That was the sound of Dustin Johnson smashing his ball off the tee on the first hole at Oakmont Country Club en route to winning the U.S. Open in June. But it was also the sound of another year gone by.
2016 is nearly in the books. It’s also time to look back at our top feature stories for the year.
In this story, the question was asked: Will you be ready when the curtain rises?
The curtain in question was the one going up for the annual Golf Industry Show (GIS), held last February in San Diego. (This year’s show is set for Feb. 4-9 at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando.)
The story profiled six industry professionals who attended the show in San Diego. Among other things, the story focused on what these attendees planned to get out of the GIS.
Pat Franklin, the certified golf course superintendent at the Country Club of Winter Haven in Winter Haven, Florida, had a plan — but not too detailed — for attending the show the second he opened the door to enter the convention center.
“I go to learn. I go to see people. I go to see what is new,” Franklin said. “The show is smaller, but the schedule is also compacted. I try to see everything. My attitude is you can sleep on the plane.”
Franklin said he is a firm believer that attendees must leave some time in their schedules for the unexpected.
“My strategy is to blow through the trade show floor right away, as quick as possible,” Franklin said. “Then I can decide what booths I need to see later in the day or on the second day. I also know how much time I have to drop in a class or stop to see people. I feel if I plan my time too rigidly, I may not have the chance to visit with the people who you meet unexpectedly. What you learn from them is as important — sometimes more important — as what you learn in the classroom.”
Rodney Crow, the certified golf course superintendent at Battleground Golf Club in Deer Park, Texas, said he goes to the show “to learn how I can become more efficient and save my company money.”
“We are challenged to do more with less, but my goal is still to improve turf quality,” he added. “This is the time of year when I plan.”
Attending the GIS is also not a vacation for Crow.
“This is a once-a-year or onceevery- other-year opportunity,” he said. “You come with a plan and look for ways to improve what you are doing.”
Fungicides are a major line item in most superintendents’ budgets. In this story, we reported on the challenges that chemical manufacturers face in bringing new fungicides to the marketplace, among other things.
One area where it’s been particularly tricky to develop new fungicide technology — and which researchers continue to explore — has to do with the length of time that the product works.
“The EPA doesn’t really want something that hangs around in the environment too terribly long,” said Kyle Miller, senior technical specialist with BASF Professional Turf & Ornamentals. “Any superintendent would love for something to last a long time, but I don’t think that’s going to be an easy thing to hit on.”
Syngenta’s Lane Tredway agreed.
“I don’t think we’re necessarily seeing an increase in the duration of control,” said Tredway, a senior technical representative for Syngenta, citing both regulator and practical limitations. “With the environmental impact standards that we all operate under, long residual is generally a bad thing.
“We’re also dealing with a turfgrass plant that’s constantly growing and constantly being mowed, and therefore the products that are applied are constantly being harvested, so there’s always a limit to how long a product can last.”
In this month’s main feature story, superintendents went to the polls for our fifth-annual Super Survey. We surveyed 530 golf course superintendents on the state of their profession, including questions about the state of the golf economy and their personal challenges.
Among many questions, we asked superintendents: From a business perspective, do you think the golf industry is improving? Twenty percent of superintendents answered “yes,” compared to only 11 percent two years before. Fiftytwo percent answered, “Maybe, there are signs the industry is improving.”
In his part of the golf course world at Rainier Golf & Country Club near Seattle, Sam Sprague reported a solid year in 2015 in terms of rounds and revenue at the 97-year-old course.
“My club had an incredible year [in 2015] — one of the best we’ve had in quite a while,” says Sprague, the club’s golf course superintendent.
In the heart of the Midwest, at Shadow Ridge Country Club in Omaha, Nebraska, golf course superintendent Mary Boyle was also optimistic about play at her 18- hole private club, noting that business had been consistently strong the past few years.
“I think the dust has settled from 2008,” Boyle said, referring to the Great Recession and its adverse economic impact on the golf industry.
At the Verandah Club, a 36-hole private club in Fort Meyers, Florida, director of agronomy Jake Wentz was also upbeat about golf at his two 18-hole courses.
“Everything clicked for us (in 2015),” Wentz said.
In the maintenance facility, superintendents face an array of challenges, including finding dependable labor. A whopping 42 percent of superintendents answered, “Good and reliable help,” when asked, “What is the biggest challenge you have managing your golf course?” The answer greatly outdistanced, “Golfer expectations for near perfect conditions,” a serious and perennial problem for superintendents, which garnered 16.5 percent of the vote.
From municipal courses to high-end private clubs, superintendents must deal with politics like they must deal with Pythium on putting greens. For this feature story, we spoke to several superintendents, including Jim Fitzroy, who retired about four years ago after spending nearly 40 years as the superintendent at Presidents Golf Course, a municipal track in North Quincy, Massachusetts.
