Healthy turf in a hilly home

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Eric Materkowski’s path to maintaining elite playing surfaces at a Pittsburgh gem rolled through the region he once wanted to leave.

August 1, 2019

Eric Materkowski is in his sixth season at St. Clair Country Club.
@ Bayer

Western Pennsylvania or Arizona? Eric Materkowski received a glimpse of the desert and a booming golf community, and he figured a stint as an intern at Ventana Canyon in Tucson represented a prelude to a sunny future.

Out with hills, winter and tight, paved roads. In with mountains, year-round golf and off-road Jeep excursions.

On his way to desert permanency in the mid-1990s, Materkowski returned to his Indiana, Pa., home and spent one evening walking around Indiana Country Club, the small-town private course that sparked his interest in turfgrass management. Materkowski spotted the club’s new superintendent, Mark Leppert, spraying Poa annua surfaces with assistant superintendent Tobin Ross. Introductions were made, conversations commenced. Leppert offered Materkowski work.

A nice gesture. But Materkowski considered accepting the offer impractical because of tasks he needed to juggle before returning to Wooster, Ohio, to complete his Ohio State ATI requirements. “Mark hired me anyway,” Materkowski says.

Western Pennsylvania or Arizona? Materkowski finished school and contemplated a return to Ventana Canyon. Uncertainty about the position he would be filling led to Materkowski asking Leppert for guidance. Leppert suggested Materkowski join the Indiana CC team as an assistant until the situation in Arizona settled.

Something unexpected then happened on Materkowski’s journey to warm-weather turf. He noticed a GCSAA advertisement for the superintendent job at Armco Golf Club, a steel company-owned course 50 miles north of Pittsburgh. Materkowski applied for the job, nailed an interview and landed the position. He was 24. He was a head superintendent at a private club. He wasn’t returning to Arizona.

Seven memorable years at Armco and two other head superintendent stops at Pittsburgh-area clubs later, Materkowski has developed into an advocate and resource for colleagues in a competitive private club market. The region’s members like their Poa annua greens to be as slick and smooth as the ice Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby glides on.

Unlike a climate-controlled NHL rink, though, a golf course, is a perplexing, evolving and enthralling ecosystem. Materkowski has ascended to the superintendent position at 103-year-old St. Clair Country Club, a flourishing 27-hole, 265-acre facility in the city’s South Hills. The suburban neighborhood surrounding the course is appropriately named. St. Clair features uphill and downhill shots and views wherever a golf can possibly land. The terrain provides varied playing experiences even for a membership that spans generations. It also produces daily maintenance conundrums.

“If you talk about Pittsburgh golf, you can’t understate topography,” Materkowski says. “When you’re dry, your high points are dry. When you’re wet, your low points are wet. That gives you microclimates on a micro, micro level.”

A Pittsburgh summer can flip from wet to dry, or dry to wet, almost as fast as Crosby can skate from blue line to blue line, leaving intensely managed turf vulnerable to myriad disease, including anthracnose, dollar spot, brown patch and Pythium. St. Clair receives few respites in June, July and August. Member play can exceed 150 rounds on a busy summer day and the club attracts Monday afternoon outings because of its sterling reputation and elite conditions.

Satisfying ball roll demands requires a relentless maintenance regime. Greens are maintained at around 1/10th of an inch. The height of cut isn’t much different than what Materkowski used at previous stops, but the stresses placed on greens have never been higher. The St. Clair team mows and rolls daily during the peak season. Materkowski calls St. Clair’s fertility and water management programs “leanish,” with soil moisture meter readings determining irrigation decisions. Growth regulators keep greens in fast-putting condition longer, although Materkowski says the slower recovery rates add “another layer of stress.” Frequent sand topdressing, opens additional wounds and bruises on greens.

At a high-end club such as St. Clair, other playing surfaces are nearly managed to the same levels. Fairways are mowed six days per week, and Materkowski has added fairway rolling to the routine.

