Sooooo far, sooooo valuable

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A pair of superintendents at remote clubs used a friendship and ingenuity to design a unique internship program.

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January 10, 2020

© photos courtesy of Kyle Hegland and Jared Kalina

Covering nearly a quarter of Nebraska, the sandhills rest on top of the massive Ogallala Aquifer. These plant-anchored dunes are ancient (from the Pleistocene epoch), ecologically diverse and astoundingly beautiful – even from space. Naturally, they are sparsely populated.

“You teach, you ranch, you work for the railroad or you work for us. That’s just the way it is out here,” says Kyle Hegland, superintendent since 2007 at Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, Nebraska. “The people here are world class and hard-working. The weather can be extreme and you can’t make it unless you have everybody else. It’s one of the best benefits – calling this community home.”

Ballyneal’s Jared Kalina and Sand Hills’ Kyle Hegland with course designer Ben Crenshaw.
© photos courtesy of Kyle Hegland and Jared Kalina

Jared Kalina knows all about Sand Hills because he was among Hegland’s first group of interns in 2008. He worked as an assistant from 2012 to 2017 and then moved to Holyoke, Colorado, to become the director of grounds at Ballyneal Golf and Hunt Club, about three hours away.

Hegland was happy to see him take the position, but says, “I miss having Jared here – I just miss having my friend here every day.” To say Hegland and Kalina are close is an understatement – they talk most days, get together when they can, debate like brothers and compete fiercely when they play golf. Hegland admits that Kalina wins more often, but quips, “Jared knows I’m coming for him!” Their closeness is part of the reason the dual internship being offered by their clubs works so well.

Before Kalina moved, he and Hegland talked about logistics. “Kyle is one of my best friends in the world and we were hoping that I could stay close enough where we could try this internship out,” Kalina says “There are just not as many people in turf programs as there used to be. Doing something outside the norm is essential to attract candidates – we need to compete. We thought since you have to come sooooo far to get to either club, if an intern can work both, what a cool opportunity that is.”

And sooooo far it’s working. Hegland and Kalina have tapped personal contacts, social media and face-to-face events such as lectures and conferences to recruit students from Penn State, the University of Tennessee, Michigan State, Colorado State and some local talent from the University of Nebraska, too. They take four interns each year and rotate them through the courses, so everyone gets a chance to work together. Though they especially appreciate having people during their shoulder seasons, timing is flexible and Hegland and Kalina strive to ensure the experience is customized to what the intern needs and wants to learn.

Structure and culture

The more convenient an internship is, the more attractive it is, so this dual internship is structured to include a fair wage, lodging in Mullen and Holyoke, and lunch at the course. Most important, interns learn about these two world-class properties, both built on sand, which share similar elevation and climate. Uniforms and playing privileges are also part of the compensation package and playing is required. “If someone doesn’t come with golf clubs, they are not getting hired,” Kalina says. “It’s imperative to play your course to know what’s going on out there. Playing is required, not encouraged.”

Hegland concurs, “No one cares if you’re any good. They just care if you’re slow. And we don’t take carts, no chance. Let’s go have a conversation.” Hegland and Kalina play often partially because they love to play and partially because playability is paramount at both courses. The aesthetics on these naturally created Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw (Sand Hills) and Tom Doak (Ballyneal) designs are stunning, but the grass does get dry and not everyone is used to that.

“We keep it drier than most courses in America because we have to – grass sees dormancy, grass goes yellow and you see footprints it is so bone dry at times,” Kalina says. “It’s good for the interns to see that it can be this dry and it’s going to come back and play great. We can open some eyes when it comes to irrigation.”

The members at Sand Hills and Ballyneal are astute golfers and expect perfection to the extent possible. “If it’s playing right, nobody complains,” Hegland says. “Nobody.” On the rare occasion that it’s not playing right, “Everyone is OK with a plan,” he adds. “It’s important to have those conversations with members – no one is OK with dead grass and no plan.”

© photos courtesy of Kyle Hegland and Jared Kalina

Alongside members, residents of the towns of Mullen and Holyoke can play their respective course at a reasonable local rate, which contributes to the sense of community at each club. Ballyneal sees about 12,000 rounds per summer – that’s a lot of traffic considering the short season. Jonathan Worscheck can attest to the playability and management at Sand Hills and Ballyneal thanks to being an intern in 2019. He is now an assistant at Ballyneal.

With every internship, “the selfish goal is to be able to hire people as assistants who have already been on property,” Hegland says. “We don’t ever offer an internship for someone to just be another person on the crew,” he adds. “We want a very specific situation where you are going to get a lot of time with me and a lot of time with Jared.”

