It’s time to pass out the hardware for Superintendent magazine’s first People of the Year Awards. We have some solid individuals for our inaugural honorees. Please hold your applause until all the awards have been presented.
“Tough Chin” Award
Certified Golf Course Superintendent
The Players Championship at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, didn’t happen without a hitch last year. Five putting greens were in poor shape around tournament time, putting the course’s very capable golf course superintendent, Tom Vlach, in the spotlight.
To make matters worse, the Golf Channel reported that the five greens “were negatively impacted by a misapplication of a product,” which the Golf Channel attributed to a memo posted on a PGA Tour players-only website. No superintendent wants his name attached to the word “misapplication” when it comes to chemicals.
Here’s what really happened: It was a cold and wet spring in the Jacksonville, Florida, area. The MiniVerde grass on the greens wasn’t growing, as it’s wont to do when soil temperatures just below the surface are in the 50s. An unknown spray was put down to jump-start the bermuda, which resulted in areas checking out on the five weakest greens.
More than a month before the tournament, L.B. (Bert) McCarty, professor of turfgrass science at Clemson University, was brought in to determine what caused the damage and how to rectify it. McCarty determined the problem with the greens wasn’t just about the cold weather; it was about the annual maintenance of the golf course, which may be dictated by money rather than agronomy.
The PGA Tour is big business. One way it makes money is by selling lots of expensive tee times at the Stadium Course. To maximize its earning potential, it appears that the course isn’t aerified as often as needed in order to keep the number of days of lost revenue to a minimum.
McCarty said the bermudagrass had insufficient root structure caused by excessive thatch, high traffic levels and compaction. He noted that aerification and cultural practice strategies needed to be more aggressive, among other things.
When courses don’t aerify and perform other cultural practices, the turf suffers. But it’s hard for superintendents to do that if the windows of opportunity are infrequent.
Vlach was caught in the proverbial crossfire. What’s a superintendent to do if the bottom line dictates agronomics?
The crummy putting greens weren’t Vlach’s fault, and it was completely unfair to him and his crew for the PGA to say that a product was misapplied.
Here’s to Vlach for keeping his chin up.
“Every Superintendent Wishes They
Had a General Manager Like This” Award
Duke University Golf Club
On his birthday Billy Weeks gets a card with a handwritten note from his boss, Ed Ibarguen. Weeks, the golf course superintendent at Duke University Golf Club, also gets a card on his work anniversary from Ibarguen, the club’s general manager. So do the other employees Ibarguen oversees.
You hear about general managers who superintendents can’t stand to talk to, let alone look at. You hear about the power struggles between the two entities. It’s just the opposite with Ibarguen and Weeks, and Ibarguen has a lot to do with that.
Weeks may report to Ibarguen, but Ibarguen views their relationship as a partnership.
“Not only do we work well together, but we like each other,” Ibarguen says.
While Ibarguen hired Weeks, that doesn’t mean he has to like him. He could play the tough guy role and distance himself from Weeks to let him know who’s in charge. But Ibarguen doesn’t play that card.
“I operate by transparency,” Ibarguen says. “There are two things I know about myself — I don’t like to be watched, and I like to be trusted. I don’t want to work for someone who doesn’t trust me, and I don’t want somebody to work for me that I don’t trust. But how can you establish trust if you’re not transparent?”
Ibarguen, a golf pro, is the longtime personal coach for Michael Jordan and is one of Jordan’s best golfing buddies. You’d never know it, though, as Ibarguen isn’t a name-dropper. He’s known to get up for a golf lesson just as much for Joe Schmoe as he is for someone like Jordan.
Weeks will tell you that one of the best things about the Duke job is Ibarguen, a boss that he likes, trusts and knows where he stands.
“Life’s Too Short” Award
Former Golf Course Superintendent
Augusta National Golf Club
A lot of golf course superintendents — make that a lot of people — don’t like to admit that they’ve succumbed to pressure on occasion. People think that giving in to pressure is a sign of weakness, which isn’t necessarily true.
That’s why we’d like to recognize 82-year-old Lloyd McKenzie with this award — all these years later — for not being willing to put up with the pressure anymore when he quit as the superintendent of Augusta National Golf Club in 1981 after spending six years as superintendent. McKenzie loved the job, but he’d had enough. Nothing wrong with that.
We spoke with McKenzie earlier this year for a story on former Augusta superintendents. McKenzie, who was interviewed for the job by Clifford Roberts, who co-founded Augusta with Bobby Jones and was chairman of Augusta at the time, told us he quit Augusta because he was tired of the pressure and the long hours that defined the job at the time.
McKenzie was superintendent of Augusta from 1975-1981. The pressure there was intense, unlike anything McKenzie had felt at any other job. He felt like his performance was always under a microscope from Augusta’s staff and members, the media, and even superintendents from other courses.
“It was thrilling … but at the same time there was a lot of pressure,” he says.
McKenzie left Augusta for the Quail Creek Country Club in Naples, Florida. He finished his career as superintendent of West Palm Beach (Florida) Country Club. He has been happily retired for nearly 20 years and living with his wife in Blue Ridge, Georgia.
He has no regrets about quitting Augusta for a job that was a little more laid back. And the memories of Augusta are fond ones.
“It was my career highlight… despite all the pressure. There’s no doubt about it,” he says.
