Minnesota map watchers

In the middle of a golf-crazed state, superintendents are required to demonstrate year-round mettle to handle weather extremes.

© Courtesy of RuttGer’s Bay Lake Resort

Imagine the legend of Paul Bunyan depicted with mower and hose in lieu of axe and ox.

Across the budding Brainerd Lakes golf region of Minnesota, 140 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, superintendents achieve their own Bunyan Land lore with a strength and mettle befitting a succinct season paired with brutal winters.

Ever ascending as a destination for players across the country, the area’s 30-plus courses are meeting heightened player demand with a combination of flexibility and fortitude.

For a golf season that runs from mid-April through late October, planning for fickle weather patterns doesn’t hurt either.

“I watch the weather constantly, always looking at the forecast ahead,” says Matt McKinnon, director of golf course maintenance at The Legacy Courses at Cragun’s Resort. “I use a lot of National Weather Service and Weather.com. I think it’s good to use multiple sources and then formulate your own opinion. You can’t just rely on one site. And I’ll use that every day — every hour of every day — and not just for open and close dates. We have to plan ahead constantly so I’m in a position to get the job done the following day and schedule my staff accordingly.”

In the homestretch of a massive, $10 million renovation and expansion project guided by Tom Lehman’s eponymous design firm, Cragun’s augmented golf land has McKinnon keeping watch on conditions and crew across a terrain that will soon sport the 27-hole Dutch Legacy Course, a reversible 9-hole par-3 layout and the Lehman 18 championship course.

“We’ve got over 400 acres of playable area and it can take almost 20 minutes to get from one point to the other,” says McKinnon, who has been at Cragun’s since 1998. “And when there are 35 of my crew members spread across this terrain and, say, a lightning storm pops up, it’s not just a matter of a quick call on the radio. It can be dangerous. I always have to be on the lookout, to care about my guys’ safety.”

Some Brainerd superintendents are forecast freaks. Others get freaked out with an omnipresent watch of the radar.

“I’ve been able to do this job a long time because I don’t stress over the weather constantly,” says Lucian Greeninger, superintendent at Madden’s Resort. “It’s probably why I’m not selling fertilizer or something at this point.”

Prepping for weather unknowns is a Minnesota known.

“You never know what you’re gonna get, can never plan on Mother Nature,” says Ed Thomas, superintendent at Deacon’s Lodge, part of Breezy Point Resort. “Some days, it’ll be a washout, some days it’ll be a drought. I do check the weather quite frequently, but never rely on the forecast, which can be a bad habit. I always need to have a contingency plan in place.”

Unlike popular golf regions in the West or Southwest with dependable weather patterns, Brainerd superintendents always need a backup in place.

“I can’t just show up the morning of and tell my crew, ‘OK, let’s do this or this today,’” McKinnon adds. “I need to have a plan the day before, and also have a Plan B in place just in case the top option isn’t gonna work.”

Top: Ongoing construction at Cragun’s Resort.
Courtesy matt mckinnon

To borrow a cross-sport reference from Bull Durham: “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”

“It’s always fluid,” says Dave Sadlowski, head golf professional at Ruttger’s Bay Lake Resort in nearby Deerwood. “Last year, we had the worst drought conditions I’ve ever seen. This year, coming out of a late spring, we had the most water I’ve ever seen. It’s about extremes. Our superintendent, Dale Lundgren, sometimes I don’t know how he sleeps at night.”

From popular, long-established resorts to a new kid on the block, the weather watch remains the same.

“I think a lot of it is water control,” says Brandon Myers, superintendent at the newly debuted Gravel Pit, a 13-hole par-3 course in Brainerd just two years removed from being, yes, an actual gravel pit. “I really watch the weather for when to turn the water off and being ready when to turn it back on. And making sure I have the right wetting agents is also key. I use one that penetrates and one that holds. I’ve tried every combination, tried using them separately, but this combination seems to do well in sand.”

Speaking of sand, Myers is breaking Gravel Pit’s maiden season with a unique threat all his own.

“There’s a turf disease, take-all patch, which actually originates in gravel pits. That’s persistent right now and we need to keep a watch on it daily,” he says. “The last chemical I used on it was a propiconazole, but I’ll soon start using something a little stronger.”

Deacon’s Lodge at Breezy Point Resort.
Courtesy matt mckinnon

Lake lease on life

Handling resort maintenance and golf grounds in concert is often the Brainerd norm, with lake country getaways an overnight staple. As spring temperatures (eventually) break for eager players, strong communication with members and guests proves paramount to prepping for a season debut.

