His Crop is Turf

Features - industry Q&A

Lessons from small-town beginnings helped Rick Tegtmeier land and keep his dream job at Des Moines Golf and Country Club.

June 6, 2019

© photo courtesy of rick Tegtmeier

Rick Tegtmeier held his first superintendent job before he could vote. To the benefit of hundreds of turf managers in Iowa and beyond, Tegtmeier has never lost the zest and resourcefulness he displayed as a 17-year-old making daily decisions leading a three-person crew at Rockford Golf & Country Club in Rockford, Iowa.

Shuttered because of another crop – “$7 corn took that course out,” Tegtmeier says – teenaged lessons absorbed at the 9-hole course shaped one of the Heartland’s heralded turf careers. Tegtmeier, the director of grounds at Des Moines Golf and Country Club, became the seventh superintendent inducted into the Iowa Golf Association Hall of Fame earlier this year. His 13-year run as Des Moines G&CC’s turf leader includes the renovation of all 36 Pete Dye-designed holes and hosting the 2017 Solheim Club, the biggest golf event staged in Iowa.

Before he arrived in Des Moines, the state’s capital and largest city, Tegtmeier spent a childhood in Rockford (pop. 825), a small northern Iowa town once known for its brick and tile factory. Part of Rockford’s social life revolved around the golf course, which operated under the guidance of charismatic greens committee chairman Ed Batty, a local banker who lured numerous teenagers into golf course maintenance. A few of the club’s young workers eventually became superintendents.

“Ed would say, ‘Hey, what are you going to do with your life? Did you know you can get into turfgrass management? Iowa State has a good program or Hawkeye Community College has a good program.’” Tegtmeier says. “He would help us get student loans by telling us where to apply. He encouraged us.”

Nearly every career decision Tegtmeier made after graduating from Hawkeye Community College pointed toward becoming Des Moines G&CC’s turf leader. The long-term ambition became a reality in 2006 when the club selected Tegtmeier to replace Bill Byers, who held the head superintendent position for 49 years. Tegtmeier worked under Byers for seven years in the 1980s.

Tegtmeier has spent the bulk of his 46-year turf career in Iowa, where he and his wife, Sherry, raised three children, Lynette, Nate and Eric. Nate is the superintendent of the Des Moines G&CC North Course. A superintendent with more instate connections than Tegtmeier might not exist. His network even includes two-time major champion and Iowa icon Zach Johnson.

A principle imparted by Byers, also an Iowa Golf Association Hall of Famer, helped Tegtmeier establish a connection with Johnson while he served as superintendent at Elmcrest Country Club, the Cedar Rapids course where Johnson learned the game.

“I asked Bill Byers one time, ‘What’s the key to staying in the business?’” Tegtmeier says. “He said, ‘Treat every young kid like you want to be treated because someday he will be president of the club. And if you piss him off early, he’s going to remember that when he’s president and you’ll be gone.’ You have to treat everybody with respect.”

Whether it’s a member of Des Moines G&CC’s 48-member agronomic team, a committee chair, a major champion or a young golfer, Tegtmeier makes everybody associated with the game feel valued. Thousands of golf enthusiasts can thank a banker for identifying this industry treasure.

How did you get involved with the industry?

I walked into the bank one day with my dad. I was 13 years old and Ed said, ‘Hey, we need some help laying sod. Do you want to come out and work?’ I must have been a good worker because the next summer he asked me back. We had a big rotary rough mower on a tractor that couldn’t get next to the trees. So I grabbed a lawnmower and a 5-gallon can of gas and went out and mowed around trees to get the grass down. I started weed eating and finally they started showing me how to mow greens, change cups, mow fairways, become a night waterman, etc.

What type of agriculture connections ran in your family?

My grandpa and his brothers were in agriculture. My grandpa sold the farm and he ended up running a local garden center. When I was a little kid, I would go to the grocery store and hang out with grandpa in the garden center. I always enjoyed listening to him talk to people about horticulture. That really spurred an interest in me early. In Rockford, you walked beans, you bailed hay, you did whatever around the ag community. I had uncles who raised chickens and we used to catch chickens. None of those things appealed to me as much as working on the golf course.

At what point did you realize golf course maintenance could become a career?

