August 15, 2015 – Highland Springs Country Club has had a remarkable run of stability since its opening in 1989.
At the center of that has been course superintendent Ken Smith, who was there from the start and helped make the course what it is today.
His successor hopes to have a similar length run after taking over following Smith’s retirement earlier this year.
“I want to have the retirement party in 25 years that Ken had this year,” Derek Wilkerson said with a laugh earlier this week while sitting outside the clubhouse during the Price Cutter Charity Championship. “And I’ve been very open about that with the ownership and the membership and the staff here.
“I’m back home, my family is close, and this is home for me. This is it.”
Wilkerson has worked at courses throughout the country in his career, serving as superintendent at a group of courses in Sun City, Arizona, plus work in Maricopa, Arizona, at clubs in Kansas City and Des Moines, Iowa, and at the TPC Scottsdale, home of the Phoenix Open.
But coming to Springfield really is a trip back home for the 44-year-old father of three. He’s a native of Glasgow, graduated from Northwest Missouri State with a degree in public relations in 1996 and still has family in the region.
So it was an easy sell for his wife Jennifer and three school-age daughters to leave Arizona for the Ozarks.
“They mean the world to me,” Wilkerson said. “That’s why I’m here.
“They’re happy to be home, too. It’s a little hot in Arizona, for the seven years we were out there.”
But it’s about far more than location for him. It’s about the challenge, the chance to work at a course like Highland Springs and the opportunity to help with the setup for an event like the PCCC.
Ask him what is the favorite part of his job, and it doesn’t take him long to answer.
“The outdoors,” Wilkerson said, before waving his hand over the scene surrounding the ninth and 18th greens. “This is my office view. My office view is approximately 200 acres of lush, green God’s creation.
“That’s my favorite part, to be outdoors and the challenges it presents. Every day is different.”
But he’s just as quick to admit there is a fair bit of pressure to keep Smith’s work going. Wilkerson started on the job in January, and worked hand-in-hand with Smith until the official retirement date of March 31. So since April, this has been Wilkerson’s baby.
“There’s probably more pressure to carry on the tradition and the standards that we have here at Highland Springs,” Wilkerson said.
“There’s quite a bit of stuff that Ken and the club had in place that has really fallen into my expectations and my goals that I have for Highland Springs.”
That statement, coming from a course superintendent flush with experience but new on the Highland Springs scene, could lead one to expect some significant changes to the 7,115-yard layout.
But if you’re looking for big changes, you’ll come away disappointed. They aren’t in the plans.
“I think we have a wonderful layout here,” Wilkerson said. “Ken has done a lot throughout the years to put together any changes that he’s made to make it maintenance-friendly and golfer-friendly and for the ease of the course itself – not from a playing standpoint but from a management standpoint. But major changes? No.”
While this is Wilkerson’s first Price Cutter Charity Championship, don’t expect him to be intimidated by the large scale of the event, with 156 golfers with big-time aspirations hitting the course running all week.
During his time at TPC Scottsdale, he was one of the workers responsible for the Phoenix Open, an always-popular PGA Tour stop which brought a half-million spectators through the grounds during a week’s time.
But that doesn’t lessen his appreciation for smaller events like the one that hits the Ozarks every August.
“I like this number of spectators a lot better,” he said. “There’s been a couple of minor logistical glitches, but it’s nothing that we can’t overcome.
“I love this type of environment, and I love the fact that we get to showcase Highland Springs, not only to the membership, but to the public and the world. I love it.”
The tournament has brought about some longer days for Wilkerson and his staff, including assistant superintendents Mark Bernhardt and Kyle Knierim, and also some help from the PGA Tour, with an agronomist and advance rules officials on site to help prepare the course.
The primary change from the course the members play to the ones the pros faced this week was a little bit higher rough, but the rest of the setup remained mostly unchanged. The greens were the same speeds the members face – between 10 and 11 on the Stimpmeter.
So it really was a partnership between Wilkerson and the Highland Springs staff, and the tour, to prepare things this week.
“They take my management practices and my standards and ask me questions,” Wilkerson said. “They want to know why I’m doing this, what are my goals, and their goals mirror my goals, as far as providing the best possible golf course for the membership. Because they want to leave the course better than it was when they got here. Working with them this week has been fantastic.
“Their openness and willingness to provide anything as far as support for me, it’s there, all I have to do is ask.”
From the Web.com players’ perspective and the feedback they have given, it has been precisely what Wilkerson has expected.
“If they’re playing well, the course was great,” Wilkerson said. “It’s what you get from any typical golfer. If they weren’t playing well, it’s “this was, this was, this was.’
“I think there’s been a lot of good positive feedback from the golfers.”
One of the unexpected benefits of tournament week has been when Wilkerson was on the course from sunup to sundown.
“I love to come out to a golf course in the evenings, and you don’t always get that opportunity,” Wilkerson said. “You get a different perspective, different shadows, drive in a different direction.”
All in all, it seems to be a perfect pairing in a relationship that could be another long-term one between golf course and superintendent.
“I’m absolutely blessed to be a part of this whole thing,” Wilkerson said.