When Fitzroy first became a superintendent in the 1970s, he never considered his career choice would also require him to be a politician, where he would have to deal with golfers who complained about fast greens, golfers who complained about slow greens and golfers who complained about ball marks on greens.
“It was kind of a rude awakening,” Fitzroy said. “There’s a lot more to the business than growing grass. In fact, as I got older, I realized that the easy part of the business was growing grass.”
Politics are not a bad thing. In fact, politics can be very good. At the core, politics are about compromise.
“They say there is a lot to be said for the smoke-filled room,” Fitzroy said. “Sit down, smoke a cigar and figure out what we can agree on.”
When he was a young superintendent, Todd Voss, the chief operating officer and golf course superintendent at the Double Eagle Club, a private 18-hole course in Galena, Ohio, admits that he just wanted to be left alone to grow grass. But he eventually learned he couldn’t operate that way.
“Dealing with people is something that you have to do in this business,” said Voss. “But if you take politics down to its simplest form, it’s treating people like you want to be treated.”
As part of our U.S. Open preview, we featured John Zimmers, the superintendent at Oakmont Country Club, on our May cover. Zimmers has been the superintendent at Oakmont, known for its demanding membership, since 1999.
Zimmers knew what he was getting into when he took the job at Oakmont, which hosted the U.S. Open last June. He was well aware of the club’s revered history and had heard the stories about Oakmont’s insistent members, many who take pride in their persistence for firm, fast and flawless playing conditions.
“This job isn’t for everybody,” he said.
Fact is, the 45-year-old Zimmers has one of the toughest jobs in golf course maintenance.
“At certain times, I’ve questioned if this is the thing I should be doing,” said Zimmers, who puts in up to 100-hour workweeks on the course, located near Pittsburgh.
But Zimmers has definitely made a positive impression at Oakmont. Bob Wagner, a longtime Oakmont member, who is also the past club president and past grounds chairman, is impressed with Zimmers’ resiliency and realizes, perhaps better than anyone, how difficult the job can be.
“In many [instances], John’s efforts are largely underappreciated or not appreciated,” Wagner said. “But it’s a testament to his ability as a superintendent to withstand the criticism and tough aura that the members present.”
In our annual golf and sustainability supplement, we focused on synthetic pesticides and fertilizer and how they have an important place in golf course maintenance. We reported that sustainability is not about not using synthetic pesticides and fertilizer on golf courses.
Consider Dave Davies, who has garnered a solid reputation for his environmental prowess. It was no surprise that Davies, the certified golf course superintendent at TPC Stonebrae Country Club in Hayward, California, received one of three national Environmental Leaders in Golf Awards issued by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America at the GIS earlier this year.
But Davies’ goal to preserve the environment at Stonebrae does not mean he shuns the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizer at the 18-hole course, which opened in 2009. Davies realizes that synthetic pesticides and fertilizer can make environmental and economic sense and be used in a socially responsible manner as part of his operation.
“It’s about balancing thresholds,” Davies said. “We are constantly willing to look at new technologies, new scheduling, new application rates and new combinations of products.”
Chris Flick, director of grounds operations at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Lemont, Illinois, also considers himself an environmentally minded superintendent. But Flick realizes he would be foolish to ban synthetic products from his maintenance program at the public facility, which features four golf courses.
“Not using any synthetic pesticide or fertilizer is not sustainable,” Flick said. “If you use them responsibly, they shouldn’t have any impact (on the environment).”
Golf returned to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro for the first time in 112 years. If anybody deserved a gold medal for his performance, it was Neil Cleverly, superintendent of the Olympic Course. Cleverly, who is bold, bullheaded and burning with desire, had just the traits needed to help get the 2016 Olympic Course built and maintained for the men’s and women’s golf tournaments, which were hailed by many as the best golf events of the year.
If it wasn’t for Cleverly enduring through myriad hassles associated with the project, the first-ever Olympic Course might not have been completed. That’s what people close to the project said about Cleverly.
“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of other superintendents would have walked away from this project,” said David Doguet, who operates Bladerunner Farms in Poteet, Texas, and developed the Zeon zoysiagrass used on the Olympic Course’s fairways, tees and roughs.
Said Gil Hanse, the golf course architect who designed the Olympic Course: “I’m not so sure that a lot of superintendents wouldn’t have thrown in the towel. Neil never did. If he had, I don’t know how we would have recovered from that sort of loss.”
Cleverly didn’t anticipate the turmoil that would come with the job. The course was built on a nature reserve, an undeveloped parcel of sandy land at Reserva de Marapendi in Barra da Tijuca, a suburb west of Rio. The project got off to a rocky start because of a lack of funding. Then there were legal challenges and land disputes. When construction finally got going, there were environmental protesters and other assorted bureaucracy.
One of Cleverly’s biggest frustrations was being told he would not be allowed to use virtually any herbicide during the grow-in.