Twenty-four years as a head superintendent – Materkowski spent 10 years at Wildwood Country Club, a private facility in Pittsburgh’s North Hills, before accepting the St. Clair job in 2013 – means Materkowski handles biotic and abiotic stresses with a resolve that permeates among a 35-worker crew. The bulk of his agronomic program at St. Clair stems from what proved successful at Wildwood. Materkowski and a key member of his team, assistant superintendent Martin Albright, worked together at Wildwood.

The way Materkowski sees the industry, people are the most important tool for helping a superintendent handle turf stress and disease. His network includes numerous confidants, including Bayer area sales manager Darrin Batisky. Materkowski and Batisky met in 2001 when Batisky accepted a superintendent job at a Pittsburgh-area private club. The relationship has led to Materkowski incorporating versatile products designed to prevent biotic and limit abiotic stress into St. Clair’s program.

“First of all, people like Darrin know their products better than anybody,” Materkowski says. “In addition to that, they see what’s working and what’s not working. They talk to a lot of people and they can save you some heartache and disease by sharing with you something that has been more successful than something else.”

Knowing Materkowski was seeking a multi-use SDHI to treat fairways after an effective product left the market, Batisky introduced Materkowski to Exteris Stressgard, which combines fluopyram, a next-generation SDHI active ingredient, with the QoL trifloxystrobin. Batisky encouraged Materkowski to initially apply Exteris on six acres of championship course fairways, a large enough playing surface to compare it to the product Materkowski was spraying at the time. Materkowski tweaked rates and observed the turf’s response. The results convinced him to make a full-fairway application. “We had continued success and good results,” he says. “At that point it goes in the toolbox.”

Corporate and personal trust allow Batisky to help superintendents handle situations such as the one Materkowski faced with limited-use SDHI products on fairways. “The Bayer brand transcends me,” Batisky says. “With a brand strength like that, people are willing to try something because they know it’s been tested and they know our formulations work. We’re not going to lead them astray.

“Bayer is my employer, but I feel my brand is also strong with being a superintendent and being in the industry for 30-some years. That helps. I still have to eat, breathe and wake up every morning and maintain that brand of my own. I try to be practical and be somebody who they can rely on. Just dropping off a 2 ½-gallon jug doesn’t help people sometimes.”

Stressgard products are a staple of St. Clair’s program, with Signature Xtra, Mirage, Fiata, Interface and Tartan also being applied on a variety of surfaces. The relationship with Batisky and applications of proven solutions help Materkowski when he needs the most support – late July and early August.

“The turf is worn out, the roots are shrinking, it’s had every disease and insect thrown at it, it’s had a lot of traffic, and growing conditions aren’t great,” Materkowski says. “That’s where Stressgard products come in. It’s the help from Stressgard that helps you get across the finish line. I take a vitamin every morning. I don’t know if I need it or not, but it’s so easy to throw a vitamin in my mouth every morning. That’s one of the things you get from Stressgard. It’s just moving the dial a little bit further from the stress.”

Pittsburgh summers – and winters – contrast anything Materkowski would have experienced in Arizona, where the daily, weekly, monthly and annual weather is more predictable. But lasting memories, including living with his wife, Cara, and newborn son, Ian, on the second floor of the Armco clubhouse are a result of staying close to home. Now 18 and a recent high school graduate, Ian is part of the St. Clair crew. Materkowski and Cara also have a 16-year-old daughter, Zoe. The family has settled nicely in the South Hills.

Staying in western Pennsylvania also allowed Materkowski to establish a giant extended family. Materkowski proudly admits most of his close friends are associated with the industry and he relishes opportunities to talk turf with anybody willing to listen.

“The whole industry is like a job and hobby if you do it right,” he says. “You won’t explain it to your family, you won’t explain it to your friends. Nobody will understand your job. But you can’t let that be important to you. If you love it, and wake up and find being on a golf course super rewarding, then you’re in the right field.”

Bayer’s Darrin Batisky and Paul Giordano are key parts of Eric Materkowski’s professional network for turf stress and disease control.
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