A lifetime of playing golf has helped Breen view the courses on which he has worked from the eyes of a player more than a grass-grower.
"I think that is imperative that you play golf. If you're not playing, you should walk the golf course and walk in all of the places the golfer walks," said Breen, superintendent at La Rinconada in Los Gatos, Calif, for almost two years. "Start on the teebox, walk down the fairways, look at all those areas, bunkers and greens, and go at a slow enough speed so you can take it in slower than you would if you were on a golf cart. You'll notice things you never noticed before."
It took a while for Breen, 51, to realize it, but he was destined for a life in golf. His parents even bought his first set of clubs before he was born, and he became an accomplished player in the junior ranks. After years of competitive play, frustration took over and Breen, still playing junior golf, walked away from the game. At the time, he thought he might be stepping away forever.
Although Breen eventually returned to golf as a greenkeeper and not a player, the route he took to get there was a circuitous one that at one time included aspirations of monitoring and forecasting weather.
Breen graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1987 with a degree in meteorology and envisioned a career with a federal agency like the National Weather Service as a forecaster or researcher. Colorado, Breen said, was "ground zero" for meteorology and a move to the Rockies meshed well with his other love, skiing.
"My plan was to work in a field office doing research or forecasting," he said. "I didn't have much of an interest in being on TV."
But this was during the Reagan administration, Reaganomics and small government, and federal jobs were difficult, and in some cases impossible, to come by.
Rather than pursuing his dream, Breen was far from home, fresh off a failed marriage and in need of work.
He found a job at the ski operation at Keystone Ranch, a golf and ski resort in Dillon, Colo., because it offered an opportunity to be outdoors. It was only when he listened to tales spun by Jack DeRyk, who doubled as Keystone's golf course superintendent and ski lift operator, that Breen entertained the idea of a life in turf management.
"Jack was an amazing man. He had so many stories," Breen said. "He worked alongside us every day telling us all of these amazing stories. I immediately fell in love with the place and the job."
Soon after, Breen, who by this time had remarried, enrolled in the turfgrass management program at Colorado State University in hopes of parlaying his new passion into a career.
"I grew up on a golf course," said Breen, who played extensively as a junior at the spartan Elks Golf Club in Salina, Kan. "It fit my personality perfectly."
He paid his dues at other places such as Jackson Hole (Wyo.) Golf and Tennis Club and Pagosa Springs (Colo.) Golf Club until finally landing his first job as a head superintendent at Los Alamos Golf Course in New Mexico.
During the early stages of his career two decades ago, Breen picked up invaluable tips at each stop, including knowing when to talk less and listen more and that it was OK not to be perfect all the time.
"Brian Heywood, my superintendent at Jackson Hole, told me that making mistakes is OK, just don't make big ones," Breen said. "That takes a lot of pressure off a young person. Mike Kosak (then of Lahontan Golf Club) told me that he taught by osmosis.
"I'm still not sure exactly what that means, but I think part of it is learning by watching.
"Everyone who I ever worked for or was in a classroom with I learned something from. The best people gave me room to make mistakes and learn from them."
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