A spring of sacrifice and solidarity

Features - Cover Story

Making the case, lending a hand, working solo and taking the office home. The stories behind the incredible effort to keep golf going.

June 2, 2020

More than half of all golf courses across the country were still closed when March turned into April. So many governors were still relaying updates during daily news conferences back then. Feels almost like another life.

Now, though, with May having ceded the calendar floor to June, an astounding 97 percent of courses are open — at least in some modified capacity — according to the National Golf Foundation. Tee times are staggered, cups are lined with pool noodles or some other novel solution, and carts are more likely than not limited to a single golfer. “Nobody cares,” says Scott Thayer, superintendent at Legends Golf Club in Prior Lake, Minnesota, about 30 minutes southeast of downtown Minneapolis. “Everybody just wants to get out of their homes.”

We will tell the stories of this spring (and perhaps this summer, fall, winter and maybe even next spring) for the rest of our lives. Here in the pages of Golf Course Industry, the pandemic will probably pop up again and again for years. For now, though, we look back at the early days, when we were all figuring out everything together, and celebrate great work.

The case for golf

For better and worse, we are a nation that loves our sports. Not all of us, of course, but more than enough to sustain no shortage of professional leagues and collegiate associations, our weekends filled with team colors, televisions and tickets. But what happened when all those leagues shuttered, suddenly providing far more free time? Many of us went outside for a walk, and some of us carried our clubs with us.

Golf seemed to receive more attention this spring — most of it good, a small percentage of it not — and more superintendents were probably interviewed by local newspapers and camera crews than ever before. We were (and still are) a nation without many of our sports, and we still want them.

Many of those stories focused on the challenges tackled by all sorts of courses. How did California superintendents handle the largest statewide shutdown in the country? How did those in Illinois deal with what sure looked like government micromanagement? Why was New Hampshire, of all spots, the last state to open? And how did Minnesota become the only state where even basic maintenance was banned?

The easy answer to that last question is that Governor Tim Walz issued a statewide stay at home executive order on March 25, with only essential workers permitted at their workplaces and offices — and course maintenance was not considered essential. Everybody needed to be off the property by midnight two days later.

“A lot of things race through your head,” Thayer says. “‘Am I not going to see this place for a while? What’s going to happen to it with nobody here?”

Officials in Minnesota, whose state capitol is pictured above, temporarily halted golf course maintenance.
© Rebecca | adobe stock

Thayer is also the current president of the Minnesota GCSA and after Legends Golf Club closed its doors, he immediately transformed into a lobbyist, working with executive director Jack MacKenzie “to put up a fight for maintenance.” His days were filled with conference calls, reaching out to state senators and legislators — and, of course, teaching his three children, ages 8, 9 and 9, alongside his wife, Rosalyn. “Everything was happening so fast,” he says, “our heads were spinning.”

Thayer says he hoped to be back on the course inside two weeks. The maintenance ban lasted less than 12 days. “It was such a relief,” Thayer says. “It felt like everything we did to talk with our legislation worked. It felt like we were heard.”

Courses closed in Michigan, but at least Governor Gretchen Whitmer never brushed aside maintenance at the state level. Plenty of challenges remained, most notably the interpretation of an executive order that limited superintendents and crews to “minimum basic operations.”

“What are minimum basic operations?” Michigan GCSA executive director Adam Ikamas says. “Only doing what you have to do? That’s implying that superintendents have been doing things they don’t need to be doing, which just isn’t the case. Golf course superintendents aren’t known for wasting time, money, staff, opportunity. So how do you define what you can cut out of that?”

Much like Thayer, Ikamas lived on his laptop and his phone — so much so that for a while, he measured how busy his days were by how many times his phone battery died. (The record was three.) Ikamas and his Michigan Golf Alliance counterparts talked often enough that they scheduled a permanent virtual meeting — first on GoToMeeting before switching to Zoom — turning on their cameras and unmuting their microphones whenever they needed to relay information or ask questions. One of the more frequent questions, especially near Detroit, an early COVID-19 hot point, was whether playing golf and operating the course was safe.

