You need to understand your numbers.
You need to understand line items, too, and you need to think about wages rather than hours, and you need to document every last financial transaction, because if you fail to document something, it never happened. But more than anything else, please, you need to understand your numbers.
This is Shawn Emerson talking, the Sun Valley veteran now in his third decade as the director of agronomy at Desert Mountain Club in Scottsdale, the seven-course oasis north of Phoenix. He knows plenty about numbers.
“If you want to survive going forward,” he tells a room filled with six of his seven course superintendents, a handful of assistants and some visiting consultants, “you better know your numbers.” Emerson schedules a meeting like this most Wednesdays, but the meeting this Wednesday is longer and more detailed than normal. This Wednesday, he focuses on 2020 budget preparation. The meeting stretches almost an hour and a half. Each superintendent is tasked with filling out his own budget for the next year. The process can never start early enough.
“Just make sure you can justify and get it approved,” Emerson tells the room. “Just because it’s in your budget doesn’t mean it’s approved.”
Emerson was never a numbers nerd growing up, but he studied finance at American University in Washington, D.C., then moved west and realized there was far more to course maintenance than growing grass. He mastered the numbers, then he mastered analytics, and now he wants to put every one of his superintendents in a position to do the same. During his 22 years and counting at Desert Mountain, he says, probably four of about 40 superintendents have really conquered the numbers. “You have to have a plan,” he says. “Or you’re not going to make it.”
He dives into the current monthly budgets for each course — Cochise and Apache, Outlaw and Geronimo and Chiricahua, the sparkling new par-54 Seven that might provide a different avenue to welcome in folks to a sprawling golf community (see Lucky Number Seven, page 34), and, of course, Renegade, the oldest course on the property, the course Emerson worked on as a superintendent for five years back in the 1990s, and the site of one of the more daring renovations in recent years anywhere in the country. Some of those courses hit their budgets. Some did not.
“You should always be $1 under budget,” he says. “That was always my goal. Not $10, not $100, not $1,000. One dollar under budget.” He looks up at a superintendent who missed his budget. “This is a team,” he says. “You’re $242 over budget right now. You didn’t make it.”
Hang around Emerson for even a day or two and the admiration he has for his staff is obvious. He loves them — it’s a tough love, but it’s still love — and it’s not enough for him to tell them what to do. He needs to explain why they should do things. He wants to teach them about the business. He wants to prepare them all to not only to do their jobs well but to do their jobs well anywhere.
“There is no other group I’d rather rely on than you guys,” he tells them, some encouragement as they head back out into 112-degree mid-morning heat after a meeting filled alternately with sound questions, feigned disappointment and that signature tough love. “But you’re going to have to do your due diligence. No one knows this business better than you guys know it.”
“I don’t know that anybody else could his job,” Renegade course superintendent Alex Ward says. “At least not the way he does it.” Emerson oversees seven courses spread across almost 8,000 acres of parched terrain. He is a leader for water advocacy in a state where the stuff is regulated more closely than just about anywhere else in the country. He also planned and executed a renovation of one course and the construction of another — simultaneously.
Oh, and he figured out how to grow bentgrass in the desert.EMERSON LEARNED EARLY
on that he wasn’t what he calls “the most talented guy.”
“My Dad gave me the best tip,” he says, referencing his father, legendary course superintendent Bill Emerson, who passed away earlier this year. “Surround yourself with people who are better than you and you won’t have any problems.”
Emerson regularly calls on top consultants like Dr. Rick Brandenburg, an extension specialist and department extension leader in entomology and plant pathology at NC State University who was in town during the budget meeting. He used to work so closely with Dr. James B. Beard, the Texas A&M University legend who formally retired in 1992 and passed away in May 2018, that when Emerson first floated the idea of bentgrass back in 1999, it was Beard who stopped him. “We looked at when the golf course would be in its best condition and it kept pointing us to October through May,” Emerson says. “Why not put out the best grass that would be the most successful at that time? But he was worried about the water quality.”
No matter how many brilliant agronomists have tried to steer him away, Emerson was determined to at least test bentgrass. The benefits were too great — highlighted by a lower water usage rate and the end of overseeding, a process that now runs Emerson about $350,000 to $400,000 per course per year — to not study how it might react to desert weather on a scale larger than a handful of acres.
Emerson reached out to Dr. Leah Brilman, who has worked with Seed Research of Oregon and DLF Pickseed. She sparked Emerson toward “probably one of the pivotal decisions I’ve ever made in this business” and the pair worked together for years to develop the 007 MacKenzie bentgrass mix. Brilman called it Winter Activity. “Anybody who starts a project, they need to know the grass types they want,” Emerson says. “The design matters.” The decision might not make sense even a dozen miles away, but within the Desert Mountain microclimate — high temperatures, low humidity, drier than Prohibition — a cool-season turf would play perfectly.
Even with his bentgrass mix in hand, Emerson still required enough water and perfect infrastructure in order to swap grasses. Creeping up on 30 years old, though, the Renegade infrastructure was wilting with age.
After designing the original Renegade course back in 1986, Jack Nicklaus returned to tour the property and redesign the course. He found as much as 22 inches of sand on greens — nearly a foot more than the 12 inches required by the USGA — thanks to years of topdressing. “If you have to rebuild them,” Nicklaus told Emerson, “why not put them wherever you want?” Nicklaus dispatched his associate Chris Cochran and the redesign started in earnest.
