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Grass-Roots Advice From Superintendents

It made headlines recently when state officials in Georgia, Nevada and other drought-plagued states turned to golf-course superintendents for advice on how to conserve water. That news astonished some golfers, too, but it shouldn’t have.

Superintendents long have been some of the best conservationists in the nation. They handle the toughest job in golf, providing members and customers with the same playing conditions in August that they get in April, and in recent years they’ve done it with fewer chemicals, less fuel, less water and even less manpower.

Superintendents know their turf, and all of us – not just state officials – ought to listen to their advice. When they tell us we need a new watering system, it’s not because it would make their job easier; it’s because the more irrigation heads they have, the more water they can save, by directing it only where it’s needed.

When they tell us they need to aerify more often, it’s not because they enjoy punching holes in front of our putting strokes; it’s because loosening compacted soil helps get roots deeper, and that means healthier grass.

When they tell us we should expect uniform greens but not uniform rough or uniform bunkers, it’s not because they want weekends off; it’s because they recognize the difference between a playing surface and a hazard, and trying to make hazards flawless gobbles up considerable cash for no good reason.

We speak with superintendents from a dozen of the nation’s leading courses. We need to listen to these guys. There’s a reason each is called a super.
Pete Wendt, 39, golf course manager Kinloch GC, Manakin-Sabot, Va. “People need to learn to live without green conditions from tree line to tree line. Average golfers look at a course from an aesthetic point of view, when they should really look at it from a playability standpoint.”

Ryan McFarlin, 33, golf course superintendent The Estancia Club, Scottsdale, Ariz. “If we didn’t overseed Bermuda grass with ryegrass in winter, our cart traffic would create unplayable lies. In May or June, we back off the water, and back comes the Bermuda grass. It’s a natural process.”

John Zimmers, 38, golf course superintendent Oakmont (Pa.) CC. “If you ask any good superintendent, drier is always better – better for the golfer and the turf. You can manage firm, fast, championship conditions and still have quality turf and wonderful playability.”

Mark D. Kuhns, 54, director of grounds Baltusrol GC, Springfield, N.J. “My members like to play a course where the ball sits up nicely on the fairway yet isn’t so tight that they can’t hit the ball with their amateur skills. Even better players don’t want to play U.S. Open conditions day in and day out.”

Russell Myers, 37, golf course superintendent Southern Hills CC, Tulsa, Okla. “As clubs are forced to look at their financial situations, we might see a return to less-manicured bunkers with firmer, less-mobile sand. Or the old style, where they were never raked.”

David Stone, 60, golf course superintendent The Honors Course, Ooltewah, Tenn. “I’m constantly doing things to the golf course to make the habitat better for birds. Lots of people want tall roughs that are clean, with no weeds. But weeds have seeds, and that’s what the birds eat. And a lot of those weeds bloom and add color.”

Jim Whalen, 44, golf course superintendent Calusa Pines GC, Naples, Fla. “The water issue is never going to go away. Golf courses won’t be as green and lush as they were years ago. The great thing we did was modify our irrigation system so we can do a ton of hand-watering out there.”

Tom Bailey, 34, director of golf course operations Wade Hampton GC, Cashiers, N.C. “We put in almost 15 miles of drainage and new irrigation that allows us to direct water where we need it. We saw a 40-percent decrease in water, irrigating more areas more efficiently. And our power bill went down.”

Mark Wilson, 53, golf course superintendent Valhalla GC, Louisville. “I’m at a Jack Nicklaus golf course – the bunkers have to be just perfect, in case Nicklaus drops in. But if you get so strapped you can’t maintain them, you should probably fill them in – grass over them.”

Pat Finlen, 51, director of golf maintenance operations The Olympic Club, San Francisco. “Clubs are going to have to make reductions in maintenance budgets to survive. I think golfers will come to appreciate that brown is firm and, typically, fast. It can be exciting to play.”

Ken Lapp, 73, director of course operations, Cog Hill G&CC, Lemont, Ill. “Back when I started, we didn’t irrigate fairways, didn’t change pins every day. All of a sudden, we’re doing this, spraying that, and it cost more and more money. So they had to raise the green fee. Well, that’s got to stop.”

Garret Bodington, 37, golf course superintendent and construction manager Sebonack GC, Southampton, N.Y. “Getting fast greens you see on TV at your club every day is a tall task. Shotmaking and creativity are being lost. The experience should be about what the architect wanted, not about what the superintendent is told to do.”

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