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Just your average superhero superintendents at Bandon Dunes

by Andrew Penner

After holing out on the 17th green at Sheep Ranch, a par-4 that careens along a cliff overhanging the Pacific Ocean, Ken Nice and I sauntered over to a gnarled, wind-ravaged snag clinging to the bluff and surveyed the scene.

How better for Senior Director of Agronomy Ken Nice to find out the conditions of the resort’s courses than to play them, as he’s doing here on Sheep Ranch. (All photos by Andrew Penner)

For five glorious miles, give or take, gorgeous golf holes twist and turn along the dune-smeared shoreline. “Your office is pretty sweet,” I said to Nice, the senior director of agronomy at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. He contemplated the sea and sand, the fairways and greens hugging the Pacific, and simply smiles and nods.

While Bandon Dunes might be heaven on earth for golfers, when you’re the man responsible for the maintenance of all 121 holes on this sprawling resort, the “heaven” descriptor may be slightly, well, overstated.

“In terms of the turf management operations, there are a lot of moving parts,” says Nice, who has worked at the resort since its inception in 1999. Nice started out as assistant superintendent on the original course, Bandon Dunes, was promoted to superintendent at Pacific Dunes in 2004, and, finally, was promoted to lead the entire agronomy operation at the resort in 2010.

And, considering that the size of the property is 2,525 acres, yes, he’s always got a lot on his plate.

“The entire operation actually runs more smoothly than you might think,” says Nice, whose rescue dog, Rio, accompanies him as he moves about the property each day. “Each course has its own superintendent. And we’ve got dozens of talented, hard-working individuals on our teams. It’s a big family and they make my job pretty easy.”

Not surprisingly, given the fact that Bandon Dunes, which was founded by visionary Mike Keiser, will soon be opening its sixth golf course (Shorty’s, a 19-hole par-3 layout located in some of the most dramatic dunes on the property, is set to open in April 2024), that turf team “family” is fairly large. One hundred and twenty people and counting.

There’s a good chance that – in North America, at least – only Pinehurst would have more personnel working on its various turf teams.

Superintendent pin-up calendar dog Billy with Old Macdonald Superintendent Marcus Lakey.

As with many multi-course facilities, when it comes to the maintenance operations, there is a significant degree of autonomy with each course. “For the most part, the day-to-day operation at each course runs independently,” says Nice. “And we have four distinct maintenance areas for the six courses. The two par-3 courses are integrated with two of our existing facilities. However, when special situations arise, such as aerification, bunker restoration projects, tournament preparation, or what have you, we definitely share resources, including manpower or machines and whatever it takes to get the job done. I meet with our six superintendents once a week to make sure everyone is on the same page and needs are being met. For this type of operation, communication is key.”

Not surprisingly, for Nice and every other superintendent at Bandon, the goal at the end of the day is the same: to provide golfers with outstanding conditions and a memorable experience on the links.

“We all have a lot of pride in this place,” says Nice. “We set the bar high. All our superintendents are talented, highly motivated individuals and they know how to get the job done. But everyone has their own style, and nobody likes people looking over their shoulder all the time. I try to give our leaders the space they need to do their jobs on their own terms.”

Fittingly, many of the turf team leaders at the resort have, like Nice, been brought up through the ranks and trained from within. As it should be, hard work, loyalty, and so on, are definitely rewarded at Bandon Dunes.

Marcus Lakey, the superintendent on the Old Macdonald course, is the perfect example. He started working on the Bandon Trails team back in 2010 when, as Nice puts it, “We had an all-star team there. Five members of that initial Trails crew are now superintendents.”

Lakey, who went on to study turf management at Oregon State University, was rewarded for his solid skill set and leadership abilities when he got the head job at Old Macdonald in 2018.

“I’ve got a stellar team,” said Lakey, who also loves to play the game whenever possible. “Links golf is special. I’m very fortunate to call this course home. Old Mac is simply off-the-charts. You always look at a course differently when you’re the man responsible for maintaining it.”

Interestingly, for Lakey, Nice, and many of the other agronomy leaders at Bandon, besides their awesome teams, they also have plenty of “canine” support. Lakey’s sidekick, for example, is the wily veteran, Billy. A boxer/Staffordshire terrier mix, Billy is getting up there in age. However, he’s had quite a life. In 2017 he was “Mr. March” in the annual Dogs of Golf calendar published by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. “He’s definitely more famous than me,” said Lakey. “He just loves it here. What a life.”

Left to right: Rio, Nice’s faithful dog; Michael Chupka, the Bandon Dunes director of communications; Ken Nice, the resort’s senior director of agronomy; and fellow golf writer, Tony Dear, walking the resort’s as-yet-unopened par-3 Shorty’s course. (Photo by Andrew Penner)

Strolling the virgin fairways of the as-yet-unopened Shorty’s par-3 course, Nice and his young, energetic dog, Rio, studied one postcard-perfect par 3 after another. Rio seemed to be having the time of his life bounding through the dune grass and chasing birds.

“I can see how a dog would have his best life here,” I said, as we wandered into a natural amphitheater, the 16th green, framed by grass-capped dunes.

“Golfers and dogs seem to have found a happy place here,” said Nice.

And agronomy aficionados, too, I would add.

Andrew Penner is a freelance writer and photographer based in Calgary, Alberta. You can follow him on Instagram here: @andrewpennerphotography