Emerson toured the country, talking with other superintendents about their redesigns and current equipment, about processes and pitfalls. “Superintendents are willing to tell you, ‘I would have done this, I would have done that,’” Emerson says, “and contractors are the same way.”
Back at Desert Mountain, Mike Gracie, then the Renegade course superintendent, established a baseline for everything that required an update or a fix. “We wanted to redo everything and try the bentgrass,” Gracie says. “So, in 2017, we killed off all the Bermudagrass, overseeded it with straight ryegrass, did a couple test plots of the 007 MacKenzie bentgrass mix, grew those in on the fairways on 10, the approach on 12 and the little fairway on 17. We were happy with what we saw and happy with how it grew it in.
“Shawn pulled the trigger and said, ‘Let’s do it all.’”
The course closed on May 1, 2018. Working with Cochran’s design — which included rolling tees and multiple greens on each hole, less severe mounding and added length — an enormous team filled with Emerson’s brand of “people better than” himself started a job that stretched almost a year: Emerson installed Desert Mountain agronomist Keith Hershberger as the project manager to work with Cochran and a team of contractors that was led by Heritage Links vice president Oscar Rodriguez and included irrigation consultant Bob Bryant, who oversaw the installation of IC units with 55-foot spacing. Because Nicklaus Design wasn’t able to work on site every day, Emerson called in Phil Smith Design as a third-party project manager. Gracie, meanwhile, was tasked with growing in and maintaining the golf course once the grass hit the ground.
“That was my introduction to construction life,” says Gracie, who’s now the superintendent at Chiricahua. “It was like drinking water from a fire hose.”
A couple miles west on Cave Creek Road, Bruce Church of Desert Reflections and Marvin Mills of Rain Bird highlighted the team of contractors working on construction of Seven at the same time. “The contractors worked well with each other,” Emerson says. “The sand was the same, the parts were the same. They would trade parts. If I needed a sprinkler head, they would give it to the other because they were the same. If one was long on something, we just transferred it over to the other.” Everybody huddled for construction meetings every week and financial meetings every other week.
The numbers are necessary and staggering: On a property where the annual golf maintenance budget currently sits at $19.3 million, Emerson budgeted more than $3 million for drainage alone and another $2 million or so for more than 100,000 tons of sand, trucked in a ton per day from August through January.
“We had three trucking companies hauling sand up here,” Seven course superintendent Ryan Williams says. “The original suppliers couldn’t get enough trucks.”
“It was almost like a parade of trucks,” says Ward, the current Renegade course superintendent. “And hindsight is 20/20, but we did make one mistake: We should have had them haul it up and store it up here somewhere.”
“They were dumping it on the hole it was going on and we were smoothing it out,” Williams says.
“It was the biggest, most difficult part of the process,” Emerson says. “But I think the question to anybody doing golf course construction today is, Where do you want to put your money? Do you want to put it in the front end? Or do you want to put it in the back end? Some people decide to not use sandcapped fairways, then they end up buying sand and topdressing fairways. How much does that cost you every year? We made an evaluation and decided to put the money up front and get the best price for it.”
Weather slowed the projects, notably 8 inches of monsoon-season rain during the first two weeks of October, a dusting of snow on New Year’s Eve, then 12 to 16 inches of snow covering the course in early February. The longest uninterrupted stretch for bentgrass germination was a little more than two weeks, and it was Brilman, who developed the bentgrass mix with Emerson, who provided what Emerson calls the greatest advice: “She told us not to stop seeding,” he says. “That’s where the ability to listen and have people help you comes in. The bentgrass grew in in weather no one expected it to grow in.”
The back nine opened in April for limited play of about 70 rounds per day, followed by the front nine opening in June. The course was closed again July 15 for about seven and a half weeks, reopening Sept. 5. “The heat is one thing,” Ward says, “but you combine monsoon season with the humidity and your bentgrass is not going to transpire the way it’s supposed to. You put traffic on that, it would just be deadly.”
Ward is learning about bentgrass maintenance on the fly along with the rest of his crew, though he does plan for what he describes as “a lot more vertical mowing next year” and topdressing every two weeks probably starting in March. “We’ve had bentgrass greens up here forever,” he says, “so where I used to have six acres of greens, I now have 50 acres of greens. You can’t have the same cost per acre, but a lot of the cultural practices are going to be very similar.”
“Most people are very short-minded when they build a golf course,” Emerson says. “You have to think about what you want 10, 15 years down the road. You should start your capital replacement funding immediately after you open. When are you going to replace your grass? When are you going to replace your irrigation system? They’re not built to last forever. And most people go into these plans, look over five years, and don’t think about it again.
“You have to build a program to sustain it. You don’t have to be elaborate, you just have to build a program to sustain it to move forward.”
EMERSON WAS BORN in 1963, the same year his beloved Baltimore Orioles started a 23-season run that included 22 winning records, seven division championships, six pennants and, better than everything else, a trio of World Series championships. Emerson attended one of those Fall Classic games in 1971, when a Pirates fan inadvertently spilled beer all over him and apologized profusely.
