With rolling Georgia hills and views of the Chattahoochee River, it’s easy to forget The River Club’s 18 holes traverse a bustling slice of southern suburbia.
The course opened in 2005 and quickly established itself as one of Atlanta’s most desirable private golf communities. Rob Roy has experienced the entire evolution. He started his job as superintendent in December 2002, making him the club’s longest-tenured – and first – employee.
Holding the same job for 15 years yields numerous connections with the land and the people who enjoy it. Roy knows nearly every member by name and understands how wacky weather swings affect the 90-acre golf course.
Superintendent Rob Roy arrived at The River Club in suburban Atlanta as its first employee in December 2002.
This year, for example, The River Club received 11 inches of rain in June and close to 10 inches in both July and August. “Besides our grow-in in 2003, it’s been one of the wettest summers since I have been here,” Roy says. Last year rested on the other side of the weather conundrum: the course received just .2 inches of precipitation during a 72-day stretch beginning in August.
Weather extremities are only part of the challenge facing Roy. The River Club is an upscale facility in Atlanta’s north suburbs, where wealth and private golf options abound. Convenient seclusion defines the club. The gates are 35 miles from downtown Atlanta, yet Roy says the club is “hidden in an area that you wouldn’t expect it to be.”
The front nine flows through hills; the back nine features river views. Quality land, though, isn’t the only requirement for selling homes and memberships in suburban Atlanta. Tremendous course conditions are a necessity.
Roy and his team maintain a course with divergent turfgrass varieties. Bentgrass greens are still prominent in Georgia, and Roy and his team devote significant time and resources to A-1/A-4 bentgrass putting surfaces. A crew boasting multiple employees whose tenures eclipse a decade, agronomic savvy, grit and industry connections make summers tolerable.
Greens are monitored hourly, with Roy using a spreadsheet tactic he calls “benchmarking” to understand and adapt his agronomic program. “We track every hour we spend on the golf course,” Roy says. “So, at the end of the year, we can tell how many hours we bent checked, how many hours we mowed greens, how many hours we topdressed and we can make adjustments for the next year.”
To further help his team combat the short-term angst of southern bentgrass maintenance, Roy demonstrates long-term thinking. “Our main objective every day is to make the place better than it was the day before,” he says. “We just keep our heads down and continue to do what we need to do. But I always I try to find a long-term solution for whatever obstacles we are facing and fix those issues. It’s about making the job easier for the guys, whether it be finding a different mower for a different area or hose reels for bent checking. Whatever it is, try to make the job more enjoyable.”
Relationships are another critical component of The River Club’s agronomic success. Part of meticulous turfgrass management means seeking help when something seems amiss – and the threat of Pythium always exists in Georgia. Moisture meters, fans and venting are staples of Roy’s greens program, but he also understands the value of outside input.
The River Club received Certified Audubon Sanctuary status in 2006, becoming the 12th Georgia course to earn the designation.
High on his list of contacts is Syngenta territory representative Jason Whitecliffe, who has covered the Atlanta area for 13 years. Whitecliffe works with superintendents who maintain Bermudagrass and bentgrass greens – he says the split is 60-40 in favor of Bermudagrass in the Atlanta area – and he’s forthcoming when assessing the agronomic challenges in the area.
“We’re in the Transition Zone,” Whitecliffe says. “Warm-season struggles, cool-season struggles. There’s no perfect fit for the area. There are years when it’s hot and dry, and years when it’s cool and wet.”
In addition to bentgrass greens, The River Club has Tifsport Bermudagrass fairways. Fairy ring, according to Roy, can emerge on both surfaces. Evidence of the trust between Roy and Whitleciffe exists in The River Club’s fungicide rotation.
Roy recently added Velista, a broad-spectrum SDHI, to his rotation to provide fairy ring and spring dead spot control on greens and fairways. Velista was launched in 2015. “Having another tool like Velista has really helped us out,” he says. “We saw a lot of positive results from our application that we made last fall and then the applications that we made this year. We are pretty excited about it.”
