Chenal Country Club Founders Course Superintendent Parker Ibbotson discusses volunteering at PGA Tour’s The American Express

Ibbotson worked mostly on the small details in California, raking bunkers, cleaning tee boxes, dragging fairways, and repairing ball marks, all things that he says brought him back to his first summers working at Rolling Hills Country Club in Cabot. 

By: Chris Werner
USGA P.J. Boatwright Jr. Intern

February 1, 2024 

Chenal Country Club Founders Course Superintendent Parker Ibbotson was one of nearly 30 volunteers at the PGA Tour’s The American Express in mid-January in Southern California. From the Sunday before the tournament until the morning before the final round, Ibbotson worked mostly on the small details, raking bunkers, cleaning tee boxes, dragging fairways, and repairing ball marks, all things that he says brought him back to his first summers working at Rolling Hills Country Club in Cabot. 

Read the Q&A below

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ASGA: First, I have to ask, how close were you to Nick Dunlap when he made the putt to become the first amateur to win on Tour since Phil did in 1991?

Parker Ibbotson: Sadly, I was on a flight at the time. My roommate, we were staying at the hotel together. We actually had the same flight back to Dallas. So in the air, we knew it was it was pretty tight between him and Burns and Bezuidenhout. Last I saw, Burns still had the lead. I just assumed I was like, ‘Ah, you know, he's probably going to carry it out. And then we finally land in Dallas and my roommate gets his service on and gets a notification post that Dunlap won. I was like, ‘Really?’ That was a cool storyline going into it but I didn't really have a ton of faith that he was gonna pull it out. Obviously, amateurs don't do that very often.

ASGA: Dunlap finished the week at 29-under, as a superintendent yourself, would you have liked to see the course set up harder or was it supposed to be set up as a birdie fest?

PI: Superintendents kind of get bad raps like we just want the course to play hard. I guess it depends on what side you're coming at it from. As a superintendent at a country club, I want the course conditions to play good and fair for our membership, and for our membership. That doesn't mean we need greens rolling at 14 like a U.S. Open, nor is that sustainable, or healthy for the turf. 

But for the pendulum swing like that, that explanation is simple because the Am Ex is a different kind of event where the first three days, amateurs are also playing out there and you have to think about pace of play. So they're not setting hard pin locations on the green. The biggest thing they care about is not so much green speed, It's how true they roll. I think what was delivered fit the event for what it needed to be.

ASGA: How did that opportunity to volunteer come about, and is it the first time you’ve ever volunteered at a PGA Tour event?

PI: That was my first PGA Tour event. When I was out at Blessings Golf Club, we hosted the NCAA Championships for men and women. That was the first time one site hosted both men's and women's, I could be wrong on that, but I believe that was the case. So that was two weeks in a row of that kind of setup and daily schedule. But this is my first time doing a PGA event. 

And it all kind of came up, so here at Chenal Country Club, we’re managed by Century Golf/Arnold Palmer Properties and PGA West, where they hosted the Am Ex is also a Century golf club. So our VP of agronomy, through Century reached out and mentioned that, ‘Hey, we have this opportunity out here to come volunteer at the Am Ex, this would be a great opportunity if anybody on your staff would like to apply. So after talking with our head superintendent and our other managers, everybody felt all right with me applying, to block out that week for me to be gone. So I went ahead and applied and got it. I figured, because I was looking at the dates, the final round would be on my birthday. I was like, ‘Well, I bet you the weather in California is gonna be better than here in Arkansas. I was more right than I thought I would be with that snowstorm.

ASGA: If somebody asked you to summarize the experience, how would you do that? 

PI: Especially for somebody that's never done anything similar to that before, it's a different gear you have to find. The day-in and day-out of managing a golf course has a lot of challenges, but for the most part, unless you go out east where they expect true championship conditions every day, that's not something that most people experience until you go out and do something like that. 

It's long hours, but it's very rewarding. Especially whenever you get to see the finished product on television. If you get into the industry, for the most part, you have an idea of golf and are somewhat of a fan of it, and you're always watching on TV, and you so you kind of just get a true perspective of what it takes to achieve those conditions.

ASGA: What would you say the biggest differences are between here in Arkansas where maybe the expectation isn't always championship level and what you just accomplished?

PI: The growing seasons are different. So obviously, like in a place like Arkansas in January, is going to be different than other parts of the country. That's something that comes about whenever it's time for, like US Opens or Masters, talking to sometimes with members, they want to know why things are done a certain way at a Country Club level as compared to events like that. It comes down to manpower, dollars, and sustainability. 

The hours that it takes to put out conditions like you see in those major championships or something of that level, you can put your foot on the gas like that for a week or two, or a couple of months to achieve that result. But to do that daily isn't always in the best interests of turf health. And you have to look at sustainability. You want this course to be around for years to come and to play very consistently for that entire time. You can do certain things in short stretches, but if you try and do that every day, you could lead to some consequences.

ASGA: Did you have a welcome to a PGA Tour event experience, something maybe when you first got on the course or something early on in the week where you realized that this was a completely different experience than you'd ever had before?