Those were formative years for Emerson, whose father was teaching him even then about club politics. “I can still name you every player,” he says, and then he does, from the early 1960s right through the early 1980s. “Back then, they played the Oriole Way,” he says. “They had to hit the cutoff man, they had to advance the runner. That was how they won, good pitching and solid defense.”
Emerson has enough Earl Weaver in him that he has installed a sort of Desert Mountain Way. “Every job we do on a golf course, everybody does it the same,” Ward says, “We actually have a training guide. How I have a guy raking bunkers on Renegade is the exact same way they’re raking them on Apache. If Cochise needs three guys to mow greens, I can take any of my guys and send ’em up there. All you have to do is show ’em where to go. You’re not retraining ’em.”
Emerson pays more attention these days to the Oakland A’s. His younger brother, Scott, is the pitching coach. Under longtime general manager Billy Beane, the A’s rebuild the bulk of their roster almost every season, often signing overlooked players for far lower salaries, and giving plenty of credence to analytics.
“I like what Oakland does,” Emerson says. “I like that every year is a new team, and I try to take that philosophy that every year is different and to not let one roll into the next. Set a goal, then reestablish the goal without giving up the major theme. What are we trying to accomplish this year?
“You have to look at your team and ask yourself, What do they need from me today? The guy whose role should change the most is me. It’s easier for me to change than it is for 180 other people to change. I should be able to adjust to what the team needs, and I have to manage everybody differently. You have to study yourself before you can make change. You have to understand what your strengths and weaknesses are. If you can’t manage yourself, how can you manage others?”
Because no matter how many millions you pour into course renovations and reconstruction, no matter how innovative your vision or how perfect your plan, the project you can and should revisit — day after week after month after year after decade — is your own self.
Matt LaWell is GCI’s managing editor.
A visitor to the United States Naval Academy is immediately stirred by the sense of history that is discernable at every turn.
That same historical aura is in evidence at the United States Naval Academy Golf Club in Annapolis, Md., where superintendent Eric David is charged with overseeing a major renovation while at the same time helping preserve and enhance the work of one of the greatest architects of all time.
David, who has a two-year turf degree from Michigan State, was hired in June 2017 after a decade at Baltimore Country Club. He was well familiar with the planned renovation even before he arrived.
“My boss at Baltimore Country Club (Tim Kennelly) had worked here in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” David says, “and had always told me about what a special place this was. Although it might not be the big-name club, he had always said that it had a fantastic membership and great people to work with and be around, and when the job came open, the (word) had been going around that this golf course was going to be renovated.”
The first golf course on the property was completed in 1928, the work of Chicago architect Harry Collis. At the time, the site was home to the Greenbury Point Yacht and Country Club. The club collapsed during the Great Depression, but the Navy purchased the site in 1938, in part for the purpose of constructing radio towers.
Nine holes reopened in 1940 before legendary architect William Flynn arrived on site in 1942. Over the next two years, he would revise some of Collis’s work and design additional holes. Flynn’s 18-hole course opened for play on May 1, 1944. It was the last course he designed; kidney disease took his life the following January at age 53.
The renovation will seek to both restore and enhance Flynn’s work. All 18 greens will be rebuilt to conform to present-day USGA standards and restore as much of Flynn’s original unique shapes, many of which have been lost over the course of time. The bunkers will be rebuilt and, in some cases, repositioned.
Finally, the entire course will be regrassed.
If all goes well, and the weather cooperates, the project will be completed sometime in late summer 2020.
Work commenced Aug. 5, but David and his team of 15 began their preparations well in advance of that date. Tree removal was – and remains – a priority along with removing unwanted strains of grass.
The property features an abundance of turf species, including bent/Poa annua greens, along with Baymont Bermudagrass fairways and mostly Bermudagrass tees, save for those in shaded areas where ryegrass is prevalent. The rough features cool-season grasses, ryegrass, fescue and bluegrass, along with zoysiagrass bunker banks.
David’s experiences at Baltimore Country Club taught him about caring for multiple turf species simultaneously.
“A lot of my program has come from taking what I already know,” he says, “and trying to tweak it to fit the grass and the soil types we have on this property.
“I rotate through most of the fungicides that are on the market for summer patch, dollar spot, Pythium, Pythium root rot, brown patch. I use quite a few different products in order to target different issues at different times of the year.”
Prior to the start of the renovation, David and his team focused considerable attention on the green collars. “We have a lot of Bermudagrass contamination in the green surrounds,” he says, “so we’re trying to remove as much Bermudagrass as possible.”
David also made sure all the necessary equipment was on hand. “We were really focusing on having all the equipment and the pieces that we need to use for taking care of brand-new grass,” he says, “and trying to teach the crew how to properly use the equipment. When you get to the very new grass, I think there’s going to be quite a bit of a learning curve for all of us as we get moving along, but I have full confidence that we’ll be able to take care of everything.”
Andrew Green is the architect in charge of the project. Based in Baltimore, the Virginia Tech graduate spent 14 years at McDonald & Sons and started work on a master plan for the Naval Academy course more than 15 years ago. When he was out on his own in 2014, the USNA project went with him.
