Just do it!

Features - Turfheads Take Over

Sue de Zwart journeyed across the Atlantic during the 1990s. She returned home understanding the importance of volunteering and mentorship to turf industry success.

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December 10, 2021

© courtesy of sue de zwart

I will never forget the day Ted Horton at The Pebble Beach Company interviewed me. I had flown over to the United States from South Africa in 1996 to train to be a golf course superintendent.

I realized that I needed to do every task on a golf course myself in order to be a good leader back home. After two long interviews trying to convince Ted that I could do this, I flew off to Canada in pursuit of a work permit. If only I had known Mike O’Keeffe at Ohio State University back then! After three weeks, I finally got my work permit. Eric Johnson, then the superintendent at Spyglass Hill, needed to put this girl to the test.

I learned to load trucks with a backhoe, communicate in basic Spanish, operate a chainsaw and seed the roughs with the hit crew for my first month. I remember feeling so privileged to drag a hose pipe around for overtime. This was the only time I was allowed on the course itself. I then spent time working through the various pieces of equipment and absolutely loved it. Ted assigned me the task to do the legwork for the Audubon registration for Spyglass Hill. This is a great task for a student!

I was then moved to Pebble Beach, where I continued to learn about turf maintenance. Chris Dalhamer kindly allowed me to help him with the daily admin that punching assistants do. Mark Michaud loaned me books from his extensive turf library. Jack Holt sat patiently explaining turf nutrition. I used my time wisely as I knew I needed to learn as much as I possibly could in a short period of time.

The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am was the most incredible experience. The challenge of producing the ultimate playing surface along with this vibe was insane. I met celebrities for the first time — Kevin Costner, for one, while we mowed the 18th green. There was a four-ball from South Africa playing the AT&T. Little did I know Mr. Johann Rupert, the owner of Leopard Creek, would be my next boss.

I then had the opportunity to work my first Masters in 1997. This is where I met new mentors Marsh Benson and Brad Owen — thank you, both. I will be eternally grateful for wisdom and grits (with Brad at 4 a.m. at Waffle House). I remember arriving six weeks prior to the tournament and Brad asking me what he should do with me. I asked to be treated as one of the guys and never looked back.

I have been so blessed by the incredible people in the golf industry over the years. I want to encourage every girl out there to work hard and earn your place in this industry. My journey of being a superintendent at Leopard Creek for eight years, founding Talking Turf in 2006 and providing education to superintendents, distributing the Syngenta turf range to Southern Africa, maintaining sports fields and doing what I love with an incredible team would not have been possible without many hours of volunteering and awesome mentors along the way.

Thank you to every person I have had the privilege of working with thus far. I look forward to many more terrific years.

Sue de Zwart is the owner and founder of Talking Turf and the former golf course superintendent at highly regarded Leopard Creek Country Club in South Africa. This is her first Golf Course Industry contribution.