Worscheck reveals that “these guys do a crazy job with a minimalistic approach – they don’t spend near as much money. The playability they provide without the largest crews or budgets is crazy. At Ballyneal, we keep it so dry, firm and fast that 90 percent of the time we can’t drive on the grass because it will streak. I was able to adapt.”

Hegland notes that after a week or so, they ask interns an uncomfortable question: What do you not do well? Interns are reticent to share, but they want to know to “make sure you learn to do it well. We want to be considered a family. I will always do whatever I can for these young men and women whether they stay in the industry or not.” That attitude, care and devotion contributes to the culture at Sand Hills and Ballyneal, making this internship different than those at more commercial enterprises.

Key to the success of the internship is that there are no secrets. “If someone would say that Ballyneal was the greatest-conditioned place in the world,” Hegland says, “that would bring me more joy than it would Jared, and he would say the same thing if it was reversed.” Hegland and Kalina lift up each other, their courses and everyone who is working around them.

At Sand Hills, Hegland says, “The members are great. Everyone is treated the same. We are not ‘the help’ and that is not lost on me.” It’s not lost on the interns either, who are encouraged to develop more than maintenance skills. The interns always must set goals, including a five-year goal and goals for the summer, and “they don’t get a choice about that,” Hegland adds. Interns also must develop their decision-making abilities. Due to weather, conditions and labor availability at Sand Hills, decisions are made quickly and with authority. It’s no different at Ballyneal.

“We have to be great decision-makers,” Hegland says. “Decisions can be very difficult at times, particularly away from the golf season, so we want to show these kids how to make choices, and we don’t think enough of these kids get that.” From the leadership through the members to the staff, there is a culture of excellence, trust and togetherness at both properties that is proving to be a fertile environment for learning.

Sand Hills and Ballyneal are separated by 170 miles.

Labor and maintenance

The staff at Sand Hills runs the spectrum from youth to retirees and the golf season is only four months – from mid-May to mid-September. Numerous employees are high school and college students, and college scholarships funded by the membership are a substantial perk at Sand Hills. The kids work hard for the scholarships and they are aware that this is a job, but it’s a job at a world-class golf course. Another perk for the interns and staff is interacting – often on a first-name basis – with prestigious members and guests.

“We are very stable because of what we do,” Hegland says. Sand Hills is uncompromising and “from when you walk in the door to when you get to the golf course, you know who we are.”

The Mullen High School mascot is the Bronco, and when the boys’ basketball team won the state championship in 2017, “a plaque was placed in the clubhouse because everyone, including the members, feels a part of it.” Success is shared, and it makes it easy to care for what you are doing.

“At Sand Hills, it’s a very pure golf experience,” Hegland says. “We have always known who we are and that’s good for any business. You have to make such a commitment to come out here. It’s just not worth your time to be any other way – we prefer you love it.”

 

 

Sand Hills 

 Ballyneal

Design  Bill Coore & Ben CrenshawTom Doak 
Year opened 1995  2006
Holes 1818, 12-hole par-3 short course  
Location  Mullen, NebraskaHolyoke, Colorado 
Town population 450+  2,200+
Full-time maintenance employees  4 6
Membership150
250 
Tees/fairways/greens  Fescue/Creeping Bentgrass Fescue/Creeping Bentgrass
Cart PolicyCarts allowed, drive in fairway No carts 
Irrigation SystemDiesel generator (regular piping)  3-phase electrical (HDPE piping)
Water UsageMonitored, water sourced from Ogallala Aquifer Hard irrigation cap by Colorado state law 
Elevation3,215 feet  3,737 feet
Annual Precipitation (Rain/Snow) 22 inches / 48 inches18 inches / 31 inches 

 

 

For those who do, it’s a family and will remain so, and that includes the interns. The atmosphere is fun, energized and full of smiles – Hegland and Kalina consciously keep it light. They feel the maintenance work can be learned by anyone. But living in a small town isn’t for everyone.

The population in Holyoke is larger than Mullen but not by much, and the town is equally remote. Interns need to adjust to two different crews, with Sand Hills having multiple female workers and youth, and the labor at Ballyneal being more adult and primarily Hispanic. Hegland and Kalina both speak Spanish and though it’s a benefit, it’s not required for the internship. Hegland has several young women who work on his staff and he would like to see more in the industry. “The girls are meticulous and they are always on time,” he says.

Managing out snow drifts is a winter management technique at Ballyneal.