Green is a restoration specialist, with a resume that includes Inverness in Toledo, the site of the 2021 Solheim Cup. He’s currently working on the East Course at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., site of the 2023 PGA Championship. For the USNA project, he reunited with McDonald & Sons, which is handling the construction aspects of the project.
An admitted history buff, Green is a fan of the Golden Age of golf course architecture, particularly the Philadelphia School of design, which boasts William Flynn as its most prominent member. Green says, “The passion and thought, the way the architects of that tine were communicating and trying to one up each other or utilize these great pieces of property to create wonderful golf and strategy. How can you not fall in love with what that era brought?”
Green strives to take Golden Age design concepts and adapt them to golf’s modern era. “That’s where I find my energy and passion, “taking those great ideas and making sure they work because the game has changed so much that just tying those two pieces together is a lot of fun,” he says.
Some would debate whether the Naval Academy project is a renovation or a restoration, but Green’s efforts, however they are categorized, are intended to restore as much of Flynn’s work as possible, while making allowances for 21st-century realities.
“With this project, the greens will go back as close as we can get them to original shapes, sizes and contours.” Green says. “Some of the green contours will have to be softened because of modern green speeds. But for the most part, the greens will be put back to their original condition.”
David adds the new greens will be built to withstand the warm, humid conditions that are common in the area during much of the golf season.
“Pushup greens tend to get wet and stay wet,” David says. “We have thunderstorms in the Mid-Atlantic all the time. The reason for going to the sand-based greens is just that. If we were to get a thunderstorm, a couple inches of rain, and the sun comes out and the heat and humidity go back up in the ’90s, we would lose the (pushup) greens.”
Bunkering is a key factor in any renovation effort. A number of Flynn’s bunkers have disappeared from the Naval Academy layout over time. Others no longer affect play due to advances in equipment technology. And some greenside bunkers are farther from the greens than they were when they were built because the putting surfaces decreased in size. The project will include outfitting the bunkers with new sand and concrete liners.
“In terms of their positions, depth, sizes, and things; we’ll try to follow Flynn’s plan as best we can in that regard,” Green says. “It’s really the fairway bunkers and maybe some tee placements that will be adjusted for the modern game and the distance of the long player.”
The layout at the Naval Academy has changed relatively little since Flynn finished his work. Fifteen of his original holes and part of a 16th remain, although the routing has changed somewhat over the past 75 years.
The most significant changes occurred at what are now holes 12 through 14, which were reworked around 1954 or ’55, possibly by Bob Williams, the club’s golf professional at the time, because the Navy wanted to construct a building in that location.
When Green’s work is complete, the 12th hole, now a short par 4, will be a long, reverse Redan par 3. The 13th, now a par 4, will become a double-dogleg par 5, while the 14th, now a short par 5, will become a long par 4. “Those holes will add to the variety for all the players on the back nine,” Green says, “and try to pay more homage to Flynn.”
The renovation commenced with the closing of the back nine. Work on the inward nine’s greens and the bunkers should continue until October, when the back nine will reopen, albeit with temporary greens. At that point, work will begin on the front nine along with perhaps fine-tuning some fairway bunkers.
By early December, the course will be shut down for the winter. It will reopen in early May for member play for approximately six weeks before it is shut down again for the summer while the tees and fairways are converted to Tahoma 31 Bermudagrass, which was developed at Oklahoma State University and has been shown to be resistant to drought conditions and cold weather, both of which are causes for concern in the Mid-Atlantic.
David’s goal is to have the fully renovated golf course reopened for good by next August or September. But if it takes longer to do the job right, so be it. This renovation, after all, will shape the future of the club for decades to come.
“This renovation is for the next 50 years,” David says. “I don’t see this golf course being renovated again any time soon, so the big thing for us is making sure we get it right, that we nail it exactly the way it needs to be done.”
David notes the club’s members have been extremely supportive of the renovation effort. “Many of them have been members for 30 to 40 years, and it’s almost like when they get it back, they get a whole new golf course,” he says. “New cupping locations, new grass, different ways to play the golf course.
“Still maintaining the Flynn course and the greens the way they were originally designed but really, again, going back to how it was built in the 1940s.”
Rick Woelfel is a Philadelphia-based writer and frequent GCI contributor. The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of golf historian Wayne Morrison, the co-author, along with Thomas Paul, of The Nature Faker - William S. Flynn, Golf Course Architect.
Le Triomphe Golf and Country Club sits in the heart of what’s known as Cajun Country in hot, humid, south Louisiana on the edge of the town of Broussard located in Lafayette Parish and about a two-hour drive west of New Orleans, just off Interstate 10. The 145-acre, Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed course opened in 1986 and is one of only three golf courses in the state that hosts PGA Tour events. For nearly three decades, Le Triomphe has hosted the Korn Ferry Tour’s Chitimacha Louisiana Open.
Mississippian Ramsey Prescott became the club’s superintendent in fall 2017. The 23-year turf management veteran, who has a degree in agronomy, spent 18 of his years in the business as a superintendent at clubs in Florida before making his way to Louisiana. “I’m always looking for challenges and learning opportunities,” Prescott says. He took a position in Pensacola, because he “wanted to learn a new turfgrass,” paspalum, a perennial indigenous to tropical and coastal areas.