Probably when I was 16 or 17. (Former Hyperion Field Club superintendent) John Ausen was eight years ahead of me and I used to hear everything about John Ausen. He worked at Firestone Country Club, he worked at Field Club of Omaha. He was the go-to guy at the time for Ed. Ed would call John and ask, ‘What are you guys doing?’ And Ed would bring those ideas back. It just started to appeal to me. I wanted to somehow be outside. It just seemed like a natural fit. By the time I was a senior in high school, that was what I was going to do.

Do you still think there are kids in places like Rockford, Iowa, who want to go into this business?

I definitely think there are kids out there in agriculture that want to hear about alternative agriculture. We approached Bill Northey, our Secretary of Agriculture in Iowa, and he said, ‘You guys need to get more involved with FFA.’ We had a really big push at the state FFA convention. I don’t do this, but my son Nate does this, and Tim Van Loo, who maintains the football field at Jack Trice Stadium, are involved when they come Iowa State. They bring in 100 kids, they have a barbecue and they talk to them about alternative agriculture, whether that’s sports turf management or golf course management. They take them out to a local golf course and show them what they do there. We have met with FFA instructors. One of the things you can do in FFA is turfgrass management. A lot of people don’t know about that and that’s why it’s important to get into these schools and talk to these kids.

I have gone to the Des Moines schools and talked to the FFA program and told them about it. We say, ‘Hey, there’s a business here where you can still participate in agriculture.’ My crop is turf. My yield is grass clippings. It’s measured every day. We don’t get paid for grass clippings, but it’s the same concept. There’s definitely a spot out there for these young kids, especially in Iowa – if you can connect with them early because there are so many different technologies. You have to let them know there is technology involved in growing grass.

You have been very successful at integrating technology into your operation. What is the relationship between the crop you manage and technology?

When I went to Elmcrest Country Club in 1989, they had a computer. That was back when you would turn it on and it was MS-DOS. I thought you could turn it on and just start typing a letter. I quickly realized you can’t. Nothing bugs me more than to have something in my possession and I don’t know how to run in it. I kind of delved into the computer world, read books and taught myself how to run MS-DOS. Pretty soon I got involved with TurfByte, which was started by Duane Patton. That was a computer bulletin board at the time. I started to realize that you could use technology to communicate with other superintendents. I learned so much from guys like Jon Scott, Duane Patton and Garry Grigg. It didn’t matter what age you were. Oscar Miles was on there. Here I am, a young kid at 29 years old, and I’m talking to the ‘bigs’ in the turf world. That just evolved into more technology. To be honest, it’s all self-educated.

Rick Tegtmeier’s team hosted the 2017 Solheim Cup following the renovation of Des Moines Golf and Country Club’s 36 holes.
© guy cipriano

Do you now have younger superintendents, assistant superintendents or students reach out to you through technology?

A lot of people reach out to me on Twitter. Social media is the TurfByte that was out there 30 years ago. There are no ‘bigs’ out there. We are all the same. It’s just how much do you want to share with people. You learn something new every day. I just saw the other day where somebody made a nozzle to spray under your spray deck out of black gas pipe. I sent somebody out to buy black gas pipe so I can make one of these nozzles to clean out the decks under mowers. As long as people are willing to share what they do and are not intimidated by it, I think it’s great. It’s where you share something and people criticize people that it becomes a problem. You have to learn in the technology field that every golf course is different and what works for one person might not work for the other people, but don’t criticize them. You’re not walking in their shoes.

What did you learn from Bill Byers?

I interviewed with Bill first in 1980. I interviewed at Des Moines and a little 9-hole golf course called Urbandale Country Club the same day. I interviewed at Urbandale first and they offered me the job on the spot. I said, ‘I have to wait. I have to interview with Bill.’ I came to Des Moines Golf and I had never seen an operation like this. I walked into the shop and they had a central hoist. They had at the time what I thought was a lot of equipment coming from a 9-hole course and I was just overwhelmed. I basically said that in the interview and Bill didn’t hire me. I went to Urbandale, and while I worked really hard, I couldn’t get that out of my mind. Des Moines Golf is just where I had to be. I talked to other people and a local superintendent said, ‘Rick, you need to go to a big golf course. You have to get 18-hole experience and broaden your horizons.’ He lined me up with a golf course in Chicago (Hinsdale Golf Club) and I went there as first assistant. I went there in March, I was 21 years old, and they fired the superintendent Fourth of July weekend.

So, you’re in charge at that point?

