Outdoor pursuits before the sun rises should be comfortable. In Florida, in July, it means a sweat-covered shirt and heavy legs.
When the sun rises, disease-signifying dew covers Bermudagrass and paspalum turf. Bugs buzz around faces and limbs. Drinking hot coffee for a jolt can be counterproductive.
If you work on a golf course open for play, everything better be working. Customers arrive at least 30 minutes prior to first formal tee time. They want tight turf with pleasing hues, and they want it early, because the weather becomes more unbearable as the day progresses.
The remainder of the day brings few respites. Storms roll in and out of posh places such as Palm Beach and Naples and Jupiter, making 5 p.m. feel like midnight. Orderly outdoor landscapes quickly become disorderly. The disorderly then must be returned to orderly by the time the beat-the-heat crowd tees off.
July in the Sunshine State served as the backdrop for Bayer’s “Focus on Florida” event. The gathering brought industry journalists, Bayer technical and sales representatives, and superintendents to southwest Florida for discussions and course visits.
For a company such as Bayer, the focus always needs to always be on Florida. The state supports close to 1,000 golf facilities and a 2013 Golf 20/20 report valued golf’s direct economy impact in Florida at $8.2 billion. More than 100,000 Floridians hold golf-related jobs.
Florida represents Bayer Golf’s highest-grossing sales state by a wide margin. The company’s golf product sales are double any other state, according to southern regional sales manager Mike Ruizzo. “It’s a tremendous, tremendous part of our business,” Ruizzo says.
Properly serving the state’s vast golf market requires serious corporate investment. Bayer, for example, has three area sales managers and technical specialist Todd Lowe based in the state. Lowe joined the Green Solutions Team last August after 18 years as a USGA Green Section agronomist. A large portion of Bayer’s research and development efforts occur in Florida, because a humid climate and seven-month rainy season means a “perfect storm” for pest infestations, says Southeast field representative Dr. Sheryl Wells. “If it’s a pest, we probably have it here,” Wells adds.
The sales managers and technical experts offer sport for superintendents and crews facing myriad challenges, ranging from extreme heat and moisture to the demanding snowbirds who flock to the state each month. Bayer area sales manager Zach Lane once tried describing the challenges he faced as a Florida superintendent in a contribution to Florida Green.
“Sometimes you don’t know what you have,” says Lane, who covers golf-fertile southwest Florida for Bayer. “Is it nematodes? Is it disease? Is a sprinkler not working? Is it Bermudagrass mites? You try to get focused and say, ‘I have not thought of everything.’”
Although many facilities cater to snowbirds from the Northeast and Midwest, the challenges exist year-round. Falling behind on a disease/weed/pest identification or solving a course infrastructure issue can put a superintendent in a vulnerable position when northerners flock south in November and December. Even at ultra-private clubs, winter play can exceed 200 rounds. Unlike in cool-weather regions, where active turf growth coincides with peak play periods, Bermudagrass growth in Florida slows when the volume of play increases.
“You have to be as good as you’re going to be by the end of September,” says David Dore-Smith, the director of golf course and grounds maintenance at Copperleaf Golf Club in Bonita Springs. “Once October hits, you can have overcast days and the Bermudagrass starts slowing down and not recovering. When it’s the shortest days of the year as far as sunlight and you’re getting 200 to 300 rounds a day divided by two for golf cart traffic, people are expecting perfection because they’re coming from up north where it’s lush, green grass.”
Dore-Smith participated in a “Focus on Florida” panel alongside TPC Treviso Bay’s Gregory Jack and Misty Creek Country Club’s Preston Stephenson. The trio has handled wicked storms such as Hurricane Irma and perplexing weeds such as Tropical signalgrass to develop longevity in a state where many superintendents were born and raised elsewhere.
Mike Meisenhelter is an Ohio native who has spent 11 years as a Florida superintendent. Establishing and using a professional network, Meisenhelter says, is critical to helping a superintendent understand weather cycles, pests, disease and weeds, and the state’s club culture.
“You have to be adaptable,” adds Meisenhelter, who hosted a “Focus on Florida” tour at the recently renovated West Bay Club, where he became superintendent late last year. “The biggest thing is to pick up the phone. Let’s say you’re coming from Wisconsin. You’re growing two different species of grass: cool season vs. warm season. Pick up the phone and ask somebody, ‘What are you doing here?’”
Longtime Lexington Country Club superintendent Laurie Frutchey hasn’t left Florida since enrolling at Florida State University upon graduating from a northeast Pennsylvania high school. Fitness represents her release from the rigors of managing turf and people in the state. Frutchey has completed an Ironman triathlon and runs regularly in the afternoon heat following summer shifts. “Some of those aggravations, you can run them out,” she says. “If you can spend six hours on a bicycle, you can pull another weed that day. You have a little more energy.”
The energy, along with a reliable industry network, allowed her to endure a 2018 outbreak of fairy ring on newly renovated greens. Frutchey spent hours observing, studying and attempting to control the disease on the greens. Members pressed her for answers that she didn’t have. She turned to others, including Lane and Lowe, for help. She made it to her 18th year in a rewarding job as Lexington’s superintendent. “Surround yourself with successful professionals,” Frutchey says, “and you can get through it.”
Poignant advice for succeeding in a big Florida business.
Guy Cipriano is GCI’s editor.