“I started asking them, ‘Would you right now go play golf with someone you knew had COVID-19? Or would you play golf behind a group with someone who had a confirmed asymptomatic case?’” Ikamas says. “If you say yes to that, that you’re comfortable, OK, go for it. But if you can’t say yes to that, I’m not sure how you can say the golf course should be open.”

Even when courses were opened in the state, architects like Chris Wilczynski were prohibited from overseeing construction. Golf course architecture was lumped with construction, which was shut down, rather than with landscaping, which was not. Wilczynski still traveled regularly two hours north to Alma, outside Lansing, where he was tasked with developing a master plan (he drove and walked the course alone), but he missed a renovation opening in Florida and was in limbo for weeks on a renovation project at Blythefield Country Club in Belmont, just outside Grand Rapids and a regular stop on the LPGA Tour.

The Tour had postponed the Meijer LPGA Classic, held at Blythefield since 2014 — which would have compressed loads of work into late fall and early spring — before ultimately cancelling the event. Now “this is probably the perfect summer to get this project done and have it all ready for the tournament and the membership next year,” Wilczysnki says. “If there’s ever a year to go in and destroy a golf course and rebuild it, this is it.”

There are far greater challenges than renovating a course or lobbying elected officials — for starters, Ikamas and Wilczynski also helped teach their children, ages 3 and 7, and 12 and 17, respectively — but they handled the challenges that faced them, and they prevailed. Lots of people in this industry did.

Plenty of challenges remain, but amid a landscape devoid of so many of tentpole events, golf has answered the first call — raising tens of millions of dollars for various COVID-19 funds has helped — and shined.

Member volunteers are contributing to the maintenance of Kitsap Golf and Country Club.
© courtesy of jason krogman

Lending a hand

More than 40 million people filed for unemployment this spring, a staggering number that creeped into every industry. But wherever superintendents found themselves shorthanded, they normally also found themselves with ever-growing groups of folks willing to chip in. Club presidents and club pros, at least one PGA Tour pro (and maybe more) and plenty of members — some of them septuagenarians and older — all showed off their maintenance chops this season.

At Bluejack National in Montgomery, Texas, about an hour northwest of Houston, director of agronomy Eric Bauer relied on his new president and general manager, Brett Schoenfield, more than he ever imagined he would.

“Crazy,” Bauer says, “he just shows up in February and then COVID-19 hits. What a challenge. But we’re here to support him and he turns around and supports all of us department heads. He just said, ‘Eric, what can I do?’

“‘Well, Brett, what do you know how to do?”’

“‘I used to mow when I was younger.’

“‘OK, man, you only have to ask once.’

“Some guys might be resistant to that, but I looked at it as an opportunity to show somebody who makes a lot of the decisions that I’ll need to get approved, pay raises or staffing or things like that, why we might need things.”

Bauer has paid that drive forward for years, long before he arrived at Bluejack in 2014, sometimes starting his day as early as 4:30 a.m. when his project list is long enough.

“If I have to get on a mower and mow, I’m mowing,” Bauer says. “These guys come in at 6:30 and see me here for two hours, they’re like, ‘OK, I’m ready to work.’”

At the Country Club of Lexington in South Carolina, superintendent Christopher DeVane received plenty of help from head pro Steven Hartwig in orchestrating a pair of Member Maintenance Mondays, an event normally scheduled once or twice every year but bumped up to consecutive weeks in late April because of need. More than 40 people signed up for the first Monday. Nearly 60 actually showed up — many with their own equipment and trucks.

Superintendent Ben Ellis has worked in solitude for extended stretches at Fort Belvoir Golf Club.
© courtesy of ben Ellis

“Whatever they needed, they brought it,” DeVane says. “These guys are all in their 60s to 80s, and they’ve been very helpful.”

