The last word

It was early January 2010 when Tom Vlach, director of golf maintenance operations at TPC Sawgrass, called with an idea that caught me a bit by surprise. The certified golf course superintendent wanted to ramp up the use of social media for The Players Championship held on the Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., course.

At that time, superintendents were embracing social media with increasing frequency, so to have a high-profile course manager take the plunge to showcase a major professional event was an exciting proposition. But deep in the back of my mind I kept on going back to the fact that Vlach worked for the PGA Tour. This is an entity that’s so focused on managing its brand that it certainly would not let the golf course maintenance staff run amok tweeting and blogging to its heart’s content. I didn’t get my hopes up too high because I thought the plug could get pulled at any point.

A few weeks later we met at the Golf Industry Show along with Stadium Course CGCS Clay Breazeale to further distill the conversation. So, when I posed the question, Vlach sheepishly smiled, turned to Breazeale, nodded his head and said, “We’ll be OK.” Awesome, I thought to myself. I assumed the Tour staff had enacted some checks and balances that would allow Vlach to post information once it was approved.

With Sawgrass in the spotlight for The Players Championship earlier this month, I checked in with Vlach to see if he was going to continue his social media activities. The communications had grown each year, but with his staff tapped with course conditioning activities I was fearful he was going to have to pull the string.

To my delight, and the many others who follow @tpcsawgrassagr or are visiting, the communications will continue and likely ramp up. What began four years ago as Vlach handling the duties on his own has now become an assigned responsibility for staff during the year, with others from the industry coming in to help during tournament week.

“I didn’t start this because I wanted attention,” Vlach said. “I learned what others did on the course by seeing what they did on social media. So I thought I would do the same thing. We network at our meetings, so I thought this was just an extension of that.”

Vlach has heard from superintendents all over the world, but the audience has extended far beyond turf managers. As the home course for PGA Tour members, staff will periodically send them links to the maintenance blog on course maintenance activities. Likewise, Vlach has seen a great deal of traffic come from the more than 400 resort and club staff members to keep abreast of the work.

In my time at the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, I found Vlach’s work to be a great resource for attracting media attention. Our news releases linking to the Twitter feed and blog were used by media, and even became the source of a Golf Channel piece. But Vlach had another motive for his decision to become a social media guru; he saw an opportunity for his staff to document their work and demonstrate their proficiency to prospective employers. He says that aspect has been a home run.

Vlach says those at facilities that don’t host high-profile events or who don’t have large budgets should not eliminate social media as a communications tool.

“Turfgrass managers are innovators and can-do people,” Vlach says. “I think we learn from others regardless of budget or staff size. Plus, they have people at their facilities who want to know what they are doing. Who better to hear it from than the superintendent?”

So I asked him to come clean and tell me how much of a drag it was to have big brother looking over his shoulder.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t even tell them I was doing it when I started,” Vlach says. “I am not sure when they found out, but figured we would do it until someone told us to stop, and we’re still going. They trust us, and they understand what we are trying to do.”