Behind the pines with the staff powering the 99th Birchmont
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Behind the pines with the staff powering the 99th Birchmont

Jul 07, 2023

Brynn Peterson surveys the action between holes eight and nine on Tuesday at the Bemidji Town and Country Club. A recent graduate of Bemidji High School, Peterson’s summer job presently consists of maintaining the BTCC bar cart during the Birchmont Golf Tournament.

“It's been really cool,” Peterson said. “I love asking where people are from. There's been (people from) Australia, and then obviously (across) the United States – South Dakota, Arizona. Just been super cool.”

The bar cart sits at the near-halfway point of the course, offering golfers a respite as they recalibrate for the back nine. For Peterson and others who run the cart, it’s a mostly tranquil undertaking underneath the majestic pines that flank the fairways.

But when a new foursome comes through, that’s when Peterson gets to work – mixing drinks, sorting snacks and satiating the cravings of a new group of golfers. It’s been a swift learning curve for the Birchmont rookie, but she’s getting the hang of it round at a time.

“I got out here about 9:30 this morning,” Peterson said. “So I'm usually out here until it slows down. … They told me (to) be prepared for a lot of sales, keep stock (up).”


For the 99th Birchmont, the Pioneer went behind the scenes at BTCC, visiting with a number of employees who encompass the renowned tournament experience and ensure it runs smoothly all week.

Let’s tee off.

No, it’s not where golfers are punished after missing a shot, nor a rehabilitation center for those who suffered through a poor round. Unless they wish to drown their sorrows, which the Halfway House can provide for them between holes four and five, as well as 12 and 13.

Demand is high at the far-flung outpost, where players and spectators alike can pause for a brief moment and take stock of their hydration, sobriety or the need to relieve themselves.

“(It’s) busy,” said fourth-year Birchmont veteran Abby Kieson. “There are definitely rushes. I mean, it's pretty steady all the time. But usually, we'll get some rushes, and then it's very busy. So definitely, when there are a lot of people around, it can get quite hectic. But it's good. Everybody's really nice and patient.”

The Halfway House services weary wanderers and down-in-the-dumps duffers, featuring the course’s only restrooms away from the clubhouse. For these reasons and more, it’s a popular stop during the Birchmont, open from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.

It’s kept Kieson coming back year after year. The 2020 BHS graduate and rising senior at Minnesota Duluth works the summers at BTCC to make a little scratch of her own and reconnect with various members of the course and Birchmont communities.

“I love to come back every summer and see everyone,” Kieson said. “The members are great. And there are a lot of familiar faces that I get to see every single year, especially during the Birchmont. We have a lot of people coming from out of town. Every day, I see the same group of people, but this week especially, I see a lot of people from out of town. It's interesting to see a lot of people come to Bemidji, and it's really good for our community to have a lot of people here.”


When the bar cart and Halfway House run out, they make a call down to the pro shop and restock. It’s a symbiotic existence that ensures no golfer goes hungry or thirsty – especially when patrons are arriving every five minutes. The extra effort – evidenced by the repeat business – is appreciated.

“We keep it pretty stocked up, just to make sure that we don't run out of anything,” Kieson said. “And usually I call them with a list of certain things that I need. Even if I'm not completely out and kind of low, I want to make sure that there's enough stuff, because we go through it really fast. It's hard to keep everything stocked up. But I definitely try to be ready for when I am going to run out of something.”

The course itself requires both routine and exceptional maintenance for the Birchmont. A few weeks before the first tee sinks into the grass, third-year superintendent of grounds Matson Granvelle begins his comprehensive and exhaustive annual rites of preparation.

“It's a lot of detailed work leading up to this week,” Granvelle said. “So usually two weeks before(hand), we really start buttoning up the place. A lot of trimming. We want to make sure our bunkers are consistent. We spray everything once – tees, fairways, greens. And then you start dialing stuff in. We want fast, firm surfaces out here for the tournament. We want green grass, but we want it firm and fast. So that can be the challenging part because you never know what the weather is going to be like.”

In his third season at BTCC, Granvelle has honed routines to help him and his staff keep the course in top-tier shape. The grounds crew rises prior to dawn ahead of the day’s rounds and inspects the surface thoroughly and meticulously.

But beyond the confines of the fairways and rough, Granvelle is energized by the collective that powers the Birchmont to its perennial standard of excellence.

“It's a team effort,” he said. “It's not just the grounds crew. It's everybody around here. It's a big deal around here, and everyone knows it. And when Birchmont week is here, we're ready to go.”

At the North Shore Grille, where Granvelle sat for a chat during a break on a busy Tuesday, business is booming during Birchmont week. With golfers from around the nation pouring into Bemidji, scores of new customers crave sustenance.