The courses in Florida are built on sand, Prescott says. In Louisiana, “the only sand you’ll find is on the greens. It’s a totally different soil structure; it’s all clay, which doesn’t drain at all.” He was up for a new challenge and accepted the responsibility for turfgrass management and environmental stewardship at Le Triomphe in October 2018.
“I was impressed with the club’s reputation as one of the state’s most respected golf properties, and that it’s a PGA Tour host facility,” he says. The single-ownership status and the club’s financial strength were also positives. “I’ve worked at places where there were greens committees or a management company with people having competing agendas and priorities. A single owner where decisions are made quickly and there’s a budget and an obvious desire for excellence were very appealing.”
Prescott says he was given the opportunity by club owner Michael P. Maraist and Le Triomphe general manager and CEO Dawna Waterbury to assess the current conditions (course and club grounds) and develop his own strategy and agronomic plan, but “had no idea the amount of autonomy I’d be given along with trust and confidence.”
Prescott gathered facts by talking with his immediate predecessor and even spoke to the superintendent who was there when the turf was originally implemented to obtain as much information as he could about the history and maintenance practices. A common theme was the ongoing challenge of establishing a healthy turf root system from the time the Jones dwarf Bermudagrass was installed in 2003.
“The outgoing superintendent was taking a sabbatical from his career to make an attempt at professional golf and did a phenomenal job at maximizing the playability and extending the life of the greens, but struggled to develop and maintain adequate roots,” Waterbury says.
Prescott says while talking to former superintendents was initially helpful, he says, “at the end of the day, the greens talk to you, revealing the most telling information.” Prescott continued to assess the condition of the greens, spending the next few months examining every aspect of the 145-acre property to determine the root cause of the turf issues.
First things first
Prescott says, given his experience, he knew in his gut the greens were at the point of no return and would eventually have to be replaced, but he wanted to do everything possible to make sure that was a last resort. And before new greens, he says, “you’ve got to have the proper irrigation to grow the greens in.
“Everything has a lifespan – a green, a bunker, an irrigation system,” he says. The general lifespan of an irrigation system is usually 20 to 25 years and Le Triomphe’s irrigation system was 33 years old and based on outdated hydraulics technology, according to Prescott.
Prescott received funding for a full upgrade on the irrigation system in fall 2018. After extensive research, he selected the Toro Lynx 2-Wire Smart Hub system along with a new state-of-the-art MCI pump system Model MPC with a nema-4-enclosure and cellular-remote. Le Triomphe secured industry irrigation design consultant Bryant Gordon Taylor, based in Costa Mesa, Calif., to facilitate the bidding process for contractor selection and to assist in the oversight of the construction.
As the irrigation work progressed, Prescott determined installing a new pump station represented the best plan for the course’s long-term future for multiple reasons: the old hydraulics-based system was poised to become obsolete and looming major repairs or replacement of the pumps would result in heavy equipment moving across the seventh fairway. “Just from a general maintenance sense, the current location needed to be eliminated,” he says.
“We had many challenges during the design phase and the installation,” he adds, “but we now have one of the most sophisticated irrigation systems in the world on our golf course, and it’s been a huge factor for the initial improvements in the fairways and throughout the course.”
The 1,200-head Toro Infinity system took approximately 18 weeks to install beginning in late October with the course remaining open during construction. The project wrapped up in March in time for the club’s annual PGA Tour event.
The struggle to achieve superb turf health
With the new irrigation system in place, Prescott turned his attention to the condition of the greens and the ongoing struggle to achieve superb turf health. He was determined to uncover why the greens were failing and to exhaust all options before considering replacement. He sought answers to a series of questions that hounded him: How did what he considered to be an incredible amount of organic matter accumulate on the top layer of every green, despite diligent cultural practices? Why weren’t vents installed during the 2003 renovation? These questions still lingered as he moved forward.
“My instinct was to be as aggressive as possible with regard to removing the layer of organic matter that had accumulated in the greens over the years, but traditional aerification methods were not an option due to the subsurface,” he says. Prescott resorted to the DryJect method, although he adds even that practice had “limitations due to the delicate root system of the plant.”
In a June morning meeting with Waterbury, Prescott discussed his efforts to date and the challenges his team faced. During that meeting, club owner Maraist happened to call Waterbury to discuss that very matter – the condition of the greens. Waterbury relayed to the owner a summary of the information she’d just received from Prescott — and before she’d hung up, Maraist greenlighted the greens renovation. Within three weeks of that meeting and call, turf renovation began.
Phase II: Greens renovation and installing TifEagle
Prescott knew he wanted to replace the Jones dwarf with TifEagle Bermudagrass because it’s highly tolerant of the environmental stresses found in southern climates. “I’ve managed and grown in TifEagle greens and have extensive history with this superior turfgrass and its time-tested resiliency, consistency and overall playability.” Prescott says. In superintendent terms, Prescott adds, “it likes to be beat up and can take abuse. It’s very drought tolerant and disease resistant.”
Le Triomphe sought and received bids from some of the industry’s more respected contractors and selected JGCC Golf Inc. out of Ormond Beach, Fla., to handle the project. The project started June 21, and TifEagle from King Ranch Turfgrass in Cleveland, Texas, was planted and sprigged on 3.67 acres of greens. The revamped greens were ready for full play by the end of September. Play never stopped during the summer season, though, as the club used temporary greens during construction.
