GUIDONIA MONTECELIO, Italy (AP) — When Lara Arias started her job as course superintendent at the Marco Simone golf club outside Rome that will host the Ryder Cup next week, there was hardly any grass to manicure, no bunkers to rake and nary a green to shape.
That’s because the entire course was practically one big pile of dirt.
It was June 2020, in the middle of a heat wave, and Marco Simone was undergoing an 11 million euro ($12 million) redesign project that meant there were more bulldozers than lawnmowers on the hilly layout.
Making matters more complicated was that Italy was still struggling to regain its footing after becoming the first Western nation to be slammed by the coronavirus pandemic. A month after Arias’ arrival, the Ryder Cup would be postponed from 2022 to 2023 — adding another full year to her job.
Arias, a rare female superintendent in a male-dominated industry, was undeterred, though. As soon as the restyling was completed and the grass was planted, she got down to business with the growing process and had the full course opened by December 2020.
“Those first six months were really hard work,” Arias said.
Now, after hosting three Italian Opens, Marco Simone is in perfect shape for golf’s biggest team event and Arias, a 33-year-old Spaniard, has become a trailblazer for women in the industry.
Superintendents are responsible for a golf course's maintenance, management, budget and safety.
“It’s an honor and it’s a huge responsibility,” Arias said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “I saw this golf course from zero. … We don’t prepare the Ryder Cup in only one week. It’s been three years and I’m very proud of the team."
Arias is also proud of breaking a gender barrier.
Women account for only 2% of the superintendents registered with the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.
In Europe, there are a number of female superintendents in Scandinavia, “in particular Finland and Sweden,” as well as Spain, according to Dean Cleaver, the executive officer of the Federation of European Golf Greenkeepers Associations.
“I know that there’s been an impact in the world of greenkeeping,” Arias said. “I hope it causes a lot of golf clubs that still have doubts about hiring a female superintendent to step back and reflect. I know a lot of other really great women who can do this job.”
Marco Simone will become the third venue in continental Europe to host the Ryder Cup after Valderrama in Spain in 1997 and Le Golf National outside Paris in 2018.
Having earned degrees in agricultural engineering, Arias first worked at a nursery in Spain that grows the grass for Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu Stadium and the greens at Valderrama.
Then she spent 18 months in the United States working at three different courses through a program organized by Ohio State University. She started at the Robert Trent Jones club in Gainesville, Virginia, moved on to the TPC Scottsdale in Arizona and finished at the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“The first week (of the PGA) I worked 90 hours and when I called my family they asked if that was legal,” Arias said. “I was happy to do it, though, because I learned so much. I wanted to keep going.”
At the 2018 Ryder Cup in France, Arias was an assistant superintendent under Alejandro Reyes.
Fashion designer Lavinia Biagiotti Cigna, who owns the Marco Simone club and hired Arias after seeking advice from Reyes, said she was looking for a leader and believes that “leaders have no gender.”
Biagiotti Cigna selected Arias ahead of two men who Reyes had also proposed. Arias' resume and her skills got her the job — not her relationship with Reyes, who is now her fiancé.
“She deserved the spot,” Biagiotti Cigna said. "She was as good as Alejandro.”
Reyes is also at Marco Simone as a consultant and director of agronomy. But Arias is in charge.
“I’m the superintendent this time but it’s clear that I need him as a consultant,” Arias said. “So we’re a team.”
The rest of the greenkeeping team at Marco Simone is all male and Arias’ gender has never been an issue with her multicultural staff, which includes workers from all over the world: El Salvador, Ecuador, Italy, France, Britain and Sweden.
“There are 20 guys,” she said, “and they’re like my sons. We talk to each other in English, French, Italian and Spanish: A bit of everything.”
For Ryder Cup week, 100 experienced volunteers will be added to Arias’ team — with most of them familiar with Marco Simone after having helped out during the Italian Opens.
Superintendents can make a big impact on the results of a Ryder Cup by manicuring the course to favor the home team.
Arias, for instance, has made the fairways at Marco Simone narrower upon request from Europe captain Luke Donald because the Europeans are known as more accurate off the tee than the big-hitting Americans.
Altering the course first started under Henrik Stenson, who was removed from Europe’s captaincy after joining the breakaway LIV Golf tour last year.
“The course is like the 13th player,” Arias said. “There are 12 players and the course can also help you win.”
Suzy Whaley, the first female president of the PGA of America, said that while there's always worldwide focus on the condition of the course during a Ryder Cup, “In this case, the pressure is more significant.”
“The world is used to male figures in the top positions at courses and facilities, and to see a woman in charge of the host venue for the Ryder Cup is a celebration for all in the game,” Whaley wrote in an email to the AP. “Lara will inspire young girls watching to know agronomy is an option in golf for them, too.”
Europe's team mascot figures to be Arias' and Reyes’ dog, a black-and-white Australian Shepherd aptly named Ryder.
As Arias roams around Marco Simone day after day, Ryder accompanies her running along beside her golf cart or hopping aboard for a ride. Ryder also likes to swim in the ponds.
“But she knows she can’t go on the greens or into the bunkers,” Arias said, adding with a laugh that she’s “the most important member of the team.”
Arias and Reyes met while both assisted on the course at the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National in Minnesota.
“Our story revolves around the Ryder Cup, because I met him at Hazeltine, then we worked together again in 2018, we named our dog Ryder and now we’re here in Rome doing another Ryder Cup,” Arias said.
Arias is now pregnant with the couple’s baby and due to give birth to a girl named Alejandra in December.
Despite her growing belly, she's still hurrying around the course every day.
“If you told me, ‘Lara, you have to go mow the greens,’ then, yes, I would have a hard time,” Arias explained. “But my job is more organizational. I have to organize everything so the Ryder Cup has the best course possible.”
Next year, Arias and Reyes plan to marry.
Before her family expands, Arias wants to inspire other women to become superintendents.
“I hope my experience, my position," she said, "can be an example and can help other women in this industry.”
AP Golf Writer Doug Ferguson contributed to this report.
AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf