Niyo: Jake Mendoza groomed for long run at Detroit Golf Club

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit – Jake Mendoza was looking for a challenge. But he wasn’t necessarily asking for this.

Nor were his prospective employers at the Detroit Golf Club. At least not during the interview process, starting with a lengthy phone call in December 2017 and culminating in Mendoza’s 90-minute presentation in a formal interview with the club’s search committee.

Detroit Golf Club superintendent Jake Mendoza with sidekick Sam.

They asked – and he answered – a lot of questions about becoming head golf course superintendent, but none of them dealt directly with the task that’s occupying his every waking hour this week, as the club plays host to the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

“They asked if that was something I was looking for and my answer was, ‘No, I wouldn’t leave here to chase a PGA Tour event,’” said Mendoza, a 37-year-old native of Moline, Ill. “But I told them if one fell in my lap here, I would happily be a part of the team to put on the event.”

Mendoza ultimately got the job, having wowed the committee with his preparation. But soon after, he got the word.

“A couple months in, it’s ‘Hey, we’re hosting a PGA Tour event,’” Mendoza recalled with a laugh as he made his morning rounds on a rainy day in early June, accompanied by his trusted sidekick, Sam, an 11-year-old border collie who has the run of the 220-acre property.

Both Jake and Sam had a pretty good idea what they were getting themselves into, though.

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Prior to landing the head job at DGC, Mendoza spent nearly a decade at Medinah Country Club in suburban Chicago, a 600-acre property that features three 18-hole courses and has hosted a handful of golf’s major championships over the years, as well as the 2012 Ryder Cup.

He worked his way up from an assistant’s job to a senior title under head superintendent Curtis Tyrrell and played an integral role in the club’s massive $15 million makeover. Mendoza, who'd also interned at another storied club, Winged Foot in New York, site of next year's U.S. Open, was part of a Rees Jones redesign of Medinah’s tradition-rich Course 3, then helped coordinate all the Ryder Cup planning that set the stage for golf’s showcase event there. 

But after all that, with a wife and three young children under the age of 5, Mendoza was ready to run his own operation. And after some near-misses elsewhere, the appeal of Detroit Golf Club was obvious.

“I was looking for a good member-oriented club that was supportive,” he said. “And looking at the history of superintendents here, that was very appealing.”

'Full steam ahead'

That’s because only seven others have held that title since Detroit Golf Club was founded in 1899. (The sixth, Clem Wolfrom, served as superintendent for more than a half-century, from 1962 through 2013.) And just as Mendoza was looking for stability, “we were looking for that, too,” said Andy Glassberg, president of the 700-member club.

“This is before we had a Tour event,” Glassberg said. “But we were still hoping for one. And we didn’t want somebody who was chasing something and was going to move on in a couple years. …

“We hired him to be a custodian of our courses and to take our conditioning to the next level. In his presentation, he convinced everybody that he was the perfect guy to take us there. And now that we do have a tournament? Boy, are we fortunate.”

Still, there was a lot of work to do in relatively short order. Mendoza began his new job in February 2018, started planning to host a PGA event that April, and once the contract was finally signed last September, “it was full steam ahead.”

Building a half-dozen new tees on the North Course – one of DGC’s two Donald Ross-designed tracks -- adding drainage, planning all the tent locations, and so on. But if the task seemed daunting, it was a blessing as well. The long list of projects club officials had in mind now had a new funding source – the PGA pays for tournament-related course improvements – and an organizational whiz in charge.

“It definitely accelerated that timeline and allowed us to improve things, to get things up to the level they need to be,” Mendoza said.

That includes everything from buying a half-dozen walk greens mowers for more precise cuts – Mendoza has borrowed a handful more for tournament week – to adding some 1,800 tons of sand to the fairways each year to firm them up. (The DGC greens get about 120 tons annually.)

Most of the heavy lifting took place last fall, but a busy spring has been complicated by all the rain, particularly in the month of May, which is the prime growing season for turf root systems. It rained all but seven days last month.

“I wouldn’t say it set us back,” Mendoza said. “It just changed our plan and timing of everything. Mother Nature dictates everything we do. … My crew has done an amazing job and without their support and the ability to be flexible we wouldn’t be where we’re at right now. But we’ll be primed and ready to go.”

Now that he’s here, Mendoza marvels at some of the infrastructure he inherited, including the well-maintained drainage system and the original 1916 brickwork of the catch basins. (“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says.) Still, on a relatively flat property, more is needed.

More help is needed this week, too. And as with every PGA Tour tournament, a group of superintendents from all over the country will be on hand – a total of 75 volunteers divided between early and late shifts, working with headlamps before dawn and after dusk – getting the course ready for play.

Tough stretch

So, where will the pros be challenged on this reconfigured course, which borrows one hole from the South Course and now measures about 7,300 yards in length? Mendoza points to a stretch of holes on the front – Nos. 6, 7 and 8 for the tournament – that feature tight drives, two-tiered greens and lots of undulation in the fairways. (“We don’t have a lot of elevation change out here,” Mendoza says, “but there’s no flat lie anywhere on those three holes.”)

The challenge for Mendoza and his crew – working closely with Paul Vermeulen, the PGA Tour’s vice president of agronomy – is to keep things consistent, from green to green, and day to day during the tournament, with or without Mother Nature’s cooperation.

So far, so good, apparently.

“They love the greens, they love where we are with our fairways,” Glassberg said of tour officials. “So as long as we don’t get more deluges, we’ll be in great shape.”

Mendoza doesn’t have any time to think about next year at the moment, but he’s eager to get the feedback from this first go-around. The PGA Tour’s ShotLink and TrackMan data – land angles, bounce and more – will help the club improve next year’s course setup, from mowing heights to pin locations.

Before he can do that, however, he’ll be busy with his staff restoring the course after this week’s tournament debut. Taking down all the TV and hospitality structures will take weeks, and the seeding and sodding that follows likely will continue through the fall. But the complaints from the membership thus far have been minimal – a chance to play the course in Tour-caliber conditions helps offset some of the inconvenience – and keeping it that way is part of the superintendent’s job as well.

“The members have all been very supportive of the changes,” Mendoza said. “As long as we communicate why we’re doing things, they’re on board. And I think they’ve been very happy with the conditions we’ve been able to produce.”

So has he, quite frankly. And though it feels as if the work is never done in his job, Mendoza has reminded his staff and volunteers to “have fun with this.” Come Sunday, he says, "we’re all gonna take a break and watch golf and enjoy the fruits of our labor."

That’s something he does himself from time to time as well.

“Every now and then I kind of catch myself,” Mendoza said. “Early in the morning, sun’s just coming up and I’ll think, ‘I can’t believe I’m put in charge of a property like this.’ This is a very rare opportunity to be given. So I need to take advantage of it and make the most of it.”

Rocket Mortgage Classic

When: Thursday-Sunday 

Where: Detroit Golf Club

TV: Thursday and Friday – 3-6 p.m., Golf Channel. Saturday and Sunday – 1-2:45 p.m., Golf Channel; 3-6 p.m., CBS.

Purse: $7.3 million