“Humble Pie” Award
Golf Maintenance Staff
Pinehurst No. 2
None of the leaders on the Pinehurst golf course maintenance staff wanted to take credit for the challenging but fine conditions that Course No. 2 provided for the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens, which were held during back-toback weeks on the same course for the first time ever.
On the morning of the second day of the men’s tournament, Bob Farren, Pinehurst’s director of golf course maintenance and grounds, deflected a compliment for having the course in tip-top tournament shape to Kevin Robinson, golf course superintendent of the No. 2 Course, saying the best thing he could do was stay out of Robinson’s way.
Later, Robinson credited his two assistant superintendents, John Jeffreys and Alan Owen, for the conditions, citing their excellent management skills and knack for getting people where they needed to be to get things done.
Later, Owen got his chance to buck the acclaim, announcing that it was the crew workers and volunteers that deserved the credit for their outstanding collective effort.
“You couldn’t ask for a better crew,” Owen said.
Humble pie for everyone!
“Dr. Doolittle” Award
Certified Golf Course Superintendent
The Bear Trace at Harrison Bay Golf Course
Dr. Doolittle is a fictitious doctor who can communicate with animals. One of Doolittle’s goals in life is to better understand nature.
Paul Carter, the certified golf course superintendent at The Bear Trace at Harrison Bay Golf Course near Chattanooga, Tennessee, may be the Dr. Doolittle of golf course maintenance.
Carter has made a name for himself the past few years for his environmental sleight. He states with pride that he and his crew spend as much time on environmental projects at the course as they do on golf course maintenance.
Bear Trace is home to a mating pair of American bald eagles that nest in a lofty pine tree near the course’s 10th green. Wild turkeys, deer and other assorted wildlife also frequent the property. It’s no wonder, considering Carter and his crew have installed 45 bird nesting houses and returned 50 acres of previously maintained turf to naturalized areas.
It’s also no surprise that Carter will receive the President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship by the Golf Course Superintendent’s Association of America. GCSAA President Keith Ihms calls Carter’s environmental process “a shining example for all superintendents.” Dr. Doolittle would second that.
“Seeing Into the Future” Award
Senior Director of Golf Grounds
David Robinson has a vision of what golf course maintenance will be, and he’s putting it into action… now.
Earlier this year, Robinson, Marriott Golf ’s senior director of golf grounds and a certified golf course superintendent, rolled out the Environmental Sustainability Performance Award Program (ESPA), an initiative designed to serve as a benchmark for environmental stewardship across the company’s worldwide golf portfolio. As part of the program, 60 Marriott golf courses at 44 resorts in 13 countries are working to meet the program’s criteria, with each facility receiving an ESPA commendation signifying their commitment to environmental leadership.
“This program is the next step in Marriott Golf ’s companywide commitment to environmental sustainability,” Robinson says. “The main reason we do these things is because it’s the right thing to do; we want our courses to be environmentally friendly.”
Marriott Golf was the first resort golf operator to mandate every property in its portfolio to become a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. In order to achieve Audubon certification, a golf facility is required to demonstrate that it’s maintaining the highest degree of environmental quality in many areas, including environmental planning, wildlife and habitat management, outreach and education, chemical use reduction and safety, water conservation and water quality management.
Criteria for the ESPA’s include:
- completing implementation of Audubon certification;
- implementing a water-conservation strategy;
- implementing a carbon footprint plan; and
- undergoing an evaluation of nearly 100 key conservation standards.
Upon completion of the four criteria, each property will receive an ESPA commendation from Marriott Golf, designating it as a certified sustainable facility.
“We know that we’re visible, and we know people are looking at what we’re doing,” Robinson explains. “If it gets other golf courses to begin implementing environmental programs, that’s a great thing.”
“Giving Back” Award
Golf Course Superintendent
PrairieView Golf Club
We first met Matt Henkel in 2009 at Bethpage Black Golf Course in Farmingdale, New York, during the U.S. Open. Henkel, who was the assistant superintendent of PrairieView Golf Club in Byron, Illinois, was a volunteer on the golf course maintenance crew for the tournament.
We got to know Henkel well during the week and learned that he was married with two young children. We also discovered he was a cancer survivor.
Only a year before, Henkel had watched the U.S. Open from a hospital bed while undergoing presurgical tests for a brain tumor. The tumor was removed two months later in August. Henkel, now 36, talked about how blessed he felt to receive so much support while he was recuperating. He mentioned how touched he was to receive a $7,000 donation from the Wee One Foundation, a charitable organization founded on behalf of Wayne Otto, the popular Wisconsin superintendent who died of cancer in 2004. The Wee One Foundation assists golf course management professionals (or their dependents) who incur overwhelming expenses because of medical hardship.
Henkel’s cancer returned a few years ago. He underwent more surgery and 33 rounds of radiation treatment. He’s doing OK now.
Last summer, Henkel finally had the chance to do something he had been wanting to do: hold his own tournament at PrairieView to benefit the Wee One Foundation. He said it was time for him to give back.
Henkel said he’d never forget the Wee One Foundation for helping him and his family during a very difficult time. Because he had been there and received assistance from the Wee One Foundation, staging the tournament meant that much more to him.
Henkel’s tournament raised about $6,000 for the Wee One Foundation. He’d probably hold one every week if he could.