Craig McKinley keeps a couple beehives on the grounds of Bucks Run Golf Club in Mount Pleasant, in the geographic heart of Michigan, but he avoids wearing the coverall suit so often associated with apiarians. “I like to think they know I’m comfortable, so they won’t sting me,” he says, “but that’s not always the case.”
Apparently not. Around the rest of his work as golf course superintendent at Bucks Run, McKinley dropped by the bees one morning late last month and, while depositing one of the hives back into its box, received a stinger right in the throat. This is life for one of the more resourceful superintendents in the Great Lake State.
“We are a high-end daily-fee golf course, a destination course, so our expectations are high and the conditions need to be excellent,” McKinley says. Funds are not unlimited, though. “We’re not a mom-and-pop shop by any stretch, but we’re budget-conscious. I try to run a pretty tight ship.”
Hence the bees, whose honey is harvested, jarred and available for purchase in the pro shop. The years-long investment in vermicomposting, too, turning over food scraps from the Quarry Grill kitchen and the crew into totes full of worms, whose waste is brewed in nylon, mixed with molasses, and sprayed on the greens. Oh, and the pair of Alpine Nubian goats — named Roy McAvoy in honor of Kevin Costner’s roguish Tin Cup protagonist and, uh, John Daly in honor of, well, you know — who control protected wetlands on the property, munching brush and maintaining protected areas.
McKinley arrived at Bucks Run in 2013, an assistant superintendent for two years under Jeff Sweet, then essentially the acting superintendent for another three years. He headed south for a year to The Polo Fields Golf and Country Club in Ann Arbor before returning in February, lured back by “the scenery, the views, the wildlife,” he says. “There’s something about the family company we work for — and this property in general — that I’m just really connected to, and I bonded with it. This place has always been special to me.”
The Jerry Matthews-designed course opened in 2000, a little more than a decade after the old gravel quarry that once filled the site shut down for good. The Chippewa River runs through six holes. The manmade Lake Fisher covers 35 of the property’s 320 or so acres. “It’s just a beautiful place with really great people to work with and work for,” McKinley says.
“We’re not a mom-and-pop shop by any stretch, but we’re budget-conscious. I try to run a pretty tight ship.” — Craig McKinley
The budget provides a challenge, though, just like it does for so many superintendents around the state and the country. “Craig represents 90 percent of the guys I call on,” says Adam Garr, a territory manager for Syngenta who has helped McKinley develop agronomic progs at both Polo Fields and Bucks Run. “He’s not part of that 10 percent of private country club guys who have buckets of money. He has to be smarter with the resources he’s given.
“For guys like Craig, he wants to use Secure, he wants to use Posterity, but maybe he can only do two applications instead of three or four. It’s all about finding where those two apps work best into his agronomic calendar so he gets the most bang for his buck.”
McKinley first used Secure fungicide on fairways during his year at Polo Fields. He returned to Bucks Run too late to fill out his own order for 2019 but fortuitously found it on the list — he has an application scheduled for early July, about two weeks in advance of the club’s member-guest tournament July 13 and charity tournament four days later — and plans to keep it for 2020. The applications will help McKinley control dollar spot, the No. 1 disease facing Bucks Run.
“I’d always been a generic kind of guy,” he says. Then he discovered newer products, like Secure fungicide, that would integrate for added control. “Secure was a new chemistry for me, and it’s a good one.”
In addition to Secure, McKinley keeps a handful of what he calls “bangers” on hand — “the big clean-up sprays,” he says, “things I know are going to finish it off or get me back to where I need to be.” He uses 12 to 15 ounces per acre of Trimmit 2SC growth regulator to knock back Poa annua on the Providence bentgrass greens. He uses Primo Maxx growth regulator on the PennLinks/PennEagle fairways, too, and mixes it with Trimmit on the greens just prior to tournaments, “just to shut everything down.” Banner Maxx II fungicide is earmarked for fairways and tees. He used Posterity fungicide at Polo Fields — “I think I sprayed it down there September 4 and it made it clean all the way to the first week of November,” he says — and will return it to the rotation when he places his order for 2020.
McKinley also started to work with Daconil Action fungicide at Polo Fields, appreciating it for its effectiveness and its price tag. “The product’s good, the knockdown’s good, and the price is competitive enough where most golf courses can use it,” he says. “It’s not something that’s untouchable for most golf courses.”
“I see a lot of myself in Craig,” says Garr, who worked 12 years at Plum Hollow Country Club near Detroit, including the last six as superintendent, before starting with Syngenta in 2015. “I kind of inherited a program that had a lot of generics in it and they didn’t work too well. I was constantly dealing with dollar spot flareups, particularly on tees. I just couldn’t get it to go away. It wasn’t until I was introduced to products like Secure that I learned I could get two weeks of control out of something. I just needed to be educated that there were better options out there. I think Craig’s kind of living that out right now. His eyes were kind of opened last year and now he knows what to expect.”
Garr and McKinley have developed a friendship from their professional relationship, hanging out as often as can be expected of two turfheads separated by 150 miles of Michigan highways.
“Craig is just a great problem-solver,” Garr says. “I think he’s very responsible with the tools he’s given. He’s pretty resourceful, and I have a lot of respect for a guy who’s performing at that level — you know, maybe not having the budget of that high-end club. He’s the epitome of making it work with what he’s got and then some.
“He’s trying to do some new stuff. It’s just cool pulling into a place and seeing goats. It’s a good look.”
And during his second full year as a superintendent in both duty and title, McKinley is learning more about how to deal with problems on and off the course, how to make things work when they shouldn’t, how to push through and do a little more with a little less. “I’ve become a better administrator,” he says, “getting things to come together at the right time.”
Now if he would just protect himself from those bees.