“When I looked down the lines of the holes and saw all those weeds… there are no words to describe how frustrated I was when I realized that we weren’t going to be able to spray them with herbicide,” he said.
Cleverly and his crew hand picked the weeds — millions of them — to prepare the course for sodding and sprigging.
Cleverly admits that during all of the strife he asked himself, “Oh God, what have I done? Are we really going to get this done the way that we are doing it?”
But the 57-year-old, who spent several years in England’s elite British Royal Marines, didn’t concede, despite working 18-hour days practically seven days a week.
“If you keep saying ‘woe is me’ all the time, you’re going to have a heart attack or your health is going to fail, and you’re going to end up getting on a plane and leaving,” Cleverly said.
Our July, August and September issues featured a three-part series in conjunction with the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA). In the August issue, the story focused on architecture as it relates to agronomics.
When an architect designs, redesigns, renovates or sympathetically remodels a golf course, the modifications and wholesale alterations will invariably lead to wholesale changes in the maintenance practices.
A qualified architect knows that every removed tree, expanded green surface or additional bunker will have to be dealt with by the superintendent. When they propose modifications, architects must rectify the expectations of owners/golfers/ committees with the realities of maintenance budgets and manpower.
Architects often find themselves talking their clients out of a proposed design style or change because the required maintenance will not be achievable since the money needed to care for it is not there.
“It’s absolutely something you take into account from a design standpoint,” said Lester George, an ASGCA member. “One of the tenants of good design is the use.”
At the same time, George strives to make the course as good as it can be within the maintenance parameters. That means what a designer will propose for a high-end private facility is vastly different compared to an affordable municipal layout.
For Mark Jordan and others at Westfield Group Country Club in Westfield Center, Ohio, hiring developmentally disabled employees is about helping them realize their maximum potential.
In the summer of 2008, Jordan, a certified golf course superintendent whose title is natural resources leader, was having difficulty filling some parttime but much-needed positions on the golf course maintenance staffs for the two courses. Someone recommended to Jordan that he check with the local board of developmental disabilities, which provides services including employment to people who are disabled. While Jordan was able to solve the pressing work issues in-house, he was intrigued: He wanted to learn more about hiring people with developmental disabilities.
“I like to help people realize their maximum potential,” he said.
Jordan met with leaders from the board of developmental disabilities to see what opportunities Westfield could provide for those who needed jobs.
“We identified some gaps in our operations where we were lacking, such as equipment washing,” Jordan said.
The key was to place developmentally disabled individuals in the right roles where they could perform and be comfortable in their jobs. Their safety, of course, was also a big factor.
“The difference is what society says to us about people who are developmentally disabled,” Jordan said. “They know no limitations, other than what people put on them by not allowing them certain life experiences. …If we can give them a chance and they succeed, then they wake up every morning with a purpose in life.”
Reflecting many Americans’ mindsets with the nation’s two U.S. presidential candidates, several golf course superintendents were dismayed with having the choice of Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump as the country’s next commander in chief. As we know, Trump won the election on Nov. 8.
Superintendents’ concerns reached beyond who would be the next president. They are troubled with the emergence of extreme politics on the right and the left and the impact it could have on the industry and their lives.
“It floors me,” said Mitchell Wilkerson, the director of golf and grounds maintenance at the 36-hole Moss Creek, a private club in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, of the situation in Washington. “It just seems like there is no democratic process anymore. … When you see that, you know that it’s broken.”
Brian Stiehler, the certified golf course superintendent at Highlands Country Club, a private 18-hole facility in Highlands, North Carolina, said the country needs a leader, an “outsider” perhaps, to turn things around. “It’s going to take someone outside of Washington … someone with a business background and someone who isn’t worried about what everybody else thinks,” Stiehler noted. He didn’t say, however, that it was Trump who was that person for the job.
Ask many a superintendent, and he’ll tell you expectations for near-perfect conditions continue to increase. His maintenance budget, however, has been stuck in the mud the past few years.
Which brings us to fairway mowers. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Tier 4 diesel engine emission reduction mandate in 2012, enacted to reduce air pollution including particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, helped drive up fairway mower prices because mower manufacturers had to increase digital technology to meets its standards.
But mower manufacturers have reacted by offering fairway mowers that are more productive, easier to maintain and more fuel-efficient, among other attributes. Mower manufacturers, including John Deere Golf, Jacobsen and The Toro Co., are trying to stretch the capabilities of their fairway mowers.
While mower manufacturers agree that more golf courses are leasing mowers, superintendents who have to purchase them are hanging on to them as long as they can.
“Some courses will replace the cutting reel as opposed to replacing the unit,” said Lee Frie, a product manager for Charlottebased Jacobsen.
“It gets into the spending it takes to keep the machines running,” said Tracy Lanier, product manager for John Deere Golf in Cary, North Carolina. “What it really comes down to is if the machine is able give them the quality of cut and the results that they want.”