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John Reitman

By John Reitman

Florida superintendent redefines low-budget success

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Conditions at Monterey Yacht and Country Club rival those at private clubs in South Florida. Photos by John Reitman

Names can be deceiving.

On the surface, Monterey Yacht and Country Club in the well-to-do town of Stuart, Florida, sounds like one of South Florida's premier golf clubs. The name alone rivals high-budget courses in the area like Mariner Sands, Champions Club, Sailfish Point and the Floridian Club that was built in the 1990s by late garbage magnate H. Wayne Huizenga. 

In reality, Monterey YCC is a modest, yet well-maintained nine-holer that redefines low-budget golf. There are no yachts here, and the course weaves so tightly through a 55-and-older condo complex that the buildings there create a stadium effect that is every claustrophobe's nightmare. In many respects, Monterey is the poster child for the mom-and-pop type courses that are the backbone of the golf industry and too often are closing. 

In an area peppered with courses designed by the likes of Pete Dye, Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Joe Lee, there is no architect of record at Monterey. Although the course is barely on Florida's mainland, it can seem like an island for superintendent Matt Lean.

His greens are pristine and when he has bumps and bruises after 12 days with no water, he has managed to hide most of them. He's so good that he leaves his clientele wanting more and expecting him to deliver. They want conditions that rival courses where the initiation fee for each member is more than his total budget. 

Lean has so few resources at Monterey - his total budget for everything is about $100,000 - he admits he sometimes is embarrassed if colleagues from around the industry come calling for a visit.

"Nobody comes here. No magazines, nobody," Lean said in the days after this year's Golf Industry Show. "You're the only one who's come here, and I was embarrassed to have you here the first time."

For the record, this recent visit to Monterey was the second for TurfNet, and the first in nearly four years. There are a lot of courses like Monterey and a lot of superintendents like Lean throughout the country, but their needs and accomplishments often are overshadowed by their high-rent neighbors. And their stories, good as they are, rarely get told.

OK, so "nobody" visiting might be a bit of a stretch. In his 10 years as superintendent at Monterey, Lean has developed a few trusted contacts, mostly vendor reps who he knows he can rely on for the unvarnished truth when he has serious issues or just a simple question. Still, he's right when he hints he's not exactly on everyone's radar screen. To his credit, Lean won't come out and say it, but let's face it, a nine-hole, executive course that barely measures 1,200 yards and winds past a shuffleboard court and bocce complex in a senior condo community hardly fits the alphabet crowd's agenda. Ironically, many of the courses that do fit the golf industry model would love to have the 140-plus rounds per day that are played through the winter months at Monterey.

One of those contacts is Mike Bailey, a WinField rep who has become Lean's close confidant.

A former superintendent for two decades, Bailey has been on the commercial side of the business for 18 years and builds trust with superintendents by taking a low-key approach to sales.

In those early days of Lean's career, Bailey talked to him about disease, invasive turf species, height of cut, cultural practices and more. He still does.

"I've known Matt for so long, I can't remember where we first met," Bailey said. "I don't call on people as a sales person, I talk to them as a fellow superintendent. They ask questions and we talk as colleagues."

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With no formal turf education, Matt Lean has been superintendent at Monterey Yacht and Country Club for 10 years.

Even when Lean hires contractors, sometimes they show, sometimes they don't, sometimes they're just late, leaving him feeling like the Rodney Dangerfield of golf course superintendents.

He's not bitter about being among the latter in a world of haves and have-nots; but if he wants things done and done right he knows he's on his own. Once an aspiring tennis professional who chased his dream decades ago on the mini-tours in California, Lean doesn't have a formal turf education. He learned on the job nearby at the Joe Lee-designed Piper's Landing Golf and Yacht Club (they have real yachts there!) and continues to learn daily through trial and error at Monterey.

His aerifier - circa 1998 - recently broke down. The motor on his 30-year-old irrigation pump burned out just before GIS leaving him without water for 12 days. His 2001 utility cart doesn't always respond when he steps on the pedal, and his 20-year-old sprayer is still chugging along - between repair jobs.

Lean's brain is always racing and he's constantly asking questions and posing hypothetical situations about cultural practices, pests and diseases and the chemistries used to manage them, water issues or how he has to think outside the box 365 days a year to give his members a playing surface because of his general lack of resources. Trying to keep up as he darts from one topic to the next can be an exhausting exercise in futility.

"I think I've always been like that, but this job has probably made it worse, or heightened it. I think I like heightened better," he said. "But, if you're in this business and you're not always thinking, you're going to have problems."

To call the resources at Lean's disposal "modest" would be an understatement. 

His shop does not have a lift and he has walk-in closets in his home that are larger than his 5x5 office.

His aerifier - circa 1998 - recently broke down, leaving him with only a tow-behind spiker until he finds an alternative. The motor on his 30-year-old irrigation pump burned out just before GIS leaving him without water for 12 days. Fortunately, it did rain two days in the interim, but there were scars around the course that he's masked with a colorant. His 2001 utility cart doesn't always respond when he steps on the pedal, and his 20-year-old sprayer is still chugging along - between repair jobs.

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About 140 rounds per day are played at Monterey throughout the winter months.

"It's like a World War II fighter, it runs great," he said.

The last time the sprayer went down, Lean saved thousands by finding parts online and making the repairs himself. It's what he has to do.

Lean has a background in basic mechanics and used to rebuild vintage hot rods.

"I'll do some of the basic mechanics around the golf course, but I won't grind reels," he said. "You have to pick your battles." 

His "staff" consists of 70-year-old Joe Dovutovich, a retired ironworker from Pittsburgh with a work ethic and an edge that is hard to find today. Lean would be sunk without him, just don't ask Dovutovich about Ohio State football, unless you're up for the fight of your life.

Dovutovich has a lot to say about the current state of the industry, but the volume of four-letter words interspersed through his opinions - on golf, or Ohio State football for that matter - make it a challenge to get him on the record.

With all these limitations, Lean is a veritable magician. His greens are pristine, and when he has bumps and bruises after 12 days with no water, he has managed to hide most of them. He's so good that he leaves his clientele wanting more and expecting him to deliver. They want conditions that rival courses where the initiation fee for each member is more than his total budget. 

A native of Stuart, Bailey recalls riding the school bus along Palm City Road to Martin County High School in 1973 when the golf course was under construction. He'd played it several times long before Lean was ever hired there, and is amazed at the product he is able to turn out.

When asked about Lean's ability as a superintendent compared with his budget, Bailey barely can contain the laughter. 

"It's spectacular," he said. "It's a small golf course and a small property, but what he is able to do there is amazing."

Edited by John Reitman

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