The staff expected the play to slow down a little during renovation, says Le Triomphe’s PGA head golf pro Rob Spiars. “Short game practice such as putting and chipping were hindered a bit, but players could still work on their game hitting drivers on par 4s and 5s,” he adds. “We are lucky that we have a membership that’s been very supportive and patient and understands the improvements are ultimately for the benefit of the members.”
During the renovation process, Le Triomphe finally received answers to questions that lingered for years. The Jones dwarf didn’t stand a chance in the suffocating Louisiana growing environment because the greens vents (clean-outs) installed in 2003, which weren’t visible, were never brought to the surface. They were left three or more feet below the surface of the turf and capped off.
“Think of holding your thumb over the end of a drinking straw that you’ve dipped in a glass of water,” Prescott says. “Holding your thumb over the end captures water and holds it in the straw.” That these vents were buried and never brought to the surface as they should be, caused this thumb-over-the-straw effect of holding water inside the turfgrass cavity.
Prescott and his team discovered that the outfall pipes were also completely covered up, causing drainage failures in many greens. The water had been trapped in the tiles, producing CO2, methane gases. If these gases can’t escape through the drain tiles, they begin to travel back through the greens profile and aren’t able to escape because of the higher-than-desired organic matter content. These factors combined to create a breeding ground for anaerobic conditions, with black layer and organic matter build-up and an overall weak stand of turf grass. The greens also lost roughly 3 percent of surface area, due to significant encroachment and contamination. Severe collar dams had developed around entire greens, forcing the greens to have a bowl-like appearance where surface water became trapped on many putting greens and resulted in major puddling and water-logged conditions.
“Over half of the USGA specified golf courses that have drainage don’t know that both ends of the drainage have to be open at some point,” Prescott says. “They just don’t know.” He learned about the importance of air flow, oxygen and drainage — and how critically related it is to the health of the greens — years ago from David Doherty, CEO and founder of the International Sports Turf Research Center. “David did a seminar for myself and all the superintendents in the Southeast,” Prescott says. “He showed us how to set this up in house and even showed us how we could make something like our own version of a SubAir system to create an ideal environment for turf growth and management.
“Right now, the contractor that did our greens is coming back to the property to install four-way vents right at waterways. We get so much rain on our property and we have a couple of greens with drainages that go out into what we call coulees (ditches) here in Louisiana. These greens need vents and don’t have them because they are stubbed out under water. The contractor will raise all the vents to the surface, dig up existing drains and anywhere there was a drain will be dug up we’ll install the vents.”
Since the green renovation and irrigation upgrade, Prescott has implemented proper, transparent maintenance processes for his team to follow. For example, topdressing with sand dilutes organic matter through its life, Prescott says. “We are now on a regimen of proper maintenance and management of organic matter and are keeping the greens oxygenated. We topdress adequately and consistently to avoid layering and develop a consistent profile all through the soil profile.
“Overall, the improvements mean we as a team are operating as we should – proactively instead of reactively.”
In just 18 months, Prescott has overseen a transformation that will further elevate one of Louisiana’s more renowned courses. The nimble way the club operates and the ability to make timely decisions are the foundation of Le Triomphe’s success, he says. Prescott’s plan and clear vision for the course and club grounds aligned with what the club wanted to achieve and what the owner was willing to invest, Waterbury says. Le Triomphe is unveiling the upgrades to the membership this fall.
“Ramsey was so methodical in his assessment and his open dialogue with me every step of the way,” she says. “It solidified my confidence in his abilities and ultimately laid the foundation for the club’s owner to decide to invest millions of dollars in upgrades and renovations.”
Monique Bozeman is a Louisiana-based writer.
Justin DePippo moved from the East Coast to the West Coast as a 23-year-old. He owned two valuable items in his chosen field: a Penn State degree and work experience at a well-known facility on the other side of the country. A new job at a glamorous Southern California spot awaited.
Before he could start experiencing his version of a sun-splashed, low-humidity turf dream, which involved helping maintain Los Angeles Country Club’s 36 holes, DePippo needed a place to live. The housing search proved more difficult than actually landing a full-time job at the renowned club.
“I got a rude awakening of what the cost of living was really like,” DePippo says. “I had to find the cheapest place I could find. That’s what determined where I was going to live.”
DePippo used Penn State connections and landed a room in a modest West Los Angeles apartment he shared with a few fellow Nittany Lions, whom he calls “friends of friends.” The apartment lacked air conditioning. And, yes, he encountered cockroaches in his living space. “I’m not very proud of it,” he says. “It took some adjusting. But year by year, I was able to move up a little bit, always looking to improve my living condition.” For the record, DePippo previously worked at Aronimink Golf Club, a phenomenal Philadelphia-area course offering modern onsite housing to young employees.
DePippo’s living conditions have significantly improved since he arrived in Los Angeles in 2013. He rapidly ascended at LACC, becoming the superintendent of the North Course (site of the 2023 U.S. Open) by the time he was 26. Then, in 2017, DePippo was appointed the director of golf course and grounds at Bel-Air Country Club, another glamorous club enjoyed by A-list celebrities. Bel-Air, like LACC, also has A-list architectural roots. George Thomas designed a series of holes that meander through scenic canyons. The charm between canyons increased following a nine-month restoration in 2017-18. DePippo arrived at Bel-Air two months into the project. He was just 28.