PI: I was lucky that I had a little bit of knowledge of what was to come just because of that experience working the NCAAs at Blessings Golf Club. The setup was very similar in the regard of the intensity and scheduling and attention to detail. So I had a background for that.  

I think a main difference that I could see was there's a lot more data-driven decision-making now. Of course, we were stimpmetering greens, measuring green speeds, at Blessings, but a big deal now is checking firmness with a TruFirm, how thorough they were being with say gridding off each green, checking green’s moistures, finding certain thresholds on that as to have ball speeds where they need to be. Driving fairways with infrared radar readers, essentially, trying to get a feel for what fairway moisture looks like. There are just extra steps there as far as gathering data to make informed decisions that weren’t in the mainstream at NCAAs.

ASGA: What did a typical day look like for you? Obviously going from course prep in the week leading up, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, what were your duties during that, and then during the tournament, how did that change?

PI: I stayed pretty consistent. So Monday through Wednesday, in the morning I'd go out and do tee setup. I was setting out tee markers, putting out ropes, because it was an amateur event, too, we were having to put out ladies' men's and then pro tees. And then with pro tees on par 3s, you're having to rope off so they can't get beyond a certain point so we can preserve the tee box for the tournament rounds for divot management.

I was going through, just trying to be thorough, cleaning up tee boxes. So I was paired up with a tee mower essentially, so I would go out, clearly tee box of any debris, broken tees, trash, anything like that, as the mower finished come through, set blocks, just keep my eyes open for anything else beyond that.

Then for the afternoons, It was just detail work all the way through, tee-to-green. So, started up at the tee box, clear of any debris again, just another sweep through, broken tees, any trash, sticks, does anything out of place that could be noticed by a golfer, or on a TV camera? 

Then start working down to the fairway and we start filling in divots. A lot of that, especially in the practice rounds leading up to the tournament, filling in old divots, spending a lot of time with that, throwing down sand, smoothing it out, and then going into bunkers as you're walking down fairways and rough. Fixing any wavy spots in bunkers, try and keep everything smooth and as pristine as you can get it. It would be a team of us working along doing that, divided up into different jobs. Then we’d meet up at the greens and fix ball marks. that's how my afternoons went every time.

Once it moved into the tournament, Thursday through Saturday I was on the Jack Nicklaus Tournament course, in the mornings, I'd go out and do that tee set up, but it'd be shortened because the PGA Tour staff would be coming around setting up those tee blocks, so I would just set those off to the side. Then I'd go meet up with my partner, who was also setting out tee blocks for the other nine. We'd meet up, connect hoses and dew-drag fairways, and knock dew down before play went off. And we would do that up until play started and a little bit after since we had a gap ahead of them. 

On Sunday we all moved over to the Stadium Course, so that morning, I went out and hand-raked bunkers on the back nine. It was long hours with a lot of it being detailed things but that's what it takes to put on a high-level tournament like that.

ASGA: Did that experience bring you back to when you first started when you were doing that sort of stuff every day before you became a superintendent?

PI: Yeah, it did. It's a good reminder of the things that we're asking people to do, now I'm back doing that again. You just remember what it was like, whenever you were first getting into the industry. This is what made me fall in love with it. Instead of dealing with the management side of things, you're back to actually being out there. And you're just hands-on, you're just taking care of the course. It's just the pure form of it.

ASGA:  What will you remember most from your experience?

PI: The most memorable thing for me was the connections I got to make with other supers across the country. To have their contact now and go through all that together and have a common thread of that tournament, that’ll probably be what I'll take away the most from it. 

ASGA: How cool is it that your first experience doing something like this happened to be the first time an amateur won on the Tour since 1991? Whenever somebody brings it up, you can remember that not only have you done a PGA Tour event, but it was one that golf fans will be talking about for a while.

PI: That was one of my first thoughts when my roommate, we were on the flight together,  he told me that he won, I was like” Yeah, that's pretty neat that the first PGA Tour event I get to work — whether it's the last or just the first of many — it was historic. To have an amateur winning on tour and I was at that tournament, that’s a pretty cool feeling. So it'll be nice to look back on that to always be able to share that. Yeah, I was there. Maybe I didn’t get to see the final putt drop but maybe I played a part in it somehow. 

ASGA: And lastly, what did you glean from that experience that you think will help you this year and years to come at Founders back at Chenal? 

PI: It's kinda like we talked about a little bit ago with being a superintendent and getting back to just doing the basics again. And that's the thing I took away. A week long of us 22-23 volunteers, we're all professionals, we're all management, superintendents, assistants in this industry. You're never too good to focus on the details. Because that is the big separator in this industry from one course to the next is how well you pay attention to the details.

That's something if I can carry that along myself, that's something you can always pass on to your staff, like, ‘Hey, I do this too.’ You always reflect on yourself and think, ‘What can I do better?’ It's like, I could always be willing to go sand more divots or fix a couple ball marks while I'm on a green. It's all in the details and no one’s above it.