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Breaking the Grass Ceiling

Female Volunteers Make the Cut at U.S. Women’s Open

Southern Pines, North Carolina–It was a moment that Kelly Lynch never thought she would see in her lifetime: a roomful of female professionals in the golf and turfgrass industry-especially at one of the most elite clubs in the country. There she was–with more than 30 years of her own experience– in front of the room at the Olympic Club in California. As a regional manager for Pure Seed, Lynch knew almost every face after building a network of women who work in the golf course maintenance and turfgrass industry. “I raise my hand, and I’m like, is this the moment that we break the grass ceiling?” stated Lynch. “Everyone was like, oh my gosh, this is it. This is history in the making.”

The group of 30 volunteers before her had come from across the country to create an all-female maintenance crew to assist the regular crew for the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open. It was an idea modeled into reality by Lynch and Troy Flanagan, the director of golf maintenance at Olympic Club.

The ‘grass ceiling society’ reunited this year at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club for this year’s Women’s Open. Ladies from across the country– and from across town-have stepped away from their regular golf course jobs this week to help a Pine Needles crew that normally numbers less than 15 full-time workers.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s very gratifying. It’s time away, but it’s the camaraderie that you get to build with like-minded people that makes it all worthwhile,” said Tracey Cattelino, a maintenance worker at Pinehurst No. 6. In the field of golf course maintenance, it is still a man’s world. Women make up just 2% of the workforce. “I would love to see it grow. I know there are other women that would enjoy this field,” said Cattelino. “I just would love to see the girls out here getting dirty with us and keeping up with the boys.”

Her efforts to help the growth brought Andrea Salzman to the area. Salzman, a student at the University of Minnesota studying turf management, is working this summer as an intern at Pinehurst and worked with Cattelino last year at the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. “Coming out here and meeting all these women who are superintendents, everybody just wants to help each other,” said Salzman. “It’s a lot less intimidating in this turf world because everybody just supports each other. We are here to make friends and talk about grass.”

Housing and transportation for the ladies to come out were covered by Rain Bird and Syngenta. The volunteers stayed at the Villas on the Mid Pines property across the road from Pine Needles, where the 30+ workers left shortly after 3:30 am to meet with the regular crew, and headed out to their jobs shortly after 4 am to finish up the coursework before 7.

Breakfast is followed by professional development sessions for the superintendents and other turfgrass professionals to expand their knowledge.

“All of us are very passionate about not only our jobs but being here and sharing with each other,” Kimberly Guard, a representative from Syngenta, said. The week comes with a guaranteed lack of sleep for the volunteers, given the early reporting times, but then there are the evenings, spent late into the night telling stories from the course and about their lives. “It’s really fun but a little tough on getting some sleep. It would almost be like if you went somewhere with 30 of your girlfriends,” Guard added. A sisterhood blooms from the friendships and camaraderie and adds fire to Lynch’s passion for growing that 2%.

“We have some real tenured people working the Open. We also have young women here and it is our responsibility to build a bridge for them, ” said Lynch. “I will spend the rest of my career doing all I can to get them a seat at the table and continue to break the grass ceiling.”

Golf course maintenance is a thankless job most of the time, but Monday before the competition provided appreciation from a familiar face of women’s golf: Annika Sorenstam, the three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion stopped by to meet the history-making grounds crew.

“You wouldn’t think that the pros would ask to come to talk to us,” said Ashley Kendall, who works at TPC Piper Glen in Charlotte. “It just seems like some of the jobs get overlooked in a sense. It’s really cool that someone so famous is appreciative of the ones that make the course what it is.”

The female volunteers bring a number of talents beyond agronomy. One member is a graphic artist who created a skin-worthy image–grass growing through a glass ceiling. “We’re all getting the tattoo,” Lynch added. “I am one of the few that has no tattoos but this will be my first.”

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