Assistant pros Chris Miller and Ryan Murphy helped out, as did Sam Cheatham, a former Clemson University extension agent who leads the senior group that normally tees off three days each week and is so engrained in the area that his name is among those on the Midlands Turfgrass Association annual scholarship. PGA Tour player Wesley Bryan was out, too, “and pretty excited about doing some underbrushing,” DeVane says. “He and his brother George have been having a lot of matches out here. He’s a local guy, a South Carolina graduate, who moved back in the last few years. He plays and practices out here. Not something you see every day, a PGA Tour player coming out, right in there trying to clear out some brush. I had to tell him specifically he was not getting a chainsaw — and he wanted one, he was so bummed out. ‘Your agent will thank me for not giving you a chainsaw.’”

In Bremerton, Washington, across Elliott Bay from downtown Seattle, Kitsap Golf and Country Club has enjoyed similar work party programs ever since superintendent Jason Krogman arrived more than three years ago — and attendance has surged in recent months. The biggest factor is a severe reduction in crew hours, just 480 for May, which Krogman budgets to out about 14 per day.

“We’re leaning on our volunteers to get some stuff done, some of the smaller stuff, the non-technical work that needs to get done on the golf course,” Krogman says. “We’ll get 25, 30, 40 members and just go to town, whether it’s weed-eating, going in and doing brush clearing, cutting down some trees, chipping branches, pulling weeds, reconstructing flower beds, all that kind of stuff.” The volunteer hours are at least matching, if not exceeding, the crew hours.

“That’s what this club is,” Krogman says. “They tend to pride themselves on not being one of the big clubs, not being one of the big swanky players. I’ve been in this business for 23 years, and you never really see what I see here.”

Krogman shared an image of 76-year-old member Tom Danaher showing up one Saturday with his own mower, string trimmer and gasoline. The tweet has more than 2,300 likes and has granted Danaher, the son of a superintendent, some moderate fame. “He’s been one of my biggest advocates, one of my biggest supporters,” Krogman says, “because he understands the work that goes into what we do and why we do it.” Janie Finifrock is younger than Danaher and has similarly taken charge of all the flower and landscape beds.

“People just want to help,” Krogman says.

If you’re lucky enough to have some extra volunteers this season, perhaps heed at least one bit of advice: “You have to have a list of projects that you want to get completed,” DeVane says, “because we found out the first day we had to rein some folks in who brought their own chainsaws. I’m an advocate of removing a lot of trees from a golf course, but I also don’t think we need to clear-cut the place. Just have a list of projects you want to get done and set up crew leaders with what they need. They’re energetic and gung-ho about doing this stuff. They get a big kick, a big charge out of doing this, a big feel-good.”

Working solo

Nothing can be accomplished without solitude.

Pablo Picasso said that, in Spanish at least, nearly 90 years ago, and the translation still rings true. Ben Ellis quoted the artist on his Facebook page in late March, when he was starting a stretch of nearly three weeks without a crew on the two courses and more than 350 acres of Fort Belvoir Golf Club in northern Virginia, about 20 minutes southwest of the White House. He had no idea how long he would be alone, just that he would be.“Everyone is so unsure of everything,” he says. “We’re just trying to take it one day at a time.”

Fort Belvoir is the flagship golf course of the U.S. Army. Neither Ellis nor any of his crew members are active military or funded by taxpayers, but they were slated to be paid whether or not they worked. Ellis says they all wanted to continue, but safety measures prompted him to mow solo, working as many as 80 hours per week. He received some help from his general manager, Tim Coolican, and the fort fire chief, Shane Crutcher, both of whom were cleared to work on the grounds.

“You can do your job and be in your own world,” he says. “It’s not that bad as long as you can keep up with it, but the second you get a warm spell and the grass starts popping, especially coming out of the winter months, it starts to get a little tough. I haven’t had the opportunity to take a day off.” Days start with a 4:30 a.m. pot of coffee, followed by runs on a greens mower, fairway mower or sprayer.

Fort Belvoir is a special place for Ellis, who grew up on the grounds while his father, Lee, served in the Army and eventually retired with the rank of sergeant first class. The golf course provided him with his first industry job, and he was “fortunate enough to come back 15 years later,” he says. “Some of the guys who trained me are still here on the staff.” Seeing it empty — it closed March 21 — is “odd.”

