Learning in Stan’s Neighborhood

Departments - Notebook

Billy Covert receives a scholarship presented by GCI honoring a Mid-Atlantic turf mainstay.

July 31, 2019

Billy Covert volunteered at the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black.
© photos courtesy of billy covert

Billy Covert is living a phenomenal Philadelphia turf existence.

A native of West Chester, a suburb featuring serene, rolling land 35 miles from downtown, Covert begins his junior year at Penn State this fall following an internship at Pine Valley Golf Club.

Yes, that Pine Valley. The sand-infused private golf puncher rests on the New Jersey side of Philadelphia, less than 50 miles from Covert’s home.

The Pine Valley experience follows a 2018 internship at Aronimink Golf Club. Yes, that Aronimink. The delightful Donald Ross course is 12 miles from Covert’s home.

Throw in a pair of weeks of volunteering at the 2019 PGA Championship and 2018 BWM Championship, and Covert possesses a dazzling resume, especially considering he doesn’t turn 21 until next year. The ambition and solid academic record led to Covert receiving the 2019 Stanley Zontek Memorial Scholarship presented by Golf Course Industry.

The scholarship, an unrestricted $2,500 grant, supports a turf student with a passion for the game and honors Stanley J. Zontek, the former director of the USGA Green Section’s Mid-Atlantic Region. Zontek died after suffering a heart attack at age 63 in 2012.

Covert has already walked some of the same land as Zontek. A Penn State graduate, Zontek was based in suburban Philadelphia at the time of his death. Zontek worked diligently with superintendents to improve playing conditions in the golf-rich Philadelphia region, which extends into southern New Jersey and northern Delaware. Zontek’s Philadelphia and Penn State ties intrigued Covert as he composed his scholarship essay.

“I learned he’s very hard-working and he loved his craft. He prepped for major tournaments and worked with the research behind everything,” Covert says. “I’m going to try to work at the research, learning more of the science behind what we’re doing.”

© photos courtesy of billy covert

Covert, a turfgrass science major with a 3.73 GPA, spent the bulk of his first two academic years completing core courses. He’s stoked about delving into the turfgrass science portion of the Penn State curriculum, which will include visits to the University Park research plots.

Watching neighbors mow their yards sparked Covert’s interest in turf. By the time he turned 9, he was helping his father mow the yard. By the time he turned 11, Covert was helping rake community baseball fields and playing Chester County’s fine collection of golf courses. Soon after discovering golf, he realized turfgrass maintenance careers existed and his state’s giant university supports a renowned program in the subject. “Ever since I can remember, it’s been Penn State, Penn State, Penn State,” he says. “Once I got into Penn State, I knew I was going to Penn State.”

Major rewards, in practicality and prestige, are associated with Covert’s early career decisions.

At Aronimink, he worked under veteran superintendent John Gosselin and obtained hands-on guidance from then-lead assistant Tim Kelly, now the head superintendent at Exmoor (Ill.) Country Club. In a Zontek Scholarship letter of recommendation, Kelly wrote, “Billy is honest, hard-working, dependable, and takes a great deal of pride in his trade. He asks the right questions at the right times and not only heeds advice well but implements thoroughly.”

Covert left Penn State for a week last September to help the Aronimink team host the BMW Championship, the third leg of the 2018 PGA Tour FedEx Cup Playoffs. Heavy rain pushed the tournament’s conclusion to Monday. “I learned a lot about overcoming challenges,” he says. “By Sunday, the volunteers had left, so for the Monday finish we only had our crew prepping for that final day. You saw what it was like overcoming a huge obstacle to get a course in tip-top shape with only a certain amount of people.”

At Pine Valley, Covert works under longtime superintendent Rick Christian and receives hands-on training from assistant William Rocco. Covert averages 60 hours per week at the course and his bosses incorporate interns into a variety of assignments and projects, including spraying, mowing, irrigating, fertilization and sod work.

“I have been very fortunate with my internships,” he says. “It has been awesome to work for John Gosselin and Rick Christian. You learn a lot with them, especially from their assistants who are very helpful with guiding you.”

The past two summers have reaffirmed why Covert pursued a turf career at a young age. And when he peers into his long-term future, he already sees a geographic fit. “I want to end up in the Philly area,” he says.

Tartan Talks No. 37


Brit Stenson waited until his 40s to design golf courses. The work seemingly never ended once he obtained it.

Stenson joined Tartan Talks to discuss his career journey and 25 years as IMG’s director of design. His work from 1991 to 2016 included designing 85 new courses alongside some of IMG’s most recognizable golf clients, including Annika Sorenstam, Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie, Mark O’Meara and Sergio Garcia. The bulk of those projects occurred in Asia, giving Stenson a dirt-view glimpse of golf’s global development. Before joining IMG, Stenson worked as the PGA Tour’s director of design, so he also had a similar view of the TPC Network’s rise. “It was a great front-row seat,” Stenson says. “I was fortunate to be there.”

How does a landscape architecture major break into golf course architecture? How do you educate global sports stars about technical topics such as drainage and soil composition? Is another golf development boom possible?

Enter bit.ly/BritStenson into your web browser to hear how Stenson answers numerous questions.

Bayer event focuses on Florida’s huge role in the golf industry

Outdoor pursuits before the sun rises should be comfortable. In Florida, in July, it means a sweat-covered shirt and heavy legs.