They’ll find it at the BTCC’s bustling lone restaurant, where a typical tournament day is anything but idle.

“This week is definitely our craziest week of the summer by far,” manager and server Liz Corradi said. “It's definitely the most fun week we have all year out here. We just have a lot more people coming in and out of the clubhouse. Our days are way longer in here, and it's honestly a really fun-filled atmosphere (all) week.”

Preparation for the day’s events commences at or before 5 a.m. and sometimes runs until midnight. The volume of food and drink required to appease the demands of golfers and spectators is substantial.

“The biggest challenge is definitely the amount of people that we have,” said Corradi, now in her fourth year working the Birchmont. “During a typical week, we don't have nearly as many people coming in and out. So the amount of people we're serving increases, which also increases the work in the kitchen. And the kitchen is absolutely awesome keeping up with us and all of the orders we’re putting in. So definitely just running around – you're usually literally sweating at the end of the day because you're so exhausted from running around to all your tables.”

The kitchen initiates its travails in advance of the tournament, with a mountain of monotonous gastronomic preparation on the docket.

“Prep work is huge, especially in the kitchen,” Corradi said. “I know they spent all last week breading chicken, preparing salads literally all week long. And then for (the servers), it (involves) having a meeting, discussing what Birchmont looks like, especially for the new staff that we have here.

"(It’s) huge, because we always say it's not like anything you've ever seen before, which is exactly true. So (we’re) talking about expectations for Birchmont, how to handle this many people at once and the sheer load of it all.”

Though it's rarely a straightforward endeavor, the reward is worth the additional strain.


“I don't think they ever get easier, no,” Corradi said. “I would say it's easier as you go, as you become better at the job too. But you're always looking forward to this week. It's always exciting. And you know it's going to be crazy, but it'll be fun.”

Serving as the nerve center for Birchmont competitors, BTCC’s pro shop ensures the tournament runs smoothly by setting up tee times, managing equipment and addressing pertinent queries. Shop staffers also must adapt and improvise when difficulties arise like they did on Tuesday.

“We were delayed by basically an hour today,” said third-year veteran Aaron Schnathorst, the assistant professional at the shop. “Essentially, we waited on the whole afternoon group, delayed it by 20 minutes. And then the middle of the men's (group), there was a big senior playoff, so that took another 20 minutes. So we (were) about 45 minutes to an hour behind, which isn’t great.”

Such things occur from time to time at a competition with 320 golfers, which makes Schnathorst’s task – as well as that of his boss, head professional Rick Grand – complex and ever-changing.

“The biggest thing is the workload because (in) a normal week, I'm probably here for 50 to 60 hours,” Schnathorst said. “This week, for seven days, I'm doing well over 100 hours. Which is long, but it's kind of cool, because it gets you out of your normal day-to-day routine."

He added that the sheer load of it all results in a pretty crazy week.

“But it's fun, because I like running tournaments, and there's nothing cooler than a week-long match-play tournament like this with over 300 golfers," Schnathorst left off. "Toward the end of the week, you want Sunday to come so you can sleep. But during the week, it's fun. It flies by, so it's pretty cool. It's worth it in the end.”

Many employees have worked the Birchmont for multiple years, but few can match the tenure of tournament director Curt Howard. The BTCC board member and men’s senior division competitor is spending his 48th year on the shores of Lake Bemidji, and he’s just as keen on the proceedings as when he started, if not more.


“The Birchmont is special because it's a reunion of friends and family that is interrupted by golf,” Howard said. “And to a lot of us, this is the only time that we see each other each year. So there's a lot of hugs that occur on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and even Monday as we see each other for the first time in what's been forever, or seems like forever with the winters. And then the ones that came before us. The ones we've lost that made the tournament what it was.”

Just last year, the Birchmont lost one of its longtime regulars. Matt Skarperud, who had attended since the 1980s, died in 2022 while in Bemidji for the tournament. He was honored during competition later that week by a number of players, who wore red ribbons pinned to their hats.

The tributes didn’t end there. Howard eulogized Skarperud at BTCC, showcasing just how interconnected the Birchmont community truly is.

“Curt gave the best eulogy in the history of the world last year on the first tee,” said men’s executive golfer Steve Well, who has known Howard and Skarperud through the Birchmont for decades. “(He) brought everyone to tears. And Curt did that because he’d known Matt since the mid-’80s. Been around him since he was a teenager.”

Well’s head cover honors Skarperud, whom he called his “best friend.” Their connection is emblematic of the bonds forged at the Birchmont each year – ones that wouldn’t be possible without the dozens of staff and volunteers that make the tournament unique.

“It's just important to get together,” Howard said. “... What makes it special is the people and the friendships and the relationships. The golf’s fun. But the relationships are serious.”