Located in Doylestown, Pa., roughly an hour’s drive north of Philadelphia, Delaware Valley University is one of the smallest institutions in America to offer a degree in turf management. Undergraduate enrollment numbers approximately 1,700.
But the school is leaving a footprint in the industry as, over the past two decades, its graduates have established success in the field.
The university has historically emphasized agriculture. It was founded in 1896 as the National Farm School, subsequently becoming the National Agricultural College (1948) and Delaware Valley College (1960). It officially become Delaware Valley University on April 8, 2015.
Dr. Doug Linde oversees the university’s turf-management curriculum. A 1991 Delaware Valley graduate with a bachelor’s degree in agronomy and environmental science, Linde is the son of a golf course superintendent. His father tended to the turf at Wedgewood Golf Course, a well-regarded daily-fee facility located just south of Allentown, Pa., that opened for play in 1963 and is still in business today. When Linde arrived on campus as an undergraduate, he was planning to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“I came to DelVal to become a superintendent,” he says. “And when I was here, some of my professors said ‘Why don’t you go to graduate school? You did pretty well in school.’”
With his father’s encouragement, Linde went on to earn his master’s degree and doctorate from Penn State (both in agronomy). When he returned to his alma mater in 1996 to launch the turf management program, he relied heavily on his Penn State experiences and built a curriculum that had its foundation in the sciences.
“Our program here was going to be brand new,” Linde says, “and we wanted to keep it more science based; chemistry, biology, and we also had more applied sciences like soil and soil fertility.
“Having an understanding of those concepts really should help (students) in making their decisions, not only taking care of the turf, but also communicating with salespeople, whether they’re fighting them off or trying to get an understanding of what they’re trying to sell. Having a good, solid background in the sciences gives them that knowledge.”
Linde also brought with him a superintendent’s mindset.
“I can understand the superintendent culture because I lived it,” he says. “It gives you a lot of credibility and comfort. I’d rather be out talking with a superintendent than almost anywhere else. I just feel comfortable in that situation. Just by bringing that into the classroom, just by accident in a way, it kind of rubs off on the students and I think that’s the ideal situation.”
Linde’s philosophy fits with the university’s philosophy of providing students with an abundance of hands-on experience in their chosen field of study while they’re working toward their degree.
The Experience360 Program, as it’s now known (E360 for short), has existed in some form or another since the institution was founded. All university students are required to complete two E360 experiences to fulfill requirements for their degree, although they are strongly encouraged to complete more.
Those experiences might take the form of an internship, doing research or what is called career exploration experience. University president Dr. Maria Gallo says Linde has been instrumental in launching his students on their chosen career path.
“He does a fabulous job,” she says. “He takes a lot of time connecting the students with the industry, giving them advice on where to go for internships, they’ve had very prestigious internships over time. And he’s very proud of them getting jobs, nearly 100 percent of his students are employed.”
The turf program at DelVal features small classes, usually seven to 10 students per class, including students from related majors. The average student-teacher ratio at the university is 15 to 1.
Getting out in the field
Senior Colton Lesh hails from Newport, Pa., 25 miles north of Harrisburg. A turf management major, Lesh chose Delaware Valley in part because of its intimate atmosphere.
“It’s more hands-on learning,” he says, “and you get more time with Doc Linde in depth than you would from a lecture with 75 people in it.”
Lesh notes that feeling of intimacy extends well beyond the walls of the classroom. “You walk down the sidewalk (as a senior) and the teacher you had freshman year is going to know your name,” he adds. “I’ve had that happen to me. I think it’s pretty cool.”
Lesh completed an internship at Merion Golf Club last summer, assisting with the renovation of the historic East Course. One of his most memorable experiences there was assisting with the rebuilding of a green. He’s also interned at Navesink Country Club, a highly regarded private club in Middletown, N.J.
Lesh will leave Delaware Valley with his degree in May. His goal is to move into a superintendent’s position within 10 years.
The Delaware Valley campus features a putting green plus an abundance of open space and green grass. But what Linde relishes most of all is providing his students with a learning opportunity off campus.