When the sun rises, disease-signifying dew covers Bermudagrass and paspalum turf. Bugs buzz around faces and limbs. Drinking hot coffee for a jolt can be counterproductive.

If you work on a golf course open for play, everything better be working. Customers arrive at least 30 minutes prior to first formal tee time. They want tight turf with pleasing hues, and they want it early, because the weather becomes more unbearable as the day progresses.

West Bay Club superintendent Mike Meisenhelter has spent more than a decade in Florida.

The remainder of the day brings few respites. Storms roll in and out of posh places such as Palm Beach and Naples and Jupiter, making 5 p.m. feel like midnight. Orderly outdoor landscapes quickly become disorderly. The disorderly then must be returned to orderly by the time the beat-the-heat crowd tees off.

July in the Sunshine State served as the backdrop for Bayer’s “Focus on Florida” event. The gathering brought industry journalists, Bayer technical and sales representatives, and superintendents to southwest Florida for discussions and course visits.

For a company such as Bayer, the focus always needs to always be on Florida. The state supports close to 1,000 golf facilities and a 2013 Golf 20/20 report valued golf’s direct economy impact in Florida at $8.2 billion. More than 100,000 Floridians hold golf-related jobs.

Florida represents Bayer Golf’s highest-grossing sales state by a wide margin. The company’s golf product sales are double any other state, according to southern regional sales manager Mike Ruizzo. “It’s a tremendous, tremendous part of our business,” Ruizzo says.

Properly serving the state’s vast golf market requires serious corporate investment. Bayer, for example, has three area sales managers and technical specialist Todd Lowe based in the state. Lowe joined the Green Solutions Team last August after 18 years as a USGA Green Section agronomist. A large portion of Bayer’s research and development efforts occur in Florida, because a humid climate and seven-month rainy season means a “perfect storm” for pest infestations, says Southeast field representative Dr. Sheryl Wells. “If it’s a pest, we probably have it here,” Wells adds.

The sales managers and technical experts offer sport for superintendents and crews facing myriad challenges, ranging from extreme heat and moisture to the demanding snowbirds who flock to the state each month. Bayer area sales manager Zach Lane once tried describing the challenges he faced as a Florida superintendent in a contribution to Florida Green.

“Sometimes you don’t know what you have,” says Lane, who covers golf-fertile southwest Florida for Bayer. “Is it nematodes? Is it disease? Is a sprinkler not working? Is it Bermudagrass mites? You try to get focused and say, ‘I have not thought of everything.’”

Although many facilities cater to snowbirds from the Northeast and Midwest, the challenges exist year-round. Falling behind on a disease/weed/pest identification or solving a course infrastructure issue can put a superintendent in a vulnerable position when northerners flock south in November and December. Even at ultra-private clubs, winter play can exceed 200 rounds. Unlike in cool-weather regions, where active turf growth coincides with peak play periods, Bermudagrass growth in Florida slows when the volume of play increases.

“You have to be as good as you’re going to be by the end of September,” says David Dore-Smith, the director of golf course and grounds maintenance at Copperleaf Golf Club in Bonita Springs. “Once October hits, you can have overcast days and the Bermudagrass starts slowing down and not recovering. When it’s the shortest days of the year as far as sunlight and you’re getting 200 to 300 rounds a day divided by two for golf cart traffic, people are expecting perfection because they’re coming from up north where it’s lush, green grass.”

Bayer Southeast field representative Dr. Sheryl Wells discusses the product development process during the “Focus on Florida” event in Naples.

Dore-Smith participated in a “Focus on Florida” panel alongside TPC Treviso Bay’s Gregory Jack and Misty Creek Country Club’s Preston Stephenson. The trio has handled wicked storms such as Hurricane Irma and perplexing weeds such as Tropical signalgrass to develop longevity in a state where many superintendents were born and raised elsewhere.

Mike Meisenhelter is an Ohio native who has spent 11 years as a Florida superintendent. Establishing and using a professional network, Meisenhelter says, is critical to helping a superintendent understand weather cycles, pests, disease and weeds, and the state’s club culture.

“You have to be adaptable,” adds Meisenhelter, who hosted a “Focus on Florida” tour at the recently renovated West Bay Club, where he became superintendent late last year. “The biggest thing is to pick up the phone. Let’s say you’re coming from Wisconsin. You’re growing two different species of grass: cool season vs. warm season. Pick up the phone and ask somebody, ‘What are you doing here?’”

Longtime Lexington Country Club superintendent Laurie Frutchey hasn’t left Florida since enrolling at Florida State University upon graduating from a northeast Pennsylvania high school. Fitness represents her release from the rigors of managing turf and people in the state. Frutchey has completed an Ironman triathlon and runs regularly in the afternoon heat following summer shifts. “Some of those aggravations, you can run them out,” she says. “If you can spend six hours on a bicycle, you can pull another weed that day. You have a little more energy.”

The energy, along with a reliable industry network, allowed her to endure a 2018 outbreak of fairy ring on newly renovated greens. Frutchey spent hours observing, studying and attempting to control the disease on the greens. Members pressed her for answers that she didn’t have. She turned to others, including Lane and Lowe, for help. She made it to her 18th year in a rewarding job as Lexington’s superintendent. “Surround yourself with successful professionals,” Frutchey says, “and you can get through it.”

Poignant advice for succeeding in a big Florida business.

— Guy Cipriano