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Meet Your Superintendent (Greenkeeper)

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Throughout the history of golf there has been a person who is charge of tending the turf and the daily set up of the golf courses for play. This started in Scotland as the “Greenkeeper”. No “s”, it is not Greenskeeper, just “Greenkeeper”, or keeper of the green. When golf began the entire area of the links was called the green. There was no rough cut, intermediate cut, tees, collars or approaches. Just the green- hence the term in the Rules of Golf, “through the green”.

At any course (public or private) from the beginning, the ‘point guy’ the golfer sees and deals with is the Professional. In America, that quickly became your local PGA professional. PGA Professionals can play golf pretty darn well, in general. Being a decent player, along with being the ‘point guy’ golfers see every day helped elevate the Professional’s status among the local golfers who frequent any particular facility.  Meanwhile the Greenkeeper was the guy who did much of his work well before the first golfers would get around course. So he was not seen very often and when he was he usually had dirt, grease and sweat accumulated on his body and clothes. The facilities that the Greenkeeper worked out of were not the best of places either. The Greenkeeper quickly became the “troll in the barn”.

In 1926 Greenkeepers gathered in Ohio to form what would become the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA). The name Golf Course Superintendent was used to get away from ‘Greenkeeper’ and the “troll in the barn” stigma. The Association’s purpose was to provide support and, more importantly, education to its members. But it was just as critical to change the image of the professional tending the courses. The GCSAA and many of the Superintendents before me have elevated the Superintendent’s image to the golfers. Today, at most facilities the Superintendent is equal to the other professionals needed to run a golf facility. One thing will never change, though. The golf Pro is always going to be the point man and the Superintendent will have the bulk of his work done before you see him on any particular day. So who is your Golf Course Superintendent?  Let’s meet him/her.

In general, this is a man/woman who chose the profession because he loves golf and loves working outdoors in a beautiful setting. If there are any other reasons I cannot think what they would be. (Job security, pay scale and benefit packages are not as flush as in other professions.)  Many started working on a course when they were young and wanted a summer job. Then they found out how much they enjoyed it and decided to make it their profession. Personally, I was in the Air Force ROTC program at the university I was attending but after two years working at Old Warson CC and one year in ROTC, I decided I wanted to switch my career path. Luckily I was at a university with a very good turf program and the switch was easy. My love for the game blossomed those four summers I spent working at Old Warson. I had a very good mentor as well.

Most Golf Course Superintendents have some form of secondary education and a similar story, I’d suspect.  We are not the ‘troll in the barn’ of the past. We have developed very good agricultural and scientific knowledge particular to the growth of turf grass. We deal with viruses, bacteria and funguses just as a doctor would. I’m not saying we’re as important as a doctor. He deals with people’s lives and my decisions only affect the well-being of my family (which includes my course), but the principles are  similar. We oversee large budgets that control the operations of maintaining the course throughout the year and we must also acquire knowledge in many other fields.  In fact, a Superintendent has to be a “Jack of all Trades”.  Here’s a bit of a breakdown of the skills required:

Botany & horticulture. We need to know when to feed, how much to feed, when to water and when not to water, when to treat and when not to treat. There is more to it than just grass growing on a golf course.

Mechanics.  We must understand the workings of motors and hydraulics. (Luckily most courses have a mechanic to carry out these duties.) The Superintendent needs to have some understanding to make decisions on equipment conditions, capabilities, replacements, cutting quality and be able to troubleshoot in the field. Most of us acquire these skills quickly out of necessity.

Electrical.  Most irrigation systems run on electricity.  Three hundred miles of electric line run underground at my course.  These lines tell the irrigation heads when to turn on and off, for example. There are numerous possibilities for problems to occur out on the course and the superintendent has to be able to diagnose and fix any problems that may arise. The pump house that supplies the water to the irrigation heads is likely 480 electric volts. Let’s face it, the pumps won’t work perfectly (without fail) their entire life.  Someone has to be able to diagnose any problem that may occur and either fix the problem or quickly come up with a plan of action to get the issue resolved.

