By T.J. Auclair
PGA.com Interactive Producer
This is a very special week for the 50-and-over circuit, as they head to Benton Harbor, Mich., for the year's first and most prestigious major championship -- the 73rd Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid.
The tournament will be played at Harbor Shores, a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course, which opened in July of 2010.
PGA.com caught up with Ross Smith, the PGA Professional and Director of Golf at Harbor Shores, before the tournament teed off on Thursday.
PGA.com: I would imagine there's been a lot of pressure on the folks in Benton Harbor these last couple of years, as you were awarded a major championship for a course -- Harbor Shores Golf Club -- that hadn't even been opened to the public yet. What has it been like to see the transformation up there and will we even realize how "young" it is, so to speak, when we get there?
Smith: To see the course's current condition is nothing short of amazing. Due to the hard work of Harbor Shores Course Superintendent Brad Fry, the entire turf condition of the golf course is second to none. The players participating in the Championship will have no idea that the golf course has only been open for play since July 2010.
The first time I saw the property in fall 2008, the present driving range and first hole were only gravel and trash, and still had about 50,000 square-feet of old abandoned factories and foundries on top of it. When Jack Nicklaus' team made their first visit, they had to rent a bull dozer to move the trash and debris just to see the ground. It is amazing to see the significant environmental efforts that have taken place to clean-up the area that is now Harbor Shores.
PGA.com: Obviously, Harbor Shores will be new to all the players. What's the most important aspect of their game that will need to be clicking to have success there?
Smith: I think that Harbor Shores will set up nicely for a player that hits it fairly straight, but also has an excellent short game. Putting will certainly be the key to success at Harbor Shores. The course is 6,861 yards, but it's misleading because we have five par 3s. The golf course is generous in the landing areas, but the approach shots must be placed properly for the pin positions. The greens are very undulated, and this will create a challenge for all players.
PGA.com: Arguably the biggest goal of all those associated with the PGA of America is to grow the game. To that end, I understand you have a state-of-the-art learning academy at Harbor Shores. Can you tell us a little about that?
Smith: The learning academy at Harbor Shores is also home to The First Tee of Benton Harbor. The driving range plays west to east, and the academy sits on the south end of the range, which helps out for fall/winter instruction and practice time. We have state-of-the-art V1 video, as well as a Trackman Launch Monitor. From instruction to club fitting, our facility can meet the needs of players of all skill levels. Our new First Tee academy serves as a great resource for the community and helps juniors get involved and learn the game of golf.
PGA.com: Now that tournament week is finally upon us, what are you most looking forward to?
Smith: I am most looking forward to the greatest players in senior golf coming to Benton Harbor to see what the Harbor Shores development is all about. Harbor Shores is a development that serves as a catalyst for ongoing community transformation in Benton Harbor and Southwest Michigan. This truly is a feel good story for the residents of our community, The Boys and Girls Club of Benton Harbor and The First Tee of Benton Harbor.
Furthermore, I think our community is finally realizing the magnitude of this event. The Championship will be televised for four days on the Golf Channel and NBC Sports, and will be seen in over 137 countries and viewed by 450 million households.
On a personal note, being a PGA member and the Director of Golf at Harbor Shores as it hosts the most historic and prestigious event in senior golf, is a great honor. Thanks to Whirlpool Corporation and the KitchenAid brand, the presenting sponsor of the Championship, for playing a lead role in bringing the Senior PGA Championship to Harbor Shores, Benton Harbor and Southwest Michigan.
PGA.com: You were a PGA Professional for nearly 30 years before taking on your current role at Harbor Shores. What was it about Harbor Shores that convinced you to make the leap and what do you think it will be like to host a major championship?
Smith: No matter where you are in the world, you owe your success to people who have helped you get to where you are. My mentor, Jack Barber, golf professional at Meridian Hills and National Golf Professional of the Year, has always led me in the right direction. I have been fortunate to work at two Jack Nicklaus Signature Design golf courses for my last two positions, and there's no doubt that this will be the highlight of my career.