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March 15, 2012

Former Tech golfer excelling in his career setting up some of the world's best golf courses for the PGA

By: Jimmy Robertson

Those who love the sport of golf know that basically nothing beats playing a round, regardless of the day, the course and the weather conditions. Many would argue that the next best thing to playing the game would be to work in some capacity within the sport.

Folks, meet Jeff Haley. This man is quite fortunate. He actually gets to do both.

Haley, a former Virginia Tech golfer in the early 1980s, works for the PGA Tour as a competitions agronomist. For the uneducated, agronomy involves working with the land, and it focuses on aspects such as irrigation, drainage, fertilizers, weed control, and pest and insect control. In Haley’s job, he works with golf course superintendents before certain PGA events to make sure each golf course meets the Tour’s specifications.

Obviously, the Tour features the world’s best golfers, so Haley wants to set up a course accordingly.

“We look at everything on the course,” Haley said. “We look at the greens, the tees, the fairways, the bunkers, the rough – everything. We want to make sure that each course is prepared to our standards.

“Every course is different, so we don’t have precisely the same standards for every course. But the onus is on me to look at a course and say, ‘Where can we go with this course? What can we expect from this course?’ We’ll relay all that information to our rules officials, and then we’ll set up an objective for each course.”

Haley seemed destined for his current career after practically growing up on a golf course at an early age. The Stanleytown, Va., native helped his uncle, who was a golf professional at Chatmoss Country Club outside of Martinsville, Va. As a teenager, he worked at the course, and at that time, he learned from Brook Parker, the golf superintendent there, about agronomy.

“I didn’t even know you could go to college and study to be a golf course superintendent,” Haley said. “I played golf, and golf and agronomy just seemed to gel together.”

Haley received a golf scholarship from Tech and enrolled in 1981, playing for two years under then-head coach Jerry Cheynet. He played his final two years for current head coach Jay Hardwick and was a solid, consistent player. He averaged in the mid-70s for his career and only shot 80 one time in his career. He graduated in 1985 with a degree in agronomy.

Following his graduation, he worked briefly for Hell’s Point Golf Club in Virginia Beach before landing with PGA Tour Golf Course Properties, Inc., in 1986 as the assistant golf course superintendent at TPC Eagle Trace in Coral Springs, Fla.

“I was actually hired to go to Colorado as an assistant superintendent at a TPC property out there,” Haley said. “But then, they had an opening in South Florida and asked me if I was interested in that position. So I unpacked my sweaters and moved to Fort Lauderdale.”

Haley worked under superintendent Fred Klauk for a brief spell before Klauk moved on to become the superintendent at TPC Sawgrass, home of The Players Championship, often considered the fifth major in professional golf. So Haley then became the lead superintendent at TPC Eagle Trace and kept the course in great shape, especially for the PGA Tour’s event there – the Honda Classic.

But in 1989, Haley moved from PGA Tour Golf Course Properties to PGA Tour Agronomy. Instead of prepping TPC Eagle Trace, he started helping prep golf courses all over the country for events.

“I started out on the Nationwide Tour, which back then was the Ben Hogan Tour,” Haley said. “They needed a young person who had experience with cool and warm seasons, and they were looking for someone who was unattached and would do it cheaply. I was about 26 at the time, so they approached me about it, and I came aboard.”

At the time, Haley helped prepare courses for around 35 tournaments. PGA Tour Agronomy eventually added to its staff, so today, Haley works 10 tournaments annually, including six PGA Tour events, two Champions Tour events (seniors) and two Nationwide Tour events. For each event, he usually stays two weeks – the week before and the week of the event – and spends around 175 days on the road annually.

On rare occasions, he runs into an issue with a course. At the TPC Blue Monster at Doral near Miami, there was an issue this spring that prompted some re-sodding. Also, weather tends to wreak havoc with a course. In 1992, for example, Hurricane Andrew practically destroyed a course in Key Biscayne, Fla., creating quite a challenge.

“But 99 percent of the courses are in perfect condition,” Haley said. “Golf superintendents are so much better these days. In the past, they didn’t have enough equipment, or the technology wasn’t there. But today, it’s totally different. Every place is in top condition.”

Haley oversees the set-up for some of the best courses in the United States. In addition to the TPC Blue Monster at Doral, he also oversees the set-up at the Quail Hollow course outside of Charlotte, the home of the Wells Fargo Championship, and he went to Hawaii to oversee the preparations of Waialae Country Club, home of the Sony Open.

While in Hawaii, he got to witness another former Hokie golfer – Johnson Wagner – win the tournament.

“I had met Johnson a couple of times before, and usually, we’d talk about bowl games and stuff like that,” Haley said. “I was glad to see him win. He played great. That course was challenging, but I think that played right into his hands, with the firm fairways and the emphasis on the short game.”

Then Haley added, with a laugh, “Not that I was trying to do that.”

Haley himself still plays quite regularly. In fact, he usually plays every course he helps set up for a PGA event, though not solely for entertainment purposes.

“I really think playing a course is the best way to get a ‘feel’ for the course,” he said. “When you do that, I think you’re better able to find things that need to be fixed.”

Haley and his wife live near the PGA’s headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., so he admits that one of his favorite courses to play is TPC Sawgrass. But he also likes Quail Hollow as well.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t get back to Blacksburg much, so he hasn’t played the Pete Dye River Course. But he keeps up with the golf team through conversations with Hardwick, and he also goes to bowl games and football games in Miami.

“I’m on the road a lot, so when I have a chance to be home, I usually take advantage of it and don’t go anywhere,” Haley said. “I probably haven’t been back to Blacksburg but maybe four times since I graduated. The last time I was there was right after the tragedy [April 16, 2007], when I drove my wife and daughter up to see the memorial. We spent two or three hours looking at things.”

Haley’s travel may become more extensive, as the PGA Tour starts branching out worldwide. The Tour already sponsors events in Mexico, China and Malaysia and may soon end up in South America. It would be the next step for Haley and his career.

But ask any everyday golfer and they’ll agree with this – he’s already living the dream.