BELLEAIR — These were the scenarios that drove Terry Kennelly crazy.
A tournament approaching. A storm brewing. A forecast that never seemed to improve. The running joke around the superintendent industry — that they only watch The Weather Channel — would center its punchline on Kennelly and his course.
So with Hurricane Nicole moving across Florida ahead of the LPGA Pelican Women’s Championship this week at Pelican Golf Course, Kennelly, its director of golf course and grounds, has been fixed on the forecast. He wanted to be prepared, have a plan in place, hopefully see the outlook change, though this one only seemed to get worse.
When Kennelly first started working at golf courses around 1986, he said he tried to control the weather. But at this point, the 53-year-old said, “I finally figured out I can’t.”
That’s why when Sam Green spoke to his former Congressional Country Club (in Bethesda, Maryland) colleague from the 1990s this week, Kennelly was “calm as a cucumber,” Green said. The trait has allowed Kennelly to last 36 years in the industry, progressing through different courses until landing superintendent jobs at Delray Dunes Golf and Country Club in Boynton Beach, The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton (which he helped build) and Pelican Golf Club, which he joined in 2021.
Kennelly estimates he has worked about 20 tournaments — including a U.S. Open and PGA Championship. In maintaining courses and preparing them for championship-level playing conditions, he finds a balance between touch and theory, old and new, Picasso and Einstein, Green said. An appreciation for aesthetics complements Kennelly’s understanding of theories in what Green calls an ongoing game of “chess with Mother Nature.”
“Your basis in agronomics has to be the Einstein piece,” Green said, “but if you’re going to get to the level of what Terry does, you’ve got to be a really good Picasso.”
Building a resume
Paul Latshaw’s staff at Congressional Country Club in the 1990s brimmed with future superintendents. They knew the reputation Latshaw carried, with experience at Augusta National Golf Club. But it was a difficult job — a “horrible, horrible job,” said Tom Walker, a superintendent who hired Kennelly for his first job at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio — due to the inconsistent Maryland climate.
Still, Kennelly and Green got experience events like the U.S. Open, which revolved around the storyline of a budding Tiger Woods in 1997. They worked 60, sometimes 70 hours a week, and Kennelly was often stuck with the task of “spray-hawking greens,” Green said. He needed to manually push the device and logged “100,000 miles on those feet doing that job,” Green joked.
“Your resume is your golf course,” Kennelly’s brother, Tim, the head greenkeeper at Baltimore Country Club, said. “It doesn’t lie. So if you’re getting lazy or sloppy or whatever, it does show.”
During those years, Kennelly “worked in the trenches” and built on the experiences that convinced him to leave behind a four-year criminal justice degree and return to school at Michigan State to pursue his interest in turf.
He learned about the importance of meshing a long-term dream with a short-term focus, blending his fixes on the course with the owner’s aspirations. Even as a superintendent, the course wasn’t his. Latshaw would tell his Congressional staff that if someone said to paint the course pink, they needed to convince the owner of the pros and cons of that decision.
“And if they still want you to paint it pink,” Green recalled Latshaw saying, “you better load the sprayers up and start spraying.”
Still, Kennelly managed to make his own imprint when he arrived at The Concession in 2005. He helped oversee the design and building from start to finish — “almost like having another child,” he said. It was the hardest course he ever played, exactly what the members wanted, and Kennelly tried to make sure the terrain reflected that desire.
The grass needed to be dry. It needed to play firm and fast. When he arrived at Pelican Golf Club in 2021, the approach changed. What worked at The Concession wouldn’t translate, as Pelican wanted a comfortable and playable environment with lush conditions.
“Part of our responsibility with the maintenance department is to protect that design,” Kennelly said. “And I take a lot of pride in that.”
Becoming ‘tournament ready’
When owner Dan Doyle Jr. hired Kennelly at Pelican, he wanted it to be Kennelly’s last job. Doyle looked around the state for an option to help take Pelican to the “next level,” he said, and Kennelly’s name kept coming up.
Doyle and his father promised to say out of Kennelly’s way. They’d only watch from afar, admiring his work from a clubhouse perch and providing the resources needed for Kennelly’s knowledge to materialize across the 18 holes. But from Kennelly’s perspective, the course wasn’t necessarily “tournament ready,” so they needed to fix that.
There were agronomic items that needed addressing, he said. Kennelly and the Doyles didn’t pin blame on the previous staff, but the family wanted to find ways to make gradual strides. Kennelly did, too.
“It’s not to say it was in shambles,” Kennelly said, “but it just needed to be better.”
After 18 months at Pelican, Kennelly doesn’t have any complaints. He has enjoyed the thrill of new challenges — like “The Match,” a 12-hole event featuring Woods, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth that the course will host in December — and his process entering this week’s LPGA tournament reflects the course’s improvements.
Kennelly said his staff just need to do some “fine-tuning,” whether it’s mowing the fairway or raking the bunkers more frequently. Then, they’ll try to rest during the rounds while still on-call, unless they see something on the broadcast that needs fixing.
“Last year’s tournament was a sampling of his abilities and his skills,” Doyle said, “where this year, I’m going to say he owns it.”
When: Friday-Sunday (shortened to 54 holes)
Where: Pelican Golf Club, Belleair
Field size: 120 competitors, including seven of the world’s top 10 players
Purse: $2 million
Tee times: Released Thursday