Now a 30-year-old – more on reaching that milestone later – DePippo represents a fast riser in an industry where talented professionals are being forced to wait longer for leadership positions because of the slowing and subsequent steadying of the golf economy.
What is it like being a superintendent in the shadows of Hollywood?
I always wanted to be in a big city. I have always been drawn to it; I have always wanted to try it out. That’s what first got me out here, wanting to be in a city where there’s a lot going on and a lot to do. LA is definitely unique. It’s perfect weather year-round. There are always people on the golf course. We have an event at some point during the month for all 12 months. There’s no low or dropdown like the winter you have back East. Our what you would call ‘off-season’ is the middle of February when Riviera hosts the Genesis Open. SoCal and Los Angeles is just a good, active golf area. There are a lot of great golf courses around here, especially in the private sector.
How did somebody from Philly who had lived in Pennsylvania his whole life make the transition to the West Coast so early in his career?
It’s a different way of life out here. Everybody who’s been out here gets soft-skinned from the weather. Every time I’m back East it’s a reminder of that. It’s not quite the same intensity as the East Coast, where the people have a little bit more grit, I guess you could say.
You had a good thing going at Aronimink with a great mentor in John Gosselin. There are a lot of great golf courses in Philadelphia. It would have been easy for you to stay in Philly. What convinced you to take the career and personal leap that you did?
I interned at Aronimink and had gone back as an assistant. I had a talk with one of the assistants I was underneath there, Matt Rogers, who’s now the superintendent at Gulph Mills Golf Club. He said, ‘At some point you have to go work somewhere else, learn a different program and be a supervisor at another property.’ I had nothing tying me down. As young as I was, I knew I was flexible. I always wanted to try the West Coast. I had always seen and heard about Pebble Beach, Torrey Pines, Los Angeles Country Club, Bel-Air and Riviera. I volunteered to work the Genesis Open at Riviera as a test run to see what it was like working in SoCal. I had a really good time. Between one of our morning and afternoon volunteer shifts, I threw a suit on and took a cab over to Los Angeles Country Club and did a quick interview with Russ Myers who was the director at the time. That was the beginning of it. It all clicked from there. I had a good vibe and I was blown away by it all, especially how great the weather was. I figured if I’m going to be working outside every day, I might as well do it where it’s perfect weather year-round.
When did you realize you would be in California for more than a few years?
Our industry is small. There are only 15,000 golf courses in the United States. Depending on the level of club you want to be at, you have to be flexible. I was always willing to go anywhere in the country for the right job. Timing just worked out great at Los Angeles Country Club. There was a good bit of movement and I was able to work my way up there until the end when I was North Course superintendent. We also hosted the Walker Cup and it was the same time the U.S. Amateur was in town at Riviera and Bel-Air was right up the street. It was a big year for golf in Los Angeles. Timing was great. A great club, a great opportunity. I definitely feel lucky in our industry to not have to move to take a superintendent job. The only thing that changed was the exit I take off the 405.
What were the challenges of arriving at Bel-Air in the middle of a restoration?
First thought is that you would say it’s a lot to walk into. You have to learn the old course and new course at the same time, in a very short amount of time. In my first construction meeting, one of the big-ticket items on the table was whether we were going to move the cart path and shift the tee box to the other side of the third tee and the eighth tee. Everybody was giving their opinion and it gets to me and I said, ‘Guys, I have to go see the third tee and the eighth tee before I can tell you.’ It was actually great being able to start fresh in a new job with new greens, new fairways, new tee complexes. Plus, all the new infrastructure. We started a new lease package with our equipment. It was a fresh start all-around. Being in a restoration on an old property and getting to work with Tom Doak was great as well. Timing-wise it couldn’t have been any better.
What guidance can you give superintendents who might be beginning a new job in the middle of a major renovation or restoration?
Be ready to put in the work. It took a lot of time. Luckily, weather was great for us. We didn’t have any major setbacks there. Build relationships quickly with the architect and the construction superintendent, the property manager, the general manager, the greens chairman, the board, your new assistants, your new staff and the whole list of contractors. You have to build relationships quickly and be ready for the work. Some people are attracted to that. It’s a challenge, but it’s fun. I enjoyed it. It keeps you on your toes. Looking back, you can say it was definitely an achievement to get through that. We opened up great. The members couldn’t have been happier with the new course and the new design, and we have been busy ever since.
When did the course reopen?
July 11, 2018.
What did that day mean for your team?
We had a big countdown timer on the wall. I think we started a 100-day countdown. We tried to get as much done as we could and perfect it as best as we could. In our industry and our line of the work, the job is never done. You can always do more. There was never a stopping point. That whole week was exciting. We did tee times that first week, so everybody had the opportunity to play at least once. A lot of people wanted to get out. All that hard work we put in – and people got to finally enjoy it. Everybody here takes a lot of pride in their work. We have a good staff. To have 37 guys that all take pride in their work is unique and special. We also had quite a few barbecues.
What is it like maintaining a course with throwback charm and modern infrastructure?
