Stanley J. Zontek, the director of the USGA Green Section’s Mid-Atlantic Region, passed away Aug. 28 after suffering a heart attack. He was 63 years old and was predeceased by his son, Christopher.
The organization’s longest-tenured employee, Zontek joined the USGA in 1971 after graduating from Penn State University. He started his USGA career as an agronomist in the Northeastern Region. He moved to the North Central Region in 1980 before becoming the director of the Mid-Atlantic Region in 1985.
“Stanley will be missed tremendously by those of us at the USGA who knew him best and by the thousands of lives he touched outside the organization,” said USGA Executive Director Mike Davis.
Zontek, who resided in Avondale, Pa., was a world-renowned turfgrass expert who shared his extensive knowledge for 41 years through articles, speeches and course visits. He helped establish many of the best turfgrass practices still in use. During his career, he assisted thousands of courses around the world to achieve the best conditions possible, whether in preparation for USGA championships or for everyday play. In addition, one of his responsibilities was helping to maintain the putting green at the White House.
Zontek was recognized for his contributions with many awards, including the 2006 Golf Course Superintendents Association Distinguished Service Award, the 1997 Golf Course Builders Association of America Don A. Rossi Award and the 2007 Crop and Soil Sciences Outstanding Alumni Award from his alma mater. He was a member of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and the British International Golf Greenkeepers Association.
“Stanley was an icon to all of us personally on the Green Section staff and within the industry,” said Dr. Kimberly Erusha, the managing director of the USGA Green Section. “We have lost a great friend and an influential voice in the game.”
Born in West Virginia, Zontek lived in Maryland and southeast Pennsylvania as a youth before matriculating at Penn State in 1966. His father was a golf course superintendent, and Zontek’s first job as a teenager was raking bunkers for $1.10 per hour.
For more than 40 years, Zontek displayed an unwavering commitment to his craft, traveling around the world to help superintendents care for their courses. In addition to his knowledge of turfgrass, one of the keys to this success was his ability to build lasting relationships. As much as he was respected for his professional expertise, Zontek touched many more lives with his passion, generosity and spirit.
Those who worked most closely with him were the most influenced by Zontek. He trained many USGA agronomists, and all his colleagues looked forward to spending a week or two “traveling with Stanley.” Each trip provided the agronomists with a better appreciation of the industry and the expertise to better perform their jobs.
“Stanley often said that this was a people business and it was about building relationships,” said Dr. Erusha. “He lived by that sentiment, and did it very well. He willingly shared his passion, expertise and experience with people from around the world. For that, all of us who love the game are better for it.”
On top of visiting hundreds of courses a year, Zontek worked closely with the superintendents of USGA championship courses such as 2011 U.S. Open host Congressional Country Club and 2013 site Merion Golf Club, which also hosted the U.S. Open in 1971, the year Zontek started working for the USGA. In this capacity, Zontek worked closely with USGA Executive Director Davis in preparing the course for the championship.
“Some of my fondest memories from past U.S. Opens involve spending time with Stan as we worked alongside each other during the championship’s long hours,” said Davis. “He loved the USGA and dedicated his career to serving the game that he loved. He was a true ambassador for the USGA, and in my mind, nobody better personified our work ‘for the good of the game.’
Funeral arrangements are pending and are not currently available.
Hunki Yun is a senior writer for the USGA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.