“The wildlife is almost taking back over,” Ellis says. “Nobody is bothering the foxes all day long. You’re almost afraid to bring your dog because the foxes want to play.”

Even with his crew back, challenges remain for Ellis. Fort Belvoir is still in the midst of a hiring freeze, which means summer crew members won’t start until the first week of July at the earliest. The ride home, too, is back to at least an hour after being trimmed to 40 minutes without as much traffic.

Richard Buckley brought his Rutgers University lab equipment home to continue serving the turf industry.
© courtesy of Richard buckley

Andrew Tenholder and Chris Salek experienced similar issues of social distance.

Salek is the superintendent at Wandering Creek Golf Club in Marshalltown, Iowa, 50 miles northeast of Des Moines, and also worked solo earlier this season. “Lord help me!” he wrote. “One day at a time, seven days a week, and all the while thankful for being able to work.”

Tenholder, meanwhile, is the second assistant superintendent at The Ridge at Castle Pines, about 20 miles southeast of downtown Denver. He found himself working alongside only the club mechanic for a few weeks earlier this season.

“At that time, we were in the initial stages of spring cleanup and had not had a mow on anything yet,” he says, adding that his days normally stretch from 4:30 a.m. past 5 p.m. “This is still my first season in the management role and it’s been weird because of a limited staff and budget. I’m constantly learning and pushing every day to become a superintendent ultimately down the road for myself.”

Odds are he accomplished plenty by himself to keep reaching for that goal.

New office hours

Richard Buckley has worked in various states of solitude during his decades as the director of the Plant Diagnostic Lab and Nematode Detection Service at Rutgers University. Turn on some Grateful Dead and tune out the rest of the world.

Since the university shut down its physical campuses in April, though, Buckley has worked in total solitude, studying submitted samples in a satellite lab he set up in his extra bedroom. Yes, his extra bedroom.

Buckley and his assistant, Sabrina Tirpak, worked around various restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic since March 1, but they were still permitted on campus until April 10. After that, “we were kicked out,” Buckley says. “They closed down all the research, everybody. No one could come on campus unless you had something critical.”

Buckley and Tirpak discussed applying for an agronomy exemption, “but both of my bosses up the chain are plant virologists and they were, like, ‘No way,’” Buckley says. “They’re concerned about the whole situation.”

Early spring is a slower season for Buckley and Tirpak, but they wanted to continue to provide support for the industry, “so as soon as the deans started talking about closing us,” Buckley says, “we were scrambling for ideas.” Their best option, like so many other Americans, was to just work from home.

Buckley packed a dissecting microscope, a compound microscope and an inverted microscope he uses for nematode counts, along with various slides, beakers and other various equipment, and carted it home. It now shares space with a queen bed in a room about one-tenth the size of his lab.

Challenges emerged during the first week of remote work. How would Buckley and Tirpak exchange samples and enter information into the database — especially with Tirpak set up with a centrifuge and nematode-washing equipment in her garage about 30 miles away? The duo texts images of submission forms and sends email attachments of various letters, and will likely be in near-constant contact as the busy season starts up in late June or early July.

And how would superintendents and other industry professionals submit samples when the lab is not only closed but access to the grounds is prohibited? “All of the mail that would come to our lab has been transferred to the central post office on campus, and they let us come pick that up,” Buckley says. “We got some samples that way, but we’ve also had golf course superintendents contact us directly. Our emails are on the website.” One superintendent mailed samples to Tirpak at her home and another dropped off some on Buckley’s porch. “That’s an option, too,” Buckley says with a laugh. “If they contact us directly, we can work with them to meet whatever needs they have.”

Rutgers has already canceled all classes and events on its campuses into August, and Buckley is prepared to work from his unique home office for the long haul. He leaves his home maybe once a week for groceries and other supplies, and more frequently for his solo bike rides. He picks up samples from the central post office. Outside of those activities, “I’m keeping my head down,” he says. “I heard a guy say, ‘You can’t get sick if the virus can’t find you.’”

Finding his lab equipment will be far easier.