“I try to take advantage of everything on campus,” Linde says. “Any grass, anywhere (on campus) we get the chance to inspect it. But the biggest advantage is taking the students, getting them out of the classroom, the lecture hall, and taking them to a site.”
Linde has abundance of destinations to choose from. There are some 70 golf facilities of all descriptions located within a reasonable drive. And because class sizes are limited, the logistics of getting the group to an off-campus site are simplified.
One trip was to Aronimink Golf Club in suburban Philadelphia during last fall’s BMW Championship. The students joined the crew on a Friday morning, working to make the golf course playable despite inclement weather.
Linde says his students were impressed by the efforts of Aronimink superintendent John Gosselin and his team. Nathan Frick was one of the students on the Aronimink trip. A junior from Lancaster, Ohio, Frick enjoyed viewing a PGA Tour operation up close.
“We got there really early,” he says. “We got there and we saw the whole process. We were there in the morning so we got to see how they organized all the people there and everything like that.”
Frick received hands-on experience on a bunker crew. “I was helping do the faces of bunkers,” he says. “We went out and we did that all morning and helped complete that. Then we just went around a little bit and kind of watched some golf before we went back to school.”
The experience renewed Frick’s appreciation for what turf professionals do on a daily basis. “I’ve had two internships, Frick adds, “so I know what goes on behind the scenes at golf courses and it’s a lot of work, but organizing that many people and having to get that much done all in a day for four straight days … It’s pretty incredible to actually see it in action rather than just knowing what has to happen.”
Linde notes that his students were spread out among different work crews, which provided opportunity to interact with industry professionals.
“Each crew had a leader and they were a professional, sometimes a salesperson or another superintendent,” Linde says. “They had plenty of time to talk turf and careers. All superintendents right now are recruiting anybody who has an interest, so they were actively getting recruited as well.
“I think the students felt the attention to detail and the need for people in the industry, because it’s a common theme and you could just sense it by everyone I talked, asking the students ‘Where do you work?’ What’s your future like?’
“Which is a great problem to have, not for the superintendents, but for our students. They’re going to benefit by all that and they’re at a perfect time to get into the industry right now.”
Helping plug industry shortages
That last point is worth noting because the pool of students seeking to make a career in turf management has been shrinking over the last decade and more.
“I’d say our peak was around 2005,” Linde says. “All the turf schools were probably at their peak at that point. And you don’t know you’re at the peak until you come down from it. 2008 kind of hurt golf overall, and kind of what happened is the upward mobility within golf maintenance slowed down. There were fewer golf courses being built, so there were less assistants moving on to their own places, so quite a few assistant superintendents were, not stuck, but at the same place for five, six, seven years and they said, ‘I can’t get my own place … I’ve tried, I’m going to get out.’ So, they got out and at the same time, less students started coming into the turf programs so most turf programs are half of what they were in 2008.”
Linde points out that DelVal’s turf-management program is larger than those at many land-grant universities. “Mainly because we accept a wider range of students than they do,” he says. “We can get them, and Penn State can get them as well. But some other universities are too restrictive on their entrance requirements. They’re losing their turf programs as a result.”
Linde notes the pool of students who are considering careers in the turf industry has shrunk in recent years. “Young people aren’t working on golf courses in high school,” he adds. “Either they don’t want to do it or the course is maybe not allowed to hire them, so they’re not getting exposure to this industry as a possibility for college Hopefully there will be some changes because there are groups out there like First Green through the GCSAA that are trying to use that program to inspire young people to see this as a potential career option.”
It’s been more than two decades since Linde chose academia as a career path rather than becoming a superintendent himself. Today, he derives his greatest satisfaction not only from helping his students prepare for a career in turf, but also from seeing them develop as people.
“Most of our students here are coming out of high school,” he says. “Watching them mature here, becoming better students, and finishing … And then I track all my graduates, where they work and keep that up to date. Just to see them advance on and I’ve got some who are a heck of a lot smarter than me now, and I’m really jealous and impressed. But that’s my role, to try to give them opportunities so they can develop into people that can help our industry. Like a proud father, I try to watch these graduates and where they are.”