by Tom Cade, Editor
Sometimes later in our journey we return to visit the place we started from. If we are lucky.
And so it is for Cory Isom.
When the 5th U.S. Senior Women’s Open is held at historic Waverley Country Club in Portland, Ore. on August 24-27, Isom will be there, watching the national championship unfold on the fairways he walked as a youth.
As the regional agronomist of the USGA Green Section’s West Region, Isom covers a vast geographical area, from the Dakotas down throughout the western U.S., to Hawaii and Alaska, and Western Canada, consulting golf facilities on best-practices for turf and environmental management and sustainability.
Part of Isom’s duties is to provide support of on-course preparations at all USGA championships, working with the host site staff to achieve the desired playing conditions for competition.
But that is now.
Back in 1988, he was a 15-year-old kid working his first job in life, cleaning clubs in the bag room at Waverley and caddying on weekends, all while attending nearby Milwaukie High School.
“When I was growing up, I lived a little over a thousand yards from the Waverley clubhouse,” Isom recalls. “I rode my bike to work.” His parents still live in that house.
Three years later, for the time and effort Isom put into his work at Waverley, he was selected to be an Evans Scholar, receiving a full tuition and housing scholarship given to young people whose qualifications include, among other things, outstanding character.
Waverley has a long history of supporting the Evans Scholarship program, with the club’s members donating to the program, which is administered by the Western Golf Association, and by supporting and encouraging the area’s young people in their quest to earn the scholarship.
On the wall just outside the club’s pro shop is a plaque with all the names of those who have caddied at Waverley and gone on to earn the scholarship. It is the club’s honor roll, of sorts, recognizing the shared journey and commitment of the members and the young people who have passed through its gates.
With the scholarship, Isom attended the University of Oregon, graduating in 1995 with a degree in business administration.
“After graduation, I went the golf pro route,” Isom says. “I worked for a year in the pro shop at Pumpkin Ridge. But I felt I should be putting my degree to work so I quit and got a job in tech.”
After a year of that, Isom realized it wasn’t a fit either.
A friend of his was working at the time as a superintendent at Langdon Farms, a course on the south end of Portland. Isom visited him there one day.
“I looked around, saw what he was doing, and thought, ‘This looks pretty good to me.’”
Isom quit his job in the tech industry and got hired on as a laborer on the grounds crew at Portland Golf Club. “I think I was making seven bucks an hour,” he recalls. “I took a massive pay cut (by leaving my tech job), but I couldn’t have been happier.”
Eventually it was suggested to Isom that he attend Oregon State University, with its national reputation for turfgrass research. After two years there and a degree in horticultural science in his back pocket, Isom began a series of golf course superintendent positions that for the next 17 years took him all over the western U.S.
But he and his wife missed the Northwest, and family. They returned to Puyallup, Wash., with Isom looking for work, eventually landing at the Pierce County Parks and Recreation Department. It was a job, but it wasn’t golf.
Then a friend called and said several people in the Green Section at the USGA were set to retire, and suggested to Isom that he apply, particularly with his degree in business administration and experience as a superintendent.
“That was a good phone call,” Isom recalls. But the better phone call came later, after he applied for the job, when the USGA made him an offer. Isom started in December 2019, and was thrilled to be back in golf.
The USGA’s Green Section has 25 people on staff, with nine of them being certified agronomists. The U.S. is divided into four regions (soon to be moved to three regions), with two or three agronomists per region. With Isom being the agronomist of the West Region, Waverley, with it scheduled to host the U.S. Senior Women’s Open, was placed happily on his plate.
How has the club changed since he was hosing down golf carts as a teenager in the late 1980s?
“When Gil Hanse restored the course in 2012, he cut down a lot of trees, which opened up all the corridors,” Isom says. “Now, you can really see the course, the entire property. Hanse also changed the style of the bunkers, softening the edges to give it a more golden-age look.”
Isom also talks about Waverley’s clubhouse.
“The pro shop has been expanded, but the classic clubhouse is still the same,” he says. “You head down the drive and it shows up in front of you, stately as ever.”
Waverley was founded in 1896, and is one of the oldest clubs in the U.S. This summer’s U.S. Senior Women’s Open will be the eighth USGA national championship held at the venerable club along the banks of the Willamette River.
Isom has made several visits to Waverley in advance of the championship. Brian Koffler is the head superintendent at Waverley, and he and Isom have been good friends since their student days together at Oregon State.
“I see my role as a support between Brian and the USGA championship director,” Isom says. “Kind of like a translator. I’ll hear some of the championship staff’s suggestions, and then I’ll ask Brian, ‘Is it possible to play from these tees?’ or ‘Is that hole location playable at that green speed?’ Things like that.
“Generally, the USGA has selected a golf course to hold one of their national championships for a reason, which means the course is already pretty close to where they want it to be.”
Isom will be on site at Waverley for two weeks this August during the championship, which is pretty close to where he wants to be.
Tom Cade is the editor of Pacific Northwest Golfer magazine, published by the Pacific Northwest Golf Association. He is a past president of the Northwest Golf Media Association, and in 2016 received the NWGMA Distinguished Service Award.