Betting on bentgrass

Features - Cover Story

How leveraging numbers, experience and relationships led to Desert Mountain bringing cool-season turf to every acre of an Arizona course.

October 3, 2019

Desert Mountain Club director of agronomy Shawn Emerson and team managed to grow 52 acres of bentgrass in the desert thanks to years of research and a perfect microclimate.
© Steve Thompson, Desert Mountain Club

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.

Alex Ward moved over to course superintendent at Renegade this year after a dozen years at Apache.
© Matt LaWell

“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.

Alex Ward

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.”

Shawn Emerson

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.

One big benefit of bentgrass? Renegade will no longer need annual overseeding, which cost more than $400,000.
© Matt LaWell

“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.

Ryan Williams

“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.”

Desert Mountain sits south of Tonto National Forest, which gained its designation in March 1907, five years before Arizona became a state.

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.