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Rough job suits Aronimink superintendent Gosselin to a tee

THERE is no doubt who the most indispensable person at Aronimink will be this week. But if there are any props for runner-up, then course superintendent John Gosselin might just have the early inside track.

Aronimink superintendent John Gosselin has the course ready for the AT & T National.
Aronimink superintendent John Gosselin has the course ready for the AT & T National.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff photographer

THERE is no doubt who the most indispensable person at Aronimink will be this week. But if there are any props for runner-up, then course superintendent John Gosselin might just have the early inside track.

Getting his home turf ready for a PGA Tour event has been nearly a 2-year undertaking. Almost since the time it was announced the AT & T National was headed there, if not before.

"The membership has kept me in the loop from the very beginning," Gosselin said. "From the first meeting they had with the Tiger Woods Foundation and the tour. So we started preparing that day.

"It's a huge challenge, but so motivating. You and your staff have to put your life on hold for a little bit."

This is Aronimink's photo op, the chance to showcase itself to the golf universe. And when you're on center stage, the last thing you want are issues. Starting, naturally, with the conditions. That's why Gosselin makes those really big paychecks.

"We want [the players] to leave here really feeling like they just played something special," he said. "It's like a chef. You're as good as the last meal you served. Whether it's food, a hotel stay or a round of golf, it's an experience. That's the way this business works. Every time's got to be good. The whole world's watching. You just want to pull it off.

"Unless you've been here for the last 18 months, been part of all the decisions we've been making gearing up for this thing, while continuing to crank out a great product for the members and keep everybody else happy, it's hard to explain to somebody, the effort it takes. [People] don't understand all that goes on behind the scenes to make it happen.

"But they don't need to, either."

As any umpire worth his reputation will tell you, it's best if nobody notices.

"Somebody said to me, 'I'm going to see you on TV that week,' " Gosselin noted. "I told them I hope not. If a superintendent's on TV, it's usually because something went wrong."

And who needs that?

Gosselin, 47, has been in the business his entire adult life, all of it spent in this region, starting at the General Washington course in Audubon, which recently closed. His resume includes an internship under the legendary Richie Valentine at Merion, where he lived for a while atop the clubhouse. He also has worked at Rolling Green in Springfield, Delaware County, when it was undergoing a restoration, and had two stops at DuPont in Wilmington, where he watched and learned while it hosted the LPGA McDonald's Championship.

So it's hardly his first rodeo. Still . . .

"The scale of this is much bigger," Gosselin said. "But everything else is similar.

"The membership has such high expectations. But you certainly have the resources to give them what they want. As long as you get results. With my experience, my job with this event was to tell them what we were missing, what we needed to do and what our options were. We looked at everything.

"When you think of what clubs can handle a tournament like this, it's a compliment that they even picked us. They wanted a classic [design]. That's what they kept saying, anyway. They said they don't get to play a lot of these. It was exciting, right from the get-go. We gave them the option to lengthen 14 different holes, and there's room. We could go to 7,700 yards, without buying land or doing anything goofy. They only chose to redo a couple of tees, to make them bigger and more level. They added length to No. 9, about 50 yards, so it fit in more. Now we have a short par 5 [No. 15, at 500 yards] and a long one [measuring 605, uphill].

"We want to make sure it's just right," he went on. "They'll play a course that's very similar to what the members play for our special events. We want them to see it at its peak."

Gosselin, the president of the local superintendents association (the oldest in the country, by the way, dating back to 1924), normally oversees a staff of between 20 to 25. Leading into the tourney, that number grew to approximately 30. This week, he also reached out for additional help, "just like anyone else [would]."

The response? Some 55 other volunteers, representing almost that many clubs, are lending their services.

"Thank God, for all of them," Gosselin said.

They'll operate in shifts. From 4 to 8 each morning, there are close to 100 jobs that need to be completed. "We have to get in and get out," Gosselin said. Then he holds a wrapup meeting, followed by breakfast. About 25 bodies have to be there all day. There's another meeting at 4 p.m., before a second group gets to eat dinner and complete 80 more tasks that evening.

He is staying at a nearby hotel, close to the club. Home is Kennett Square. His wife and three children (two in college, one in middle school) will see him again when this is over.

"When the last ball drops, we might crack open a bottle of champagne," he said. "Then we'll go to bed."

Deservedly so. The only problem is, the members are going to want their course back sooner rather than later. That's part of the deal, too.

"The day after will be a letdown," Gosselin said. "You'll see the mess when it's over. But hopefully everybody's happy. During the week I'm going to try and find a few moments here and there [to enjoy it]. The members are going to play [it again] on Tuesday. Inside the ropes will be OK. That's protected. Outside the ropes it's going to be a mess for a good month. You just have to work around it.

"I'm hoping for a big honeymoon period."

On media day in May, Gosselin was able to meet Tiger Woods, the attraction.

"I'm not a big celebrity guy, but I got the chance to get my 1 or 2 minutes with him one-on-one, and it was great," Gosselin said. "It was just like talking to one of your golf buddies. It was, 'Hey, how tough can you get the rough? How do these greens putt when the speed gets up?' That's all it was.

"He was doing all the other stuff, but at the end of the day he wants to play the course. He's a golfer."

Actually, the golfer, making his Philadelphia-area debut. And whatever you think about him, that's the singular story line.

"People want to see him play," Gosselin said. "If he plays, it's the TV ratings, the corporate things, more people in town. It's more everything. There's definitely a Tiger factor. And it's unbelievable. Just me as a golf fan, I'm excited that he's coming to town. It's what everyone's been waiting for."

But it all starts with the guy in charge of the grounds crew. Finally, his ultimate exam is about to become reality. Better keep serious tabs on those 5-day forecasts.

"I'm just like a coach," Gosselin said. "I get credit for a lot of other people's good hard work. By the same token, if somebody makes a mistake, or things just aren't right, there will be a lot of blame. That's just the way it goes.

"With all we can do, the one thing we have no control over is Mother Nature. We can handle a shower here and there, but if we get 2 or 3 days of rain it wipes out a lot. We want the ball to roll, so a player just doesn't have to think about where his ball lands, but he has to think about where it's going to end up. Same with the greens. These guys are so good they can just throw it in there. But if they have to play toward a different spot and kind of judge where the ball will end up . . . "

It's game on. Until then . . .

"We've had our bad days, where everybody's frustrated," Gosselin admitted. "But you've got to figure out a way to get past that and enjoy it, even though there's a lot of anxiety. You worry about everything.

"You don't want [people] to be talking about any issues with the golf course. That's on everybody's mind. Well, I'm keeping it on everybody's mind." *