From one turfhead to another

From one turfhead to another

In his final regular contribution to GCI, Monroe Miller describes the path Dr. Kimberly Erusha took to land the USGA’s top agronomic position.

December 15, 2017

It was a somewhat startling statistic when I read it – there are more women enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences than men. Back in the early 1970s, I was a grad student teaching assistant in Soil Science 301 and there was rarely more than one or two young women in the class. The same could be said for most of the traditional agricultural classes. Today, in fact, there are more women in some of those same departments than men – and medical schools at some universities have more women than men, too.

And in my time in the military, it was rare to see a woman in any position other than nursing. Today, a future commander of my VFW Post, a lieutenant colonel, is a woman. She commanded a company in the 82nd Airborne Division, taught computer science at West Point for three years and is an Afghanistan veteran. Although she is near retirement, she heads the Army ROTC program at Wisconsin.

I have seen a lot of changes in opportunities for women, changes for the best.  My three children – all daughters – have experienced wonderful opportunities to be whatever they wanted to be. I’ve also noticed that often times women in formally all-male professions and positions present an attitude of “whatever you can do, I can do better!” And they are right. In the world of golf, I have seen a lot of change at golf courses and golf clubs. In my view, the game has been ahead of other segments of American life. At the club that employed me for almost 40 years, we’ve had women presidents and women’s organizations. I was there for the first female member of the green committee, and these days there would be a thought that they absolutely need to be part of that committee. Their positions in golf clubs reflect their positions in society. It has been a positive change for all of us.

We have had the LPGA for years, and I predict the day will come when women will compete on the PGA Tour. The USGA has many women events, and who can forget when Judy Bell was USGA president and represented golf so well. Our current president, Diana Murphy, completes her second year as president early next year. The executive committee and board will likely produce another woman as president in the future.

We have been a little slow, however, seeing women choose golf course management as a career. That may be why some were a little surprised when Dr. Kimberly Erusha was selected to succeed Jim Snow as managing director of the USGA Green Section. That was more a case of not knowing her rather than gender. Let me tell you a little about her.

Kim is pure Midwest. Walford, Iowa (pop. 275 in her youth) is her hometown. Her father was the banker in town and her mother was busy at home raising Kim, her three sisters and her three brothers. She credits her parents for her love of the outdoors, tagging along with her father when he was fishing or just working around their home. Her mother always had a large garden and her parents farm was located not far outside of town. 

Although Walford is just a short drive from the University of Iowa, Kim chose Iowa’s land grant college in Ames – Iowa State University. Iowa State was where her family traditionally attended college; five of her siblings are grads. She gravitated to science and math courses, and declared horticulture as a major. Dr. Nick Christians was her undergrad advisor and she selected turf as a specialty.

Kim claims not to be an “intellectual” and earned her good grades through hard work and study. Like most of her generation, a college degree was meant to lead to a job. After graduation, she went to work for a lawn care company in Des Moines. The “hands on” practical experience was valuable to her future career with the USGA Green Section.

After two years in the field, she called Christians about career options. It was a timely call. He had just visited with Dr. Robert Shearman of the turf faculty at Nebraska. When all was said and done, she matriculated to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an IPM program with Shearman.

Ever the banker’s daughter, she also started grad school since full-time employees could take classes for one dollar per credit! Her time at Nebraska resulted in a MS degree, immediately followed by a Ph.D.  Her career with the USGA Green Section began immediately following completion of her degree requirements.

Kim’s academic family tree is impressive. She was Shearman’s student; he was Dr. James B Beard’s student and Beard was Dr. Bill Daniel’s student. All are well known in our profession, and all are recipients of the USGA Green Section Award. Add in her undergrad advisor, Christians, and the result is a pedigree few can match.

Her interview with now retired Green Section national director Jim Snow was successful and she was hired as a technical writer for the Green Section. Her parents drove her to Far Hills, N.J., and helped her find a place to live. She started in November 1990. This was a time of a lot of turf research in the U.S., and we were beginning to see major changes in the way we get information. Kim has been at the forefront of information dissemination for the Green Section and the USGA. Starting as associate editor of the print edition of the Green Section Record to the multitude of information options available today, she has played a big part in the changes. Online resources have been especially important since the downturn in the economy and golf during the early 2000s. She quickly saw the curtailment in travel money for education and worked to offer options. Always willing to speak at conferences and meetings, she used the podium to “get the word out.”

From the early beginnings of Turfgrass Information File (TGIF) to every imaginable information source available in a superintendent’s office these days, Kim has been a moving force. From her view, the USGA and the Green Section exist to help develop better turf for better golf. She has been very successful in this mission.

Given her early career success, it was a wise move by the USGA to promote her to the managing director position in 2010 when Snow retired. And there was strong precedent for a woman directing and managing the Green Section in Dr. Fanny-Fern Davis. Davis, somewhat like Kim, started her time at the Green Section as a writer and editor. She also was a research botanist and an advisory specialist for the Green Section. In 1943, she became acting director of the Green Section and kept with it until 1945 when she resigned to take care of her ailing father and to raise her three children. She was honored with the Green Section Award in 1975. Not surprisingly, FFD was a child of the Midwest also, born in Illinois and educated in St. Louis.

Gertrude A. Farley is another woman who held a prominent place in golf turf, a decade-and-a-half before Davis. Although she only held a two-year degree, she was hired by the team of Drs. Piper and Oakley a little more than a year after the USGA Green Section was formed. She worked for the Cleveland Golf District and was the first of the local Green Section secretaries. Her book, “Golf Course Commonsense,” was the first turfgrass book written by a woman. I have a friend and colleague who was kind enough to loan me his copy of this rare book twice so I could read (and reread) it. Outstanding does not adequately describe this 1931 book.

Leading up to the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, the USGA featured a TV promo ad of an enthusiastic golfer playing in a foursome. Dressed in an argyle sweater and swinging her club with gusto, Kim was clearly enjoying the game. She was practicing the old Arnold Palmer saw, “hit it hard, go find it and hit it again.”

My wife and I had lunch with Kim and USGA Green Section agronomist Bob Vavrek on the first day of U.S. Open competition. She came into the food tent with a barrette in her hair to keep it out of her eyes, and she looked as though she had been working on the golf course. She had been since well before daylight!

Since the Green Section’s inception in 1920, the USGA has been committed to turf research and giving back to the game. It is not always noticed or popular, but the staff has stayed true to the course. The combination of research, course consulting and development of education multimedia are the foundation of everything the Green Section does today. There is no difference whether a golf course budget is large or small; the staff focus is to help golf facilities develop to their full potential. Kim is proud to be part of the Green Section department that works tirelessly for the improvement of golf.

I was good friends with former directors of the Green Section – Snow and Bill Bengeyfiel, and I knew Al Radko. All did an excellent job in the position, and Kim is cut from that same golf course turf swath. She has seven years in the position and I hope she has another 20 to go. Given her energy and enthusiasm, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Monroe Miller spent 36 years as the superintendent at Blackwhawk Country Club in Madison, Wis. He is the recipient of the 2004 USGA Green Section Award and the 2009 GCSAA Col. John Morley DSA Award. He started writing a regular column for GCI in 2009.