In the summer, Briskway, a broad-spectrum cooling DMI (Demethylation Inhibitors), is added to the rotation. Daconil Action and Heritage Action are also part of the summer program. Both fungicides include multiple active ingredients. “With the summer stress, we try to boost that plant health up,” Roy says.
Agronomic savvy, grit and quality relationships help The River Club flourish despite a challenging growing environment. The combination of proven formulations and a strong relationship with Whitecliffe soothe Roy during perilous periods. The pair’s relationship spans a decade.
“It’s just like having employees you trust,” he says. “You know that you can tell a guy to go out there and perform a certain task, and you don’t have to follow-up behind him and do it two or three times. You just have that trust level on these products. You know that you feel good about them and you have used them for years, and if you have a question, you know who you can call. It makes you sleep better at night. It makes your job much easier. It gives you confidence going into summer that you know you have those products that you can rely on and trust. You see those results firsthand and you know that they work.”
The River Club’s conditions impress Whitecliffe, who calls the private club market “extremely competitive” in Atlanta’s north suburbs. “I am proud to support so many courses that are among the highest maintained golf courses in the country,” Whitecliffe adds. “There are a lot of top, elite clubs.”
The River Club opened at a tricky time for private clubs with a housing element – three years before the start of the recession – yet has thrived. Roy, who grew up in Kernersville, N.C., a small town between Winston-Salem and Greensboro, worked at a trio of respected facilities in the Carolinas, Sedgefield Country Club, The Peninsula Club and Oldfield Club, before arriving in Georgia. Roy, a NC State graduate, obtained grow-in experience at Oldfield. A four-time Carolinas GCSA golf champion, he also sees the course from a golfer’s perspective.
“He’s a high, high level golfer, and I think that brings something to the table,” Whitecliffe says. “He knows what to expect from a championship level golf course and he tries to deliver that every day to his members. As the course matures, it’s hard to maintain those levels. Just like there are challenges when we age, there are challenges with a golf course. Knowing the history of the property is certainly a big leg up as opposed to coming in cold and not knowing anything about it.”
In the spirit of continual improvement, Roy is eyeing ways to make the course play firmer and faster, thus increasing golfer enjoyment and easing the maintenance burden. Building upon The River Club’s strong environmental pedigree represents another goal. The course received Certified Audubon Sanctuary status in 2006, becoming the 12th Georgia course to earn the designation. The club’s Chattahoochee River Trail runs along parts of the back nine, giving members an opportunity to study a variety of wildlife, including woodpeckers and blue herons.
“I think all of us in this business want to show that we are good stewards of the land, we are educated and we’re using resources to the best of our abilities and that we care about the environment, what’s around us and what’s down the stream from us,” Roy says. “Whenever we sit down and make a plan, we are thinking about all of those aspects. We’re trying to find the best solution that not only fits our needs, but the environment’s needs and the golfers’ needs. I think there are so many better solutions out there nowadays than 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago.”
Guy Cipriano is GCI's senior editor.
Participating in Syngenta’s Operation Pollinator has further helped The River Club superintendent Rob Roy boost golfer enjoyment while enhancing the environment. The program provides golf course managers with information to establish and manage attractive habitats for bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
The River Club established plots near the eighth and 13th tee boxes, and Roy says members “love” the aesthetics of the areas. An overlooked aspect of the program, according to Roy, is how it affects staff morale. “The crew likes to see something that they built turned into something beautiful,” he says. Roy has already identified additional areas he wants to turn into pollinator plots and he hopes to find time this winter to prepare the areas for future seeding.
Syngenta offers multiple resources for superintendents interested in Operation Pollinator, including assistance from territory managers. Roy worked with his territory manager, Jason Whitecliffe, when establishing The River Club’s pollinator plots.
“I am happy to see so many superintendents and their customers really embrace the program,” Whitecliffe says. “It’s just really cool. Superintendents are obviously great at growing things, so it’s an easy program for them to prepare an area, seed it and give it what it needs.”
CLICK HERE for more information about Operation Pollinator.