Birchwood Country Club

"When a member tells me, ‘This course has never been better,’ or ‘We’re glad to have you,’ those are the things that mean a lot to me."

— Justin Gabrenas, Birchwood Country Club

In the medieval times, a “journeyman” was a roaming young tradesman, working to gain experience and skills en route to becoming an established master. That’s an apt description of how Justin Gabrenas spent the first decade of his career.

Practice Green, Birchwood Country Club

For Gabrenas, now superintendent at one of Connecticut’s top nine-hole private courses, turf management was a welcome escape from seven years working seven nights a week as a machinist.

“I was getting miserable,” the Athol, Massachusetts native recalled. “A friend of mine who was in the golf course business told me there was an opening at Oak Hill Country Club in Fitchburg.”

Gabrenas began as a minimum-wage grounds crew member and soon realized he had found his calling.

“Before the end of that first summer, I had enrolled at the Stockbridge School at UMass,” said Gabrenas. “And then returned to Oak Hill the following season to complete my internship.”

When not in class, Gabrenas took jobs at golf courses throughout New England and Long Island. But even after graduating in 2001, his education had only begun.

“Working with different superintendents over the years, you learn different things,” he said. “And you develop your own philosophy of how you want to do things.”

Two years at Echo Lake Country Club in New Jersey led to five years at Silver Spring Country Club in Connecticut.

“It was a long road, being an assistant for so many years,” said Gabrenas. “You start to wonder, and you can get down on the business.” His tenure at Silver Spring proved to be pivotal.

“The property manager there, Peter Rappoccio, really mentored me a lot,” said Gabrenas. “He was like a father to me, helping to fine-tune my management skills.” Rappoccio also introduced him to one of his top vendors.

Birchwood Clubhouse

“I heard about Tom Irwin when I was at Silver Spring,” said Gabrenas. “But I didn’t really get to know Jeff Houde until I finally got my first superintendent job at Lake Waramaug Country Club in New Preston, Connecticut. As my relationship with Jeff and the Tom Irwin Company grew, every year at Lake Waramaug was better than the year before.”

Tom Irwin also provided an invaluable career resource through their sponsorship of the annual Leadership Forum, which takes place at Gillette Stadium each year.

“They were really helpful in preparing me to interview for my next job,” he said. “They’re great people and they’ve always been there for me in every way I’ve needed them.”

That leadership training came in handy when Gabrenas moved to Birchwood Country Club in 2012, where he inherited a seasoned team of professionals.

“The superintendent I replaced was here for 43 years,” recalled Gabrenas. “ A lot of the crew had never worked for anyone else. I realized I had to earn their trust as much as they had to earn mine.”

Today, the former journeyman is settled in with his wife and three daughters. “I actually have time to coach my daughter’s little league team.” Gabrenas said with appreciation.

“When you’re younger, you have different aspirations,” said Gabrenas. “You want that course with the big tournament. Today, my family and my members are the most important people to keep happy. When a member tells me, ‘This course has never been better,’ or ‘We’re glad to have you,’ those are the things that mean a lot to me.”

Justin welcomes you to contact him if you have any questions about his experience with Tom Irwin: jgabrenas@optonline.net

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