There are passionate people across the golf course management industry. Then there’s Jeff Wagner: general manager, superintendent, and official head of anything else that needs to be done at Boiling Springs Golf Club in Woodward, OK. Before hosting 108 Broken Tee Society members for an all-day golf bonanza back in April, Wagner hopped in the TGJ Van to chat with Assistant Editor Casey Bannon about his “buried treasure” of a golf course, and the seven years of hard labor it’s taken to unearth it. Listen to the full conversation below, or read on for a condensed version.
Casey Bannon: What is your official title at Boiling Springs?
Jeff Wagner: My official title is General Manager and Golf Course Superintendent. Just please, don’t call me the golf pro.
CB: Why don’t you want to be the pro? You’re not giving lessons?
JW: Not if you want to get better. I can fold a mean sweater though.
CB: [Laughs.] What are some of the other hats you wear at Boiling Springs?
JW: I guess the list of hats I don’t wear might be shorter than the list of hats I do. While that can be overwhelming, I’m fortunate that we’re small enough that I can cover all bases. I’ve got a solid team here. Tiny but mighty. I’m doing mechanical work, marketing, media, finances, agronomy, irrigation…the longer I’m here, the more I actually appreciate the ability to have my hands in everything.
CB: What was the club’s reputation when you got here seven years ago?
JW: Not good. But a lot of guys in my position, if they spent 30 seconds talking to the guy that hired me, they would have done backflips. All I’ve done is execute his vision in collaboration with the golf course architect. I came in and immediately saw what this could be.
CB: What was that?
JW: The terrain, the topography, the vertical relief, the sandy soil, the movement, the beauty of the site, the isolation: it was anti-corporate golf. No homes, no highway noise, birds chirping. You can hear the wind blowing, the turkeys gobbling.
CB: What was objective No. 1 when you got here?
JW: The biggest challenge is maintaining 2.5 acres of greens, mowed at 1/10th of an inch, in this environment. There aren’t a lot of areas in the country with a temperature variation of over 100 degrees in a calendar year. Bitter, dry, cold winters, sandy soil, which really exacerbates a lot of the issues. Plus limited resources.
I was spoiled working in the Rocky Mountain market, competing with some of the best talent in the country. I was surrounded by people with answers. Now I’m in a place where I’m the one that’s supposed to have the answer, and sometimes I don’t. It can be really humbling. After that first year, we set our sights on clearing out a lot of the 30 years of invasive underbrush.
CB: How many trees do you estimate that you’ve taken out since you got here seven years ago?
JW: Six figures.
CB: Six figures?
JW: Yes. 100,000.
CB: What counts as a tree?
JW: If it’s green and it’s rooted, it’s a tree. The first two years, it was tough getting buy-in. But we weren’t recklessly wielding chainsaws. There was a methodical, calculated approach. I don’t think people understood that, because we did something that hadn’t been done in 35 years. The scale, the scope, it’s hard to verbalize, and we’re still not done.
CB: Who is “we” at Boiling Springs?
JW: Myself and my right-hand man Ivan Solis. The guy is just a beast. Two guys with two chainsaws and a tractor. He deserves a lot of credit, because our winters are brutal. We were doing this for five months at a time in weather that most people wouldn’t go check their mail in.
Every piece of the curtain we pulled back, we saw what was hiding. We didn’t create anything here. That’s how good the site is. The aesthetic that we’re after is Pinehurst No. 2. It was like Coore and Crenshaw gave the middle finger to the entire business. That was such a colossal change in how people visualized what a golf course should be.
The site is your canvas and the irrigation is your paintbrush. You have so much ability to manipulate your color, and your patterning and your flow by where you place the water. Honestly, man, a lot of the undergrowth was self-inflicted because we were putting so much water where we didn’t need it.
CB: Your first job in public golf… Did the stories of Instagram darlings like Sweetens Cove excite you, or did that upset you?
JW: I was absolutely waving my arms. I mean this as flattery, but what do they have that we don’t? Better location, savvier marketing, a young, hot architect. I think there’s no doubt that this site could exceed something of Sweetens’ caliber, in the future, with the right investment and some kind of cohesive strategy long term.
CB: What does Boiling Springs need in order to reach the potential that you see?
JW: Investment. That’s the one thing we lack. I feel that I can’t fix everything that we still need. We’ve pulled the curtain back, we’ve shown potential, we’ve created excitement and awareness. We’ve proven that our location is not a hindrance, it’s an opportunity. There’s never been more of an appetite to seek out these buried treasures. We’re on a 40-year-old property that’s not seen a capital investment in its lifetime. There are blemishes out there that I have a hard time overlooking. We could spend a million bucks on cart paths tomorrow. No driving range…
CB: Last thing. You have three million new potential customers from the Covid spike. How do we get them to stay for life?
JW: I think that’s the challenge at hand is how do we navigate the new normal here? I think a lot of questions don’t have answers yet. The million-dollar question is, how do we work collectively to take advantage of this? I’ve said it a million times: We’re walking backward as a group if we’re not putting the highest premium possible on fun, on the experience.