It’s a very unique property. Logistically, it’s one of the most difficult properties to get around. There are four tunnels that you can barely fit a small golf cart through. We have the iconic swinging bridge to get from the 10th tee to the 10th fairway. The property has a lot of history. It’s one of the main things that makes it so special. When you get to walk through the canyons and you’re in these foothills, it’s amazing how perfectly the holes fit into each canyon. I was walking with Ron Whitten from Golf Digest one day and he said it perfectly, ‘If any of these holes had been 20, 30 yards wider or 20, 30 yards tighter, it wouldn’t have worked.’ The fact that they laid that out in the mid ’20s with the equipment that they have … it’s amazing that it fits. With opening up the vistas and views with all the trees that we removed, it was kind of somewhat hidden how great the course really was. It’s always been a great golf course and a known property, but I don’t think anybody knew how great.
You were coming into Bel-Air as a 28-year-old department leader. How were you able to gain the respect of the membership and your crew early in your tenure?
I’m a believer that you have to earn respect, not demand it or expect it. From when they hired me, they knew I had a decent amount of experience. That’s why they hired me. It definitely wasn’t because of my age. One of the things that I said, ‘Being as young as I am, it’s an advantage to the club.’ I have everything to lose because I have my whole career ahead of me. If I didn’t give it 110 percent or give it my all, I have my whole career ahead of me to have to make up for that. I thought being somebody who hadn’t built a name for himself or been a head superintendent was a huge advantage.
You just turned 30. Do you feel any different now that you have joined that age bracket?
Not really. Everybody says the only birthdays that matter now are the decades: 30, 40, 50 … Yeah, maybe knowing I’m not in my 20s anymore you really feel like an adult, but I don’t feel any different. I have always been told I’m mature for my age. I have had crew members ask me all the time how old I am and tell them to guess. And they start with 40!
A lot of people in this industry must wait a long time to become a superintendent. You became one early in your career. Why do you think it happened so fast for you and what would you tell somebody who wants the same type of job you have early in their career?
You have to set yourself apart. There are good people in every industry who want it just as bad as you do. A good way to separate yourself is to be the hardest working person in the room. I learned working at Aronimink and Los Angeles Country Club that there’s competition at those places. Big staff, quite a few assistants, AITs, interns. I was willing to do whatever it took. I was willing to sacrifice my time, vacations, whatever. I worked probably every day through my summer internships at Aronimink. I didn’t really do the beach trips or the weekends off. If we wanted to get a night spray in on intermediates or tee boxes, I would come in with the assistant. He’d light the place up ahead of me and I would be spraying behind him. Try to make yourself the go-to person; make yourself part of somebody’s solution. The job is never finished. If you are that person who’s willing to do whatever it takes to make it better, then you can really set yourself apart and move up. I tried to take one or two trips back East a year and it was tied onto the Penn State Turf Conference or volunteering at Lancaster Country Club for the U.S. Women’s Open, Oakmont for the U.S. Open or Liberty National for the Presidents Cup.
Have the sacrifices you made been worth it?
I think so. I enjoy what I do every day. My fiancée thinks it’s weird sometimes how much I enjoy coming into work. I’m here six, seven days a week. It’s not work for me, though. I really do enjoy it. If we are doing something different on greens or testing out new equipment, that’s fun. When I’m trying to build a staff here or work with the guys under me, I want everybody to enjoy coming to work every day. Creating that environment and then having a lot of guys who take pride in their work, you can build something special and something that people want to be part of.
Do you wonder how long you can keep this pace?
I guess I have never really thought about how long I can keep this pace. I have a good bit left in me. I don’t quite worry about that yet. Who knows if you ask me that question 20 years from now or 30 years from now what I would say.
If someone had told you when you were a student at Penn State you would be the superintendent at a course such as Bel-Air Country Club by the time you were 28, would you have believed that would be your career journey?
I don’t know if I would have believed the journey. But I’d say, ‘Yeah. That’s the goal. That’s why I’m putting in the effort.’ When I was interviewing at Bel-Air, one of the things I said was that my whole career had been building up to this moment. That’s why I moved from the places that I did and worked for the guys that I worked for and volunteered as many tournaments as I could. Putting in all that time and the hours … it was building up to that moment. That’s everything you’re working for.
In 2008, I volunteered the U.S. Women’s Open at Saucon Valley. I had lunch during one of the day shifts with Mr. (Paul R.) Latshaw. At the time, I didn’t know who he was. I was 17 or 18. I was helping move plastic boards for mowers. The entire operation blew me away. I had never experienced such detail, passion and culture. It wasn’t until my roommate, an older gentleman and previous superintendent trying to get back into the industry, asked me if I could introduce him to Mr. Latshaw. At the time, I didn’t think much of it or understand it. When I was in school and working, and later working at Aronimink, I saw the articles and heard the stories of Eric Greytok, who hosted two major championships by 28, John Zimmers, Russ Myers, Paul B. Latshaw and Jim Roney. They all took superintendent jobs at a young age. It really opened the industry up for me and what I felt like was another level. I’m lucky enough now to have built relationships with these guys today, but they had set the bar for me then. They all had stacked resumes and put in the work. They gave it their all. I wanted that. It pushed me to network, work hard and volunteer at least one event a year.
Guy Cipriano is GCI’s editor.