Plumbing. There are twenty-three miles of pipe underground at my facility. I need to have a working knowledge of this labyrinth, how it works and functions and how to fix it when it doesn’t. Along with the irrigation system there is a maze of drainage pipe underground used to carry excess water off the course. The Superintendent not only needs to know how this system works and where it runs but also has to have some plumbing/engineering skills to properly size pipe before it goes into the ground.

Managerial/Leadership.  The “Super” is usually managing a crew of ten to forty people at the height of the golf season. He has to set the priorities and make schedules to get the work done with as little disruption to the golfer as possible. This is usually complicated by tournaments, shotgun starts, weather and numerous other events any particular facility may be running on any particular day. He has to know his people and their capabilities to maximize team success. He has to be a motivator and cheerleader as well, especially on days when it is 110 degrees outside with a 130 degree heat index.  An understanding of team leadership coupled with managerial skills result in a better course and a better attitude of those maintaining its playability.

Construction. This can mean both carpentry and metal working skills. Quite often, things need to be built (in house) to help improve operations of the facility. This could be as simple as building shelves in the shop or as complicated as building a new pump house facility for the irrigation system. He may have to build or modify a tool to do any given task better or more efficiently.

Surveying.  Understanding surveying basics is a necessity while moving dirt on the course to improve drainage or build new tees. An uneven tee will eventually have to be leveled, so why not do the survey correctly the first time?

Chemistry. It’s important to have an awareness and understanding to the reaction of molecules and elements in the soil and plants. He needs to know what every chemical does and when it needs to be applied. He is required to know and follow state and federal regulations.

GOLF.  Perhaps his most important knowledge, though, has to do with the game of golf. He doesn’t have to be a scratch golfer to have this knowledge. He does have to play some and watch a lot. Watch?  He has to watch people playing his course to see how the ball is bouncing and rolling. Watching TV golf to see how they play the game and set up the courses so one can tie these two together to arrive at a plan of action for prepping the course for daily play.

Personally I hate wet golf courses and like golf when the ball bounces and rolls true. This helps me form my plan of action on how to manage and maintain the course on a day to day basis. The Superintendent has to know the rules. The rules dictate how many of the areas around the property are to be maintained and or marked. There are no rules on where to place a pin on a green, yet the Superintendent and his course set up people must have some common sense knowledge as to where a cup should or should not be cut.

That is a fraction of the background and the “Jack of all Trades/ work-in-progress knowledge of your Golf Course Superintendent. We have come a long way from that ‘troll in the barn’.  Sure, when you see us we still may have mud on our pants or grease on our shirt but hopefully you will see us in a different light.

Personally I like the title of Greenkeeper, as I am a bit of a traditionalist. Golf Course Superintendent is cumbersome to say, let alone to type. Either way, you have a professional at your facility that cares deeply about the job he does and the course presentation you get as a golfer.  He cares for the course like it is one of his children. There’s a dedication of our lives to this profession to the point of obsession. I think it is the best job in the world, certainly for those first three hours each morning; the calm and quiet, the sun coming up and the hum of a mower far off in the distance. The smell of fresh-cut grass and the sounds of wildlife… It doesn’t get any better and these three hours certainly add balance to the chaos and stress that often come later in the day.

The PGA Golf Professional will always be the point guy at any facility. He is the guy who knows everyone’s name and welcomes you to the facility. But the next time you are out playing golf and you see your Golf Course Superintendent on the course, acknowledge him with a nod and a smile and stop for a quick chat.

Writers note:  This probably should have been the first article from me as a golf course superintendent but I chose topics for the first two issues that might draw more interest for you the golfer. In upcoming articles from the Superintendent’s Corner, I will cover a range of topics that in some way will relate to the professional Golf Course Superintendent, at your course.  Some may be solely about turf and conditions on the golf course. Others will be about how your superintendent deals with situations and preparing the golf course on a daily basis. My hope is that after reading these articles, you will have some insight into what my peers and I do as golf course superintendents.  What kind of people we are and some of our trials and tribulations and the satisfaction we get from doing our job.

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The Missouri Golf Post is a monthly digital magazine that “celebrates the people who play the game.” Each monthly issue contains several “feature” stories on golfers, golf courses, and/or major tournaments of interest statewide. Each issue contains a number of regular departments on topics such as Tournament Summaries, Fitness, “The Superintendent’s Corner,” Instruction, and Rules.

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