Legendary Chicago Golf Course Superintendent Paul Voykin

paul_voykinMay 2012 is the month when the TPC-Sawgrass will host the world’s best golfers competing for the PGA Tour’s biggest purse of the year ($9.5 million). But during this same month of May, Paul Voykin, the most recent inductee into the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame, the man who saw grass grow at Briarwood Country Club for 47 years will merely be enjoying another 31 leisurely days of well-earned retirement.

After spending over 60 years working on the grounds of North American golf courses, being a member of the GCSAA for 52 years, and then keeping the job of maintaining the all the living grasses and flowers at Deerfield’s beautiful Briarwood Country Club for an amazing 47 years, Paul Voykin retired in 2008 as superintendent of Briarwood. Paul’s 80-year lifetime can be deemed truly international; he was born of Russian and Ukrainian parents in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, in a sod house. “That’s about as close to the sod as a greenskeeper can have as a background,” Voykin said. In fact, Paul has probably made as many famous quotes as Confucius, Will Rogers, or Yogi Berra. During the Depression, his father was a fisherman and a hunter, and they lived off the land. Sometimes, on good days, his dad would bring home a sturgeon, then other times they had nothing but homemade bread and a little lard to eat. As a teenager in high school, Paul’s guidance counselor recognized that every academic course that Paul liked related to the outdoors. Paul’s brother, Peter, was working at the Saskatoon Golf and Country Club, and Paul envied Peter’s job. The next season, the two of them decided to go to Jasper National Park in Jasper, Alberta, and work at the famous Jasper Park Golf Course. After working there for just a short time, the Voykin brothers sat in when Ben Hogan visited and gave a 45-minute talk at the Jasper caddy banquet and Ben’s words made the Voykins decide to go into the golf course business. Hogan said, “If you go into any aspect of the golf business, you’ll live your life like a millionaire, even though you’re not.”

From his experience as an apprentice greenskeeper at Jasper, Voykin emigrated to the United States and became assistant superintendent at Olympia Fields Country Club. Being in a different country and a slightly different climate, Voykin added to his experience through diligent observance. After Olympia Fields, Paul moved over to become superintendent at Calumet Country Club, and then onto the superintendent position at Briarwood in 1961. Along the way Paul became a U.S. citizen and achieved the praise-worthy monikers of ‘author’, ‘innovator’, and ‘character’– along with the descriptive adjectives ‘loyal’, ‘legendary’, and ‘infamous’. Despite not having the technical education that most superintendents have nowadays, Paul authored two lawn-care books, A Perfect Lawn the Easy Way (Rand McNally, 1969) and Ask the Lawn Expert (Macmillan, 1976), with the former selling more than 50,000 copies. As an innovator, way back in the 1960’s Voykin championed the idea of planting of native grasses and wildflowers in non-play areas to attract birds, butterflies, dragonflies, etc., and also the hiring of Hispanic workers. One of Voykin’s first hires, Moe Sanchez, worked for Paul for over 45 years, became his best friend, and still works at Briarwood today.

Paul ruffled some feathers when he gave a presentation in New York City during the 1972 U.S. Golf Association Green Section annual seminar entitled “Overgrooming is Overspending,” some colleagues believed Voykin was a bit ‘nuts’, but Paul insisted “I’m like Zorba the Greek. To keep your sanity you have to be a little crazy.” Another one of Voykin’s heroes is the Caddyshack protagonist, Carl Spackler, whose image Paul embraces rather than shuns. “I think they should have a statue of him (Spackler) in front of GCSAA headquarters,” Paul says. “And right next to it should be one of Old Tom Morris.”

Further quotes that have sprung from Paul’s lips are his advice to up-and-coming superintendents, “Come to work early and stay until dark”; how to keep a job for nearly 48 years, “by hard work, honesty, sacrifice, humor and a good relationship”; and, to potential wanna-be authors, “if Voykin can write a book, anybody can.”

A few years back Paul was asked about which innovations he felt were the most significant during his decades as superintendent. Paul replied that there were “three changes that took headaches away from the superintendent: the automatic irrigation system, lightweight fairway mowers with the ability to pick up the clippings, as well as changing black syringe hoses to red syringe hoses so crews can find them in the bushes (smiled and laughed).”
The membership of Briarwood had, and has, a great respect and fondness for Voykin. Says Sheldon Solow, president of Briarwood, “It starts with the fact that Paul is very, very good at what he does … he knows how to take care of a golf course, he knows how to grow grass …” Jeff Wagner, Briarwood’s greens chairman stated that he has been most impressed by a single fact — two-thirds of Briarwood’s greens are originals, 87 years old, and continue to be in perfect shape. Wagner said, “It’s testament to what Paul is, and does.” Bouncing back, Voykin said “They treat me like a million dollars, so I treat them like two million.”

Among his many honors, Voykin was named by Golfweek’s SuperNews as its 2003 Superintendent of the Year. At one time, there were four Voykin brothers — Paul, Peter, Rodney and Andy — working as superintendents in the Chicago area. All have passed on but Paul. In retirement Paul may now find more time to visit his five children and six grandchildren scattered across the country, but he basically prefers stay close to his ‘roots’ at Briarwood.


Greg Miles

Greg Miles has been a writer following golf in Chicago since 1990. For the past 30 years he has been a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and currently is classified as a GWAA "Life Member". He played his first round of golf on his 11th birthday, and since then has played more than 7,300 rounds of golf in his lifetime at 517 different courses. He has interviewed more than 280 golfers across all the professional tours along with famous celebrity golfers. Additionally, he is a member of several other competitive and honorary golf associations, as well as the Golf Nut Society.

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