Observations from a three-day whirlwind through North Carolina’s Research Triangle…
Old Chatham Golf Club is a Rees Jones-designed course opened in 2001. The club rests on 400 secluded, wooded acres in Durham, N.C. New housing developments creep toward the gates, yet once on property, a clubhouse and guest cottage are the only visible structures.
Brian Powell, a second generation, North Carolina-bred superintendent, arrived before the first tee shot was struck on Sept. 8, 2001. The world changed three days later.
The world around Old Chatham has changed. The Research Triangle’s population hovered around 1.1 million in 2000. The total has swelled past 2 million. Compared to everything around it, Old Chatham’s changes are subtle, although Champion Bermudagrass replaced bentgrass greens in 2012 and pleasing native areas have supplanted eight acres of mowed turf.
Past USGA President Jim Hyler is a founding member. But, unlike other courses where Jones has worked, Old Chatham will never host a U.S. Open. Powell and his team create repeatable and pleasurable golf experiences. Fairway and rough heights, and yes, even green speeds, are no secrets because they are stated on the club’s website.
Powell is a past Carolinas GCSA President. Director of golf John Marino is the current Carolinas PGA President. Both are widely respected. Both have worked at Old Chatham since its inception.
Day 1 conclusion: Consistency separates elite clubs from middling facilities. Old Chatham offers a template for green committees and board of directors. Hire and strive to retain quality leaders. Tell them what you want to become. Let them execute their jobs and give them the tools to do it.
Bayer golf business manager David Wells opened the educational portion of the 11th annual Green Start Academy with a cheerful proclamation. “I think the golf industry has a bright future,” he told a room filled with 52 assistant superintendents, seven presenters, four magazine editors, and members of the Bayer and John Deere Golf teams.
Spend a few days with a group of assistant superintendents, and it’s hard not to get excited about the future. A savvy, determined, well-trained and increasingly patient group descended upon the Research Triangle Park for Green Start Academy.
Job candidates are spending an average of 4 ½ years as assistant superintendents before becoming superintendents, according to GCSAA research. The average age of a superintendent is 46 years old. The average time spent as a superintendent is 16 years.
The talent glut means some facilities boast two and perhaps three professionals ready to lead a maintenance operation. “I run everything from 5 o’clock to whenever everybody goes home,” a veteran assistant superintendent told us. “My boss tells me what to do and a couple of other things, and I run with it. I know what we are supposed to do. It’s an awesome experience. I’m like a superintendent at most other courses, but I have somebody mentoring me.”
By carrying larger roles for extended periods, assistant superintendents are more prepared than ever to succeed when landing a head position. Waiting to fulfill career goals is tough. But patient assistant superintendents are making the industry stronger.
Day 2 conclusion: It’s too bad outsiders with lukewarm views on the industry don’t receive an opportunity to attend an event like Green Start Academy and meet its participants. They’d be bullish on golf too.
One is the general physician. The other is the specialist.
Lee Butler and Dr. Jim Kerns, along with their NC State colleagues, provide a tremendous service. Their diagnostic work drives research. If superintendents are sending an abundance of samples infected with pythium, they increase pythium research.
NC State performs the bulk of its golf turf research on greens, the part of the course where demands and expectations are the highest. A Transition Zone climate permits research on warm- and cool-season grasses, and nearly every potential disease can be studied.
Don’t be fooled by the monotonous appearance of the Lake Wheeler turfgrass plots or the cleanliness of NC State’s indoor labs. Plant pathology changes by the hour. One day Butler and Kerns might receive a sample from a superintendent at a top 100 club in a different time zone; the next day a local superintendent might personally drop off a sample. There’s no room for error. A misdiagnosis could put a career in peril.
Trust is a major component of plant pathology, and funding concerns create uneasiness about the future of reputable turfgrass research and diagnosis. NC State is in a fortuitous spot because it rests in the epicenter of a region where personal interactions don’t require plane tickets and key industry stakeholders in the Carolinas understand the value of collaboration.
After visiting NC State’s plots and labs, we met with Hope Valley Country Club’s David Lee, a rare superintendent with a PhD and currently President of the Carolinas GCSA. Lee maintains a turf nursery where trials are performed between the second and third holes. When you’re touring the course with plant pathologists, you can’t miss it.
Day 3 conclusion: Get to know the Butler and Kerns of your region. Support what they do. If possible, establish a nursery at your course that permits research. Not only will you sleep better when something doesn’t look right. You will help the next person with a turf issue.
Guy Cipriano is GCI’s associate editor.