Lucky to have him around

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GCI’s Guy Cipriano visits a turf class and discovers why the USGA’s Pat O’Brien is a Southeast turf treasure.

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December 4, 2018

Agronomist Pat O’Brien is the longest tenured USGA employee.

Hats off. Phones away. Notebooks out. USGA Green Section agronomist Pat O’Brien is speaking.

On this morning, the Monday of Carolinas GCSA Conference and Show week, O’Brien stands before three dozen Horry-Georgetown Technical College turf students. He brings slides and stories – and more stories. O’Brien isn’t your typical agronomist. He’s the longest tenured USGA employee.

Ponder that for a moment. The most venerable full-time employee representing an organization formed in 1894 serves superintendents in the Southeast. The region’s superintendents are lucky.

O’Brien is omnipresent in the Carolinas and Georgia, visiting more than 100 golf courses each year. He’s more omnipresent than usual Carolinas GCSA Conference and Show week. After the two-hour discussions with students, O’Brien and longtime friend Dick Schulz, a Georgia-based agronomist, golf course owner and industry entrepreneur, hustle to Prestwick Country Club to participate in the Carolinas GCSA Golf Championships. Prestwick superintendent Paul Kaufman’s backtrack vertical mowing tactics, coincidentally, are mentioned in O’Brien’s presentation.

Prestwick boasts smooth, healthy, slick ultradwarf bermudagrass greens. Ultradwarf bermudagrass greens are subjects of a Tuesday morning seminar O’Brien leads with USGA colleague Dr. Steve Kammerer and Virginia Tech’s Dr. Mike Goatley. The seminar is about winter management of the surfaces. Prolonged low temperatures yielded significant damage to the surfaces in the region, hurting facilities already facing operational tightropes.

Longevity allows O’Brien a little more latitude for boldness than other seminar leaders. He says publicly what other agronomists might only utter privately. When discussing winter damage with the Horry-Georgetown students, he lambasts owners who fail to provide superintendents with the resources to purchase and deploy turf covers. “What a crazy, damn business model some people have?” he says. “It’s just stupidity.” His voice changes tones. His hands forcefully move, further proving his point: cold happens even in the Southeast and it’s best to prepared for it.

Horry-Georgetown Technical College received a visit from Pat O’Brien last month.

The presentation includes other I-told-them-so moments. It also includes doses of humility, with O’Brien describing some of his mistakes to students. Examples of failure further humanize O’Brien – a grandfatherly figure to industry newbies – while soothing students early in their frustrating quests for agronomic perfection. Mistakes are made in the golf business and recovering from them strengthen turf managers.

O’Brien alludes to Schulz, whose course, The Oaks Course, in Covington, Ga., resides in golf’s middle class, throughout the discussion. Horry-Georgetown’s delightfully dedicated turf leadership tandem of Charles Granger and Ashley Wilkinson ask O’Brien about material they are discussing in class. O’Brien might be the man in front of the room, but he knows the best turf discussions are multi-sided.

Golf is a central part of his life. His job entails visiting courses, leading seminars, writing reports and making recommendations. His zest for the game brings him back to many of the places he visits, allowing him to see the game through the eyes of a member or daily-fee customer.

His biggest complaint as a golf consumer? “Letting the rough get too tall,” he tells the students. To illustrate the conundrum, he shows a picture of a ball buried in thick bermudagrass rough. “Why aren’t we using growth regulators on rough?” he says. “We can prevent this very easily.” Growth regulators are one solution. Another solution, O’Brien says, is using a high-speed, high-productivity mowing system he calls the “Antonio Brown of rough mowers.” Brown is speedy on and the off the field. The star wide receiver on O’Brien’s beloved Pittsburgh Steelers was recently cited for driving more than 100 mph. Students who follow pro football chuckle at the comparison.

He led another turf talk during the Wednesday general educational session of the Carolinas GCSA Conference and Show. Less impressionable turf managers filled the room. Few agreed with his every word. But they were all entertained and enlightened.

The Southeast can be an unforgiving agronomic region. O’Brien has endured numerous changes within the industry and his high-profile organization. He continues finding ways to reach every generation of turf manager.

No matter how many times you hear him speak, seeing O’Brien in Myrtle Beach represents one of the great joys of Carolinas GCSA Conference and Show week.




Tartan Talks No. 29

Ramsey

Where in the world is Kevin Ramsey?

That’s a wild, story-filled question.

Ramsey, a partner at Santa Rosa, California-based Golfplan, describes his globetrotting career in a Tartan Talks episode. A visit to the Southeast Asia nation of Laos last month increased the number of countries Ramsey has visited to 41. “I’m not sure what career path I could have chosen that would have allowed me to see so many things,” he says.

In the podcast, Ramsey explains how Golfplan introduces golf in developing countries and addresses some of the labor and site challenges associated with working in places such as Uganda, Turkey and former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Golfplan has executed projects on six continents, producing memories and fulfillment for Ramsey.

“It’s pretty neat to be able to bring golf to places for the first time,” he says. “You’re not just designing golf courses. You’re kind of bringing them the golf culture and introducing people to that lifestyle.”

Enter https://goo.gl/QrEyFv into your web browser to hear the podcast.