We ran the golf course the rest of the year and then in the fall they said, ‘Are you interested in the job?’ I said, ‘No. I have to move back to Iowa.’ I left in February of 1983. Bill had a superintendent on one of the golf courses named Steve Ladeburg. Steve got cancer and passed away. There was an opening and Bill hired me. From 1983 to 1987, that was the big kick in bentgrass fairways coming to the Midwest, and triplex mowers and five-gang mowers. We killed and overseeded our fairways to bentgrass in 1985, 1986 and 1987. We did nine holes a year and in 1987 we did 18 holesThat was a big turning point in golf course maintenance. Everybody just took it up a notch. You had bigger crews. At that time, we were mowing everything with triplexes. We started hand mowing greens. You had bentgrass fairways, you had better weed control products, better plant protectants, better fungicides, better insecticides. Turfgrass just got better. That was a big, big learning point for me working for Bill at that time. I’ll never forget it, in one of my reviews in 1988, he said, ‘Where do you want to be? What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I want to sit in your chair.’ He said, ‘Leave. I’m still young. I’m going to stay here the rest of my career. You have to leave and go make a name for yourself, and someday when I retire, hopefully you can apply.’

How valuable and memorable were your 17 years at Elmcrest Country Club?

Everything that I did at Elmcrest I was trying to emulate what Bill Byers was doing. We converted to Penncross fairways because that’s what Des Moines Golf had. Why did I pick A-4 bentgrass for Elmcrest? Because that’s what Des Moines Golf had. I tried to learn as much as I could and make things just as good at Elmcrest as they were at Des Moines Golf. I tried to emulate everything Bill was doing or even do it better, because when my opportunity came at Des Moines Golf, I wanted to be the guy.

When I was at Elmcrest what Larry Gladson, the golf pro, was doing was infectious for everybody. His love of the game carried over into my crew. I went there thinking just about golf course maintenance. When I left there 17 years later, I thought about everything being a team. In the 1980s and 1990s, golf pros and superintendents didn’t get along. And Larry and I got along great. We did everything together.

Larry would always invite me to talk to the junior golfers. There was a group of five kids that played together every day. You kind of gravitated toward them. You would see them, stop and say, ‘Long drive for a candy bar.’ Or I would give them golf balls. Or I would give them tees. All of them were good golfers. One of them was Brian Rupp, who ended up playing for the University of Iowa. And then there was Zach Johnson, who probably loved the game more than anybody and had more desire. His high school golf team won the state championship, but he wasn’t quite recognized as a great player. He went to Drake University and the rest is history.

How fortunate have you been to spend most of your career in the state you care so much about?

It’s a dream come true. I’m lucky that I have been at two clubs that have been forward-thinking and allowed me to do what I love. It was cool during my Hall of Fame induction that a ton of Elmcrest members were there, knowing you have that support 13 years later is special. It’s been a great ride and it’s so cool to stay here and identify with all these people and tell these stories over the years. It’s been a great time to be involved with golf in Iowa and in the industry.

You’re in the Iowa Golf Hall of Fame. You’ve gone through the biggest of big renovations. You’ve hosted a major tournament. You’ve sent a lot of your assistants onto head superintendent positions. How do you want the next five to 10 years to go?

I’m not going to take my foot off the gas. If anything, we’re stepping on it harder and shifting to a higher speed. I still think there are things that we can do here to improve. The day you can’t improve is probably the day you should walk away. I look at the industry and how fast it’s changing. I still want to be a part of that. I still want to do things that will improve Des Moines Golf and make it better. I don’t want to leave here having people say, ‘He rested on his laurels.’

There are a lot of superintendents in your situation. How do superintendents in their late 50s and early 60s stay motivated?

I told this story during my Hall of Fame induction. I made a joke about Barney Fife and not a single one of my guys laughed because they didn’t know who he was. I thought, ‘I’m surrounded by millennials.’ You have to embrace what they are doing and understand what they are doing and learn how to get motivated by them and what motivates them. No matter what you do in this business, it’s an evolution. You have to constantly reinvent yourself, all the time. Every day you have to look at it and say, ‘What can we change to make it better for them as employees to want to work here? And what can we do to make it better for our golfers to walk in here?’ My goal has always been that when a member pulls into Des Moines Golf and when they pull out, they have the same smile on their face. That’s what motivates me. I don’t want them to have a bad day.