Springmann Finds Home On Course

By Joanne Norell

If it weren’t for football, former Notre Dame defensive lineman Tony Springmann might never have stepped foot on a golf course.

Now a Turfgrass Operations Specialist at Notre Dame’s Warren Golf Course, Springmann can’t imagine spending the bulk of his time anywhere else. This weekend’s U.S. Senior Open, where the fruits of years of labor finally came to bear, provided a highlight of what he hopes to be a long career caring for peaceful stretches of green.

Springmann’s journey from the football field to golf course maintenance is an unlikely one.

“I had no interest in golf,” he starts by saying.

Once an all-state offensive tackle from Bishop Dwenger High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Springmann joined the Fighting Irish football program in the fall of 2011. His first two seasons passed innocuously enough, serving as a practice squad player as a freshman and making 13 appearances as a reserve as a sophomore. 

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Everything changed when Springmann experienced a knee injury in his junior fall, effectively ending his career. After surgery to repair the damage resulted in infection, months of hospital stays and a 90-pound weight loss, he sought solace on the putting green.

“I knew in a hurry … that would probably be the end (of my football career),” Springmann said. “But that’s part of life. When I couldn’t play football anymore, I just started putting and going over to the Burke (Golf Course) on campus. It was kind of peaceful and I thought, ‘This is nice,’ but I didn’t think I’d make a career of it. It was more of an outlet than anything when I started.”

What began as an outlet, though, soon blossomed into a job. He spent just one semester working on the agronomy team of the Warren’s assistant superintendent Matt Yops and supervisor Matt Cielen — “It was mostly raking bunkers because I was working in the morning,” Springmann said — but it was enough for the experience to stick with him beyond graduation.

After matriculating in 2015 with a degree in history, Springmann entered Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education program, which would see him teach for two years at Nolan Catholic High School in Fort Worth, Texas. Teaching was something he was drawn to after his knee injury sidelined him, having taken up “more of a mentorship role especially with some of the younger players coming in,” Springmann said.

“That’s kind of what led me into teaching, seeing ‘Maybe this could work. I enjoy it.’ My mindset changed completely; I had a very different outlook. I think I learned more by not playing than I would have had I been able to play all the time. I’m grateful for that.”

Something kept drawing Springmann back to the course, though. He found himself spending his free time at the driving range and attending golf tournaments, and as he visited more courses in Texas, the history buff in him began to appreciate them more and more.

“That’s what drew me in, as far as the nuances of different historic golf courses in Texas, so that’s when I decided what I wanted to do,” he said.

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When Springmann and his wife, Cassidy, a former Notre Dame softball student-athlete, returned to the area in 2017 after the conclusion of their ACE requirements, Cassidy took a position as operations specialist with the Irish softball program and Tony decided to get in touch with his old boss, Cielen.

“When I came back here, I had a very honest conversation with Matt Cielen and he was really excited, as was I, not only to have a job, but pursue a career,” Springmann said. “(Cielen and Yops) were the ones that gave me a chance and have gone out of their way to teach and help me with everything. I consider them my coaches and mentors and I am very lucky to work with them.”

Springmann jumped right into prep for the U.S. Senior Open, then still two years away.

“I started at the very bottom and at that point, in the summer of 2017, we started some pretty serious construction as far as building new things on the course, modifying the course a little bit. … Construction has been going on for three or four years and I’ve been at the Warren for two years.”

In the off-seasons, he has taken internships at courses in Florida and Texas, learning more about the business of golf course agronomy.

“Primarily, my experience (as a greens intern) was learning management strategies, as well as specific details in the science behind turf. Operating the machinery is fairly straightforward. Knowing how the course should look and set up each day is pretty straightforward. But knowing the specific chemical applications that need to go out, the timing of it, and all these other factors, that’s when it starts to get a little bit cloudy. I’m learning from some really experienced guys and that’s what’s got me really excited.”

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The United States Golf Association, which hosts the U.S. Senior Open in addition to the U.S. Open, the U.S. Women’s Open, the U.S. Senior Women’s Open and several amateur tournaments, announced in 2016 the selection of the Warren Golf Course for the 40th U.S. Senior Open in 2019. The USGA was familiar with the course, which had served as host for several NCAA men’s and women’s regionals, USGA qualifying events and the 2010 Women’s Amateur Public Links. Indeed, apart from a reroute that was meant to facilitate fan traffic around the course, the construction work needed to get the course into championship shape was minimal.

“The past few years, we’ve built multiple bunkers, created drainage, added all the materials we need to add to make it work,” Springmann said. “It’s been a great learning experience. It’s been great learning how to do different tasks, different ways of going about it. We’ve done some bunker work; there was a green position where we added a section of green space; just slight modifications here and there. Little projects, but they all add up.”

The course conditions were praised throughout the tournament. Rain early in the week leading into Thursday’s first tee times might have made for some soggy conditions, but the work of Cielen, Springmann and the rest of the grounds crew meant it was only a minor annoyance.

“The conditions are perfect for scoring,” said Chris DiMarco, who tied for sixth place, after Thursday’s round. “The rough is playable. There’s four or five holes that are long that you get by and you make your pars on, and if you can do that, you’re going to have a lot of opportunities for birdies.”

“I’m sure it’s softer than the USGA wants it, but I didn’t have mud on a single ball today,” Indiana native Chris Smith said Thursday. “I didn’t have a single ball plug. You know, the golf course, I heard that they got over an inch of rain again last night. I mean, it’s pretty amazing, actually, how nice the golf course played.”

The tournament, won by Steve Stricker with a record-breaking 72-hole performance (62-64-66-61=261,-19), represented not only the culmination of the hard work put in by the Warren’s crew, but also served as a milestone of sorts for Springmann. With the Open behind him, he will move on to take over as assistant superintendent at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield, Michigan, at the conclusion of the season. The 101-year-old South Course has played host to 17 Major Championships and seen many of golf’s greatest names conquer the links, also known as “The Monster.”

The history buff in Springmann is thrilled.

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