Every two weeks we got two cases of beer with the paycheck, so it was really funny. It was really strange though, coming from the UK and getting something like that with your paycheck, you go, "Really?" You can probably tell how long ago it was because I don't know if they'd do that anymore."

Every two weeks we got two cases of beer with the paycheck..."

The Kingsmill internship led to a subsequent one at Augusta National Golf Club in the Fall of 2001. Door #3.

"In October of that year, another intern (Sarah from Australia) and I both went to Augusta National. We saw the course come through a whole year of works, from opening for the players in October, going all the way through a season, preparation for the tournament, working the Masters and then a month later closing it down and everything that's done in the summer months. It was great to be involved for for a year with a really fantastic crew, a great bunch of people that I met down there," O'Brien said.

She has been invited back to work the tournament every year since.

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Wendy mows greens at Augusta National for The Masters.

"This year was my 18th Masters, but I'm not quite a veteran yet, I don't think. There are people that have been longer than me," she said. "I started out wanting to do five tournaments, which became ten, and then it was like, 'Oh, I can't stop at 13. I'll do another couple.' I can't watch it on TV, so I'll have to just keep coming."

When the Augusta National internship wound up, O'Brien headed home to England and a deputy head greenkeeper (assistant superintendent) position back on the Jack Nicklaus Championship course at Carden Park. There she managed the team during several tournaments including European Senior Tour events and PGA qualifying tour tournaments.

In 2007, O'Brien decided to it was time for the next step and took the head superintendent position at the La Torre Golf Resort, part of the six-course Polaris World/Nicklaus Golf Trail in Murcia, Spain. There she worked under noted European agronomist Sylvain Duval, who oversaw all of the Polaris golf courses in Murcia. She stayed there three years until the winds of change beckoned again.

O'Brien shifted gears and returned to England to work as a greenkeeping workplace tutor at Myerscough College, England’s leading college for greenkeeping training and education. There she worked with up to fifty Level 2 and Level 3 students at the golf courses at which they were employed.

After almost six years there, she decided that she wanted to get back into the hands-on and management side of greenkeeping and took a short stint as first assistant at Carden Park, where her career began.

 "I went there just to get my feet wet again, to get back on machinery properly and back to managing a crew rather than students," O'Brien explained. "It was probably the best move I did because it really got my head back in the game."

Having worked closely with Sylvain Duval in Spain, they kept in touch over the years. It was Duval who approached her about finishing the grow-in at Jurmala Golf Club. a Nicklaus redesign/rebuild in Riga, Latvia.

"At first I was actually looking at going to southern Europe, but Sylvain contacted me and said, 'Oh no, you should really look at this job in Latvia. It's a nice project. It's a good group of people, a good company. It's being built really well, and you should consider it.' And so I did."

"I came out, met the directors here, had a course walk and I took the job. That was three years ago now. We finished our grow-in and we opened for our first season in April of this year. And so far so good," she said.

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Golf in Latvia is in its infancy, but conditions at Jurmala Golf Club are top notch.

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O'Brien had an inkling since her childhood that she was destined to work outdoors. "I've always been an outdoor kind of person from being very young, always been a bit of a tomboy, I suppose.," she said. "I took any chance I could to be outside in the fields behind the house and things like that, so people always thought I'd be a farmer or something. Well, I kind of am," she quipped.

...people always thought I'd be a farmer or something. Well, I kind of am."

She hasn't encountered any issues or obstacles with the gender imbalance being a female minority in the golf turf industry, other than early moments of unease on the part of others.

"I always remember walking in that first day at Carden Park realizing I'm the first girl working there," O'Brien recalled. "Everyone was fine, but it was funny because later when they got to know me, they said, 'You know, we weren't sure what language we could use and we didn't know if we ought to be careful and things.' They quickly& realized that they could just be themselves and they just saw me as one of the lads in the end, you know? And that's how it was pretty much with every crew I've been with."

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Now running the show at Jurmala Golf Club in Riga, Latvia, where she leads by example.

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It wasn't until she went to the States on the Ohio Program that she met other women in the industry, mostly fellow interns.  When she returned to England, attended meetings and gave presentations she started to realize how few women there were in the job.

"I just thought I hadn't met them yet, but it wasn't ever anything that put me off." she said. "I never thought that I didn't want to do this job because there wasn't another woman there. But at the same time, it can sometimes be a bit lonely, a little bit strange. Depending on your age or where you've been in your career, with most of the guys you're either seen as a big sister or a mother figure.  Some days I would have guys talk to me about their relationships and ask my advice because they wouldn't want to ask the other guys."

"I've had younger guys come in and I've been there to work with them and show them what to do, and they've not known really how to take working with a woman. But they soon realized that 'Oh she can do the same job I can and all, she's working harder than me. I'm going to have to pick up my pace here,' and things like that. Guys on the same crew have always been pretty good."

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The 2019 staff at Jurmala Golf Club. O'Brien is at far right.

Important people, supporters and mentors in her career? O'Brien first points to her parents.

"My parents supported me from the start, never ever saying, 'You can't do that' or 'Girls don't do that.' They were the ones that got me involved in my first golf club and supported me in all my moves, whether it be to America, to Spain, to here," she said. "They also had great work ethics and instilled that in me as well."

"Andy Campbell at Carden Park supported in me in my first job, my apprenticeships and my qualifications and actually got me on the golf course in the first place. I could have been a gardener at Carden Park if he hadn't! Michael O'Keeffe gave me the opportunity to go to America, and Brad Owen and the whole team at Augusta, inviting me back every year. And finally, Sylvain Duval gave me my first superintendent's role in Spain and had also been instrumental in putting my name forward for this position here in Latvia. Throughout my career I've been well supported from home and in work, and Sylvain was the first person to say, 'Yeah, but you've still got to do the job'."

Yeah, but you've still got to do the job..."

"It's always good to have somebody that will recommend you and will put your name forward above others," O'Brien said. "But by vouching for you they rely on you to then deliver what they're saying you will. So all of those people have been instrumental at some point, and just the teams that I've worked with throughout my career as well. I've been lucky enough to work with some great people. I still have, many of them are friends now, and all around the world," she concluded.

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I had the pleasure of meeting Wendy early in her career and have been a fan of hers ever since.  She embodies the passion and professionalism of all great Golf Course Superintendents, Course Managers, and Greenkeepers.

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