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Features - Maintenance for the masses

A day at a busy New Jersey facility begins with headlamps. It ends with tremendous satisfaction.

April 2, 2020

Neshanic Valley Golf Course features 27 regulation holes, a 9-hole academy course and spacious practice facilities.
© courtesy of neshanic valley GC

Neshanic Valley Golf Course epitomizes what municipal golf can be. Located in Neshanic Station, New Jersey, 25 miles north of Trenton and 50 miles west of midtown Manhattan, it’s considered one of the finest municipal golf facilities in America and the crown jewel of the Somerset County assortment of five golf courses. The property features 27 championship holes plus a 9-hole academy course and expansive practice facilities.

The club was the site of the 2012 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links, the last ever held, and regularly hosts state and regional championship events. Last year, it hosted the 118th New Jersey State Golf Association’s Amateur Championship.

Andrew Hojnowski oversees it all in his role as manager of golf course maintenance. In the 13 years he’s been at Neshanic Valley, Hojnowski, who graduated from Penn State in 2001, has developed a knack for making the most of his resources, such as the dollars in his budget and his inventory of chemicals, and utilizing his staff (28 in-season including himself) to full effectiveness, with the goal of providing the best possible conditions for the 40,000-plus golfers who tee it up at the club each year.

“Our strategy is to use every year and build on our experiences over previous years as we go,” Hojnowski says. “We have a template that we go off for my course and the other four courses have slightly different ones. We all follow our templates that we’ve worked on for the last 15 to 18 years and have been improving year upon year. We keep it simple to keep the cost down.”

Hojnowski, who reports to Darrell Marcinek, the county’s director of golf maintenance, must keep an especially close eye on his budget, which is allocated at the county level on a calendar-year basis.

“Our budgets are set in the beginning of the year,” he says, “and we have to stick to them. Money is only given out at certain times of the year. We don’t have access to it all at once if we have a major problem. We can’t always get the money we need to fix things right away like some other courses are able to or replace a piece of equipment if it goes down. We have to make do with what we can get our hands on from the other four courses if we need to at times.”

Hojnowski has developed a set of strategies to help his team complete jobs efficiently and provide quality conditions while minimizing intrusions on play. On summer weekends, for instance, play starts at 6 a.m. but his crew is on the course an hour before then.

“We start our day pretty early compared to a few other operations I’ve been at,” he says. “Everybody’s got a headlamp here. Every machine I have has headlights on it. You don’t find that at every golf course.”

The golf complex spans some 350 acres (with 70 additional acres set aside for future parkland use) but Hojnowski notes that he and his team have mastered the art of getting from one point to another as expeditiously as possible. “Knowing the property is a huge advantage for me and my staff,” he says, “and knowing what routes to take to get jobs done as quickly as possible and how to get things done quickly without impeding golf.”

Hojnowski says that over the years some tasks have been streamlined or even eliminated in the name of efficiency.

“It’s what’s worked in the past and seeing what we can get away with without losing quality,” he says. “We’re always trying to improve our resources and have better equipment to work with to make things go quicker.

“We’ve had to stop doing things like walk mowing greens but don’t believe the quality of our putting surfaces is any worse than it was when we did walk mow all the greens. We’ve cut that from six people down to three guys on a weekend morning. It’s things like that that we’ve had to adjust to over the years, but we don’t want to lose our quality. We’ve changed our programs around quite a bit to get there.”

Hojnowski is a minimalist when it comes to inputs such as fungicides and herbicides. “I don’t apply chemicals as much as private clubs do, or other courses where I’ve worked,” he says. “We stick to our program and keep it as simple as we can.

“We are on a preventative program, which is a better way to manage turf in my opinion, because you’re not trying to play catch-up all the time and spray heavier amounts of chemicals to get caught up.

“Obviously, we use the weather to our advantage every chance we get. We change our schedules often to match the weather. You’ve got to be flexible in this business and you have to be able to change quickly and roll with the punches when it comes to managing anything on the golf course.”

To further decrease inputs, Hojnowski recently reduced fairway area by a little over an acre, converting it from bentgrass fairway to bluegrass rough. Additional areas have been identified for future conversions. “We’re always trying to improve the place to make maintenance easier and reduce those maintenance inputs: gas fuel, labor, chemicals, water, everything,” he says.

Hojnowski is also a minimalist when it comes to water usage. He has allocated 57 million gallons annually for the entire property. Only once, early in his tenure at the course, did he come close to exceeding that allocation. His watering schedule changes day to day depending on circumstances.

“I look at the course,” Hojnowski says. “What does it need, what does it not need? We don’t have very many high electronics like some of the other places do with soil moisture meters everywhere telling you what the course needs. We do it the best we can by eye and feel and we’ve learned what we can get away with without hurting the turf to the point where it’s going to die, which is a lot more than people realize.

“You can really cut back on a lot of water in a lot of places and still have good turf quality. Golfers understand that things are a little bit browner, but they’re still playable.”

Neshanic Valley is open year-round and the 2019-20 winter was particularly challenging because there was virtually no measurable snow — and, consequently, a high volume of play. Hojnowski is extremely protective of Neshanic Valley’s turf. He aerifies twice a year, customarily in late March and usually the last week of August. The heavy traffic this winter, however, called for additional steps, including sometimes moving cart stakes twice per day.

Hojnowski takes pride in his team’s work ethic. “Everyone here understands if they have an extra fairway to mow or an extra green to finish or a few extra bunkers to rake and it’s getting close to their typical break time, these guys will go ahead and finish their job,” he says. “Or, if they’re mowing fairways and they know it’s going to take an hour longer than their normal break time, they’re just going to go ahead and finish and take a later break time. They’re very flexible and everybody that comes here understands that for this place to operate efficiently, and for the golf to work out, they’ve got to be a little flexible too, and my staff has been really good about that.”

The work of Hojnowski’s team does not go unnoticed by the golfers, a circumstance that gives Hojnowski immense pleasure.

“The golfers here appreciate what we do,” he says. “Just about everybody on my staff, at some point, has come up to me and said, ‘This guy just came up to me and said what an awesome job we’re doing and all I was doing was raking bunkers.’ And that’s great. I want the golfers to tell that to my staff. I don’t need to hear that, I want them to hear that. They’re the ones out there working their butts off. It builds them up and gives them purpose. It makes them feel good about doing their job. I love that, when the golfers compliment my staff.”

After nearly two decades in his chosen profession, Hojnowski remains passionate about his work. And the golfers who visit Neshanic Valley are the beneficiaries of that passion.

“You see the results of your work right away,” he says. “It’s right there in your face. You cut a fairway and stripe up the fairway and see how good it looks. That’s why a lot of us do this. That and being outdoors is another big reason that I’m in this business, that I wanted to get into this. I love the outdoors. I can’t imagine being behind a desk all day. I’d lose my mind.”