“It takes a lot of good communication, even if it’s mildly technical, especially with our members,” Sadlowski says. “Whether that means email updates every week or three times a week, I need to let them know where we’re at, especially if they see other area courses opening a bit earlier. So, it’s important to educate them on the ‘why,’ which works best for everybody in the long run.”

For Greeninger, whose four-course count includes The Classic at Madden’s, the golf onus isn’t always on par with his additional responsibilities.

“I have 63 golf holes, and then all of the resort grounds,” he says. “So, along with the courses, that includes 2,000 feet of beaches, 100 annual flower beds, all the shrubs, all the resort landscape. Working those non-golf grounds can be more pressure than the courses are for me.”

Akin to staffing concerns across the country, keeping course maintenance crews intact for seasonal work presents its own challenges. Greeninger oversees a team of more than 50, though he says it “should be at 60,” including four full-time employees. The rest are seasonal.

“We patch that together each spring, which has been a challenge the last couple of years,” Greeninger says. “The retention is probably about 75 percent and a lot of them don’t mind the seasonal aspect. My guys in key spots, like my second assistant, spray techs, irrigation guys, they’ll be back here April 1 regardless of the weather. The rest of the maintenance crew will start dependent on the weather.”

Thomas has a staff of 20 at Deacon’s Lodge, half of whom are part-timers and half of whom are full-time seasonals. Come winter? He’s on his own.

“Get it all in across the other six months,” Thomas says. “There’s a lot of prep work in fall, and then catching up on everything else as we ready to open in spring. I have some international members on my crew, and I also rely a lot on the retired market looking for a little something to do in the mornings; mostly mowing jobs, get in and get out. And then college kids who are good for three or four years with the more hands-on labor jobs before they’re moving on.”

Courtesy of Deacon’s lodge

Let it snow, let it snow ... but not freeze!

As winterizing sets in, much of the grueling work begins for the Brainerd superintendents.

“The toughest days are the days we blow out the irrigation system,” McKinnon says. “I’ve done it in sub-20-degree weather. It’s no fun. You’re dealing with water, of course, and we’re on a big property. It’s six guys working 10-hour days for two days to get it done. We’ve done it in the snow, done it in the rain, done it in freezing temperatures. If you aren’t prepared, you’re not going to have a good day.”

Along with addressing wetlands, winter responsibilities also equate to tree season.

“We do a lot of winter work on the course. For us, winter means trees,” McKinnon adds. “We’ll trim, cut down anything that’s dead or dying, and burn piles of wood we cut during summer.”

With climates across the country less predictable than ever, the Northwoods holidays aren’t always cloaked in postcard snow anymore.

“And then we have ice, which is our worst nightmare,” McKinnon continues. “Last year, it rained well over an inch December, so I did have some turf death in the fairways here and there. You have to keep your guard up. You just don’t know. You’d think that in the middle of December, at 30 degrees, you wouldn’t have to worry about rain. After that rainy day, we squeegeed every green or fairway that had any standing water.”

As the Gravel Pit readies for its first post-play off-season, its superintendent does have some concerns about the site’s lack of drainage.

“We have such undulated greens out here that, with the runoffs, we saw some ice buildups heading into our first season,” Myers says. “So, we shaved down the front of the greens, mowing into the fringe or low areas to allow the water to penetrate past that instead of turning into a dam.”

Snow mold prevention is the norm for most, if not all courses, while philosophies generally run akin with deep tining of greens.

“We topdress greens before putting them to bed, we cover some greens, including all our new greens last year,” McKinnon says. “Over time, we’ve dabbled with the covering of greens. If you know that a particular green will blow the snow off and be open to the elements, … it’s not something you want. But the chances of that are pretty slim. I mean, last year, we had hip-deep snow on the course.”

At Madden’s, Greeninger has experienced success with sandbagging green edges to combat winter runoff. “We don’t cover the greens,” he says. “At courses I’ve worked at before that used the impermeable covers or evergreen mats, that always made me a little nervous. I’ve come to the conclusion that the big advantage to using the covers is the jumpstart it gives you in the spring. But I was always thought about the gas exchange, and the impermeable covers kinda go against that.”

Despite its taut golf seasons and harsh winters, the Brainerd region is well-reputed for retaining its superintendents at the same locales for decades. Like the tale of Paul Bunyan, it’s a narrative where the strong survive.

“To be a super up here you have to love the outdoors, like a bit of cold weather and have some thick skin,” Thomas says. “Although the skin does get a little thinner the older you get.”

Judd Spicer is a Palm Desert, California-based writer, Minnesota native and senior Golf Course Industry contributor.

September 2022
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