In addition to the staffing differences, interns will work with two different irrigation systems. Ballyneal runs three-phase electrical power and Sand Hills uses diesel generators. In fact, the storms and wind are so severe at Sand Hills that often the entire property is powered by generators. Sand Hills draws its water from the Ogallala Aquifer and its water usage has been monitored for more than 10 years. Regardless, Sand Hills has always watered conservatively. “At the lowest part of Sand Hills, you can probably dig and hit water at 15 feet,” Hegland says. “We use more water than Ballyneal, but not much more, because they have more acreage.”

At Ballyneal, due to Colorado laws, there is a hard irrigation cap and the water is just enough. “We think about that cap every time we water – how much do we have left and what do we need going forward?” Kalina says.

Applying and releasing soil tackifier will be a new experience for many interns. The soiltac is a little tricky to administer (the sand needs to be just damp enough before starting) but, forming a 1-inch crust it keeps bunker sand in place during the roaring winter winds. It’s reliable, expensive and worth every penny for these all-natural blowouts. Bunkers without liners are another thing interns won’t likely have experience with, but they’re an important part of Coore’s and Crenshaw’s original routing of the course.

The high winds across the Great Plains affect more than the bunkers as wind is also a major factor when spraying. Spraying doesn’t happen often as both courses operate under the idea that less input means better playability and, in every way, Hegland and Kalina have to optimize their resources.

“There were some things that surprised me – a lot of courses work on a two-week fungicide or fertilizer application, but out here, they don’t do that at all,” says Worscheck, who also served as intern at The Broadmoor Golf Club in Colorado Springs. “They give the grass and turf what it needs. They spoon-feed their fertilizer applications so they save a lot of money and time. You have to be very adaptive out here with the winds – you can’t just spray when you want to. That’s pretty big. We use the Greenkeeper app. Its most significant utilization is the GDD (growing degree day) tracker of growth regulators. This essentially ensures total control of the plant’s growth by seeing the peak activity of the PGR (plant growth regulator) in the plant. The Greenkeeper app supports their course philosophy. I had never heard of it before, but I wonder why every course isn’t using it.”

The natural, minimalist approach helps the course and the wildlife. Coyotes, deer, rabbits, bullsnakes and rattlesnakes are all spotted regularly. (The bullsnakes eat rattlesnakes, so they are the preferred sighting, in case you were wondering!) And at Ballyneal there are lots of wild turtles, in addition to the Turtle Bar and the “La Tortuga” tournament. The turtles sometimes slow the mowing, but they aren’t in danger of cart traffic as carts aren’t permitted at Ballyneal. They also won’t be mistaken for tee markers as there are none, which encourages match play, and is another course dynamic for interns to consider and experience.

Continuity and opportunity

Kyle Lake, who has been selected as an intern for 2020, will be joining the clubs from Michigan State University, where he is in his first year of the two-year Golf Turf Management program. He found the internship on Twitter, applied and quickly accepted an offer. Every year, Hegland and Kalina rotate the responsibility of sourcing interns. This year, it’s Hegland’s turn.

Like Hegland and Kalina, Lake loves to golf and is interested in course architecture, so working at Sand Hills and Ballyneal is attractive. Lake is not concerned with the remote environment. He was raised in a small town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and he wants to be a hands-on manager like Hegland and Kalina. Lake knows they are “working superintendents – they are out there with you.” They are also laid back and Lake wants to “learn to manage different crews and focus on playability,” so the internship is a great fit.

Kalina and Hegland gratefully work on the highly regarded properties, but they also want to see people find a position at whatever course is right for them, regardless of its rank. To be marketable, Hegland stresses developing strong people skills.

“In 10 years, communication is going to be the most critical skill,” he says. “You must effectively and passionately share your plan. Say what you need to say in 30 seconds or less.”

As an assistant, you can hide, but you have to communicate well as a superintendent. Hegland and Kalina work on communication with their interns by asking specific questions at lunch or discussing a selected topic. Everyone participates. Debate is encouraged and appreciated to create clear perspective and understanding of any issue and to evolve best practices.

Kalina believes in knowing who you are. “There are a lot of concerned moms that come to check out our town when they drop off their kids,” he says. “It’s a little different – it just is. And it takes someone a little different to enjoy living in a very small town. We have been able to get kids who are really, really interested. We aren’t concerned with too much else.” And it’s working.

With Sand Hills and Ballyneal sharing exceptional designs, remote locations, considerate members, strong leaders and a laid-back atmosphere, interns are in the best position to focus on learning about different maintenance tactics, management dynamics and a minimalist approach.

“It was a fantastic internship,” Worscheck says. “I want to stress that Kyle and Jared are great leaders in the turf industry. They are a gold mine of information and they are willing to share everything with people who are willing to learn from them.”

That’s how family acts, and it’s a powerful example of what an internship can be.

Lee Carr is an Ohio-based writer and a frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.