Cove native preps Merion for big golf event

ARDMORE – In just a few weeks, the world of golf will descend upon the suburbs of Philadelphia as massive crowds will convene for the 2013 U.S. Open at historic Merion Golf Club.

For more than a year, golf course preparations have been under way, knowing that soon all eyes will be focused on rough-length, fairway firmness and greens’ speed.

The man in charge at Merion, highly respected within the golf community, is Martinsburg native Matt Shaffer, the club’s director of golf course operations.

A recent spring-day visit to the course – regularly listed as one of the world’s top 10 layouts – found Shaffer, now 60 years old, relaxed and assured that course preparations are on schedule.

“We’ve had a cool spring, but the weather’s been good enough for our rough to grow,” Shaffer said. “Our greens are also doing well and should be in great shape for the Open.”

Shaffer did not set out to land at one of America’s most prestigious clubs.

“If someone told me, when I started 39 years ago, that I’d be at Merion getting ready for an Open I’d have laughed at them,” he said, smiling.

Shaffer’s association with golf started as a young man working on the grounds crew at Iron Masters Country Club near Roaring Spring.

After graduating from high school, he earned a degree in turf management from Penn State University. It was there that he met his wife, Renna, who was from nearby Boalsburg. After several stints as an assistant, the couple moved to Lancaster, where Shaffer landed his first job as a head superintendent of Meadia Heights Country Club.

It wasn’t long before Shaffer returned to the area to take the same position at Scotch Valley Country Club. The couple planned to raise a family in central Pennsylvania, but plans changed unexpectedly when they learned they were unable to have children.

“At that point, we decided to change to Plan B,” Shaffer said. “From a career standpoint, Renna and I decided we’d go for the gusto.”

In 1986, Shaffer was fortunate to land a position as an assistant superintendent at Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, where he worked for three years, in a pressure-packed environment. From there, Shaffer soon found himself in the top position at some of the finest golf courses in the country – Woodcrest Country Club in Cherry Hill, N.J., Hershey Country Club in Hershey and then the Country Club of Cleveland.

Eleven years ago, Shaffer learned of an opening at Merion.

“Renna and I talked about it, but it’s not a job you apply for,” Shaffer said. “Interviews are by invitation only.”

As it turned out, Shaffer’s work ethic and knowledge were so well known throughout the industry that he was one of only a handful of candidates asked to endure the club’s arduous selection process. Shaffer was hired in 2002 and has led the course’s maintenance and grounds crew ever since.

Under his leadership, the club has successfully hosted the 2005 U.S. Amateur and 2009 Walker Cup Matches.

Currently, he’s preparing the course for this year’s U.S. Open with the help of a staff that includes local ties. Equipment manager Robert Smith is a native of Everett, and course superintendent Aaron McCurdy hails from Lewistown.

“Matt is the most knowledgeable turf man I’ve every met,” McCurdy said. “He’s a great boss – always willing to share what he’s learned over the years.”

While Shaffer’s busy schedule has allowed only limited visits back to his hometown, one recent trip led to a reunion with one of his closest childhood friends, John Bolger of Martinsburg.

“I’ve followed Matt’s career over the years, and I’m not sure people realize the heights to which he’s risen,” Bolger said. “And Matt is one of the most humble, unassuming men you’ll ever meet. I’m so proud of him.”

Iron Masters superintendent Kellie Aungst has also known Shaffer for many years.

“Matt is one of the most well-respected guys in the business,” Aungst said. “And with all his responsibility, he still has time for everybody. He’ll make an honest effort to help anyone who reaches out to him.”

The next several weeks will be extremely busy, but Shaffer’s calm demeanor belies the tremendous responsibility he’s handled over the years.

He’s quick, though, to praise his staff for the hard work necessary to prepare Merion for golf’s sternest test – the U.S. Open.

“I believe in hiring good people and allowing them to do what they do best,” Shaffer said.

The U.S. Open will be held June 13-16.