At some point or another, we’ve all said it. We finish up a marginally-satisfying round of golf with this critique of the course: ‘Nice track. Nice layout. Too bad it isn’t in better shape.’
Running a golf course, whether public or private, is clearly a team effort. But if the course itself isn’t well-maintained, a crackerjack food and beverage operation isn’t going to matter much.
That brings us to the key player in this team effort – the golf course superintendent – who is responsible for getting the course in the best shape possible and keeping it that way throughout the season. Obstacles and challenges, whether it be Mother Nature, destructive fungus or burrowing gophers, need to be overcome. And make no mistake, Assistant Greenskeeper Carl Spackler
(Bill Murray) won’t be pitching in by detonating explosives.
Long Island is blessed with having some of the best golf course superintendents in the country; experts who deal with the aforementioned challenges on an annual, seasonal, and even daily basis. Golfing Magazine asked four successful local superintendents about what they do, how they do it, and how their maintenance philosophy might even help all of us with our problematic front lawns. All of these ‘course doctors’ generously offer this information to us in their own words, without even charging a co-pay.
Steve SweetLong Island National Golf Club
Superintendent, Mill River Club
The Mill River Club
“The property sits on approximately 125 acres. The turfgrass is predominately bent/poa. The landscape at Mill River provides a rather unique golfing experience. The front nine is relatively flat and tree-lined, while the back nine is severely sloped and challenging. One special consideration here is the routing of golf carts, especially on the back nine, to minimize compaction and injury to turf.
Dealing with Winter
“When you have an extreme winter (like the one we’ve just had) with constant and complete snow cover, only certain projects can be completed successfully. Projects such as drainage, irrigation and bunker renovation are on hold. All of my focus in on much-needed tree work. There are actually pros and cons to snow cover – It can act like a blanket for the turf, protecting the course … but prolonged ice cover on greens is a concern. Conversely, in snow-less, windy winters, we are concerned about desiccation.”
The 2010 Season
“2010 proved to be one of the most stressful seasons because of the extreme weather conditions. The impact was certainly felt here at Mill River as well as across the country. The off-season is the time to address course concerns, do your homework, and implement an action plan for 2011.”
“Mowing schedule – Greens: Once daily with Toro 1000 at .125. Rolling: 4x per week with Tru-Turf lightweight rollers. Tees & Coll./App. – Once daily alternating with Toro 1600 at .325. Fairways: 4x per week with Jacobsen super LF 1880 at .375. Aerating: Traditional core aerification in April, Toro Hydro-Ject in June, July, August. Dry-ject in late August, traditional core in September, ending with Drill & Fill in November. Weather is ALWAYS a factor when performing critical course maintenance – it goes with the territory, so you adjust and move forward.”
The Move toward Organics – Environmental Issues
“Pesticides, or ‘plant protectants’, as I like to call them, are a necessary evil. As ‘Stewards of the Environment,’ it is our responsibility to maintain quality turf conditions while considering all environmental concerns.”
“Hard work and truly loving your profession would be my philosophy in a nutshell.”
Superintendent, L.I. National GC
“When I first saw LI National, I was very impressed with the design. I never saw a double fairway (2 & 3) or a double green (15 & 17). This is also the the windiest golf course I have ever worked on. I came from The Bay Course at Seaview Resort just outside Atlantic City, and I thought that was a windy course. We hosted the LPGA ShopRite Classic and with Seaview and LI National both being links-style courses, I thought both would be very similar. But after one week here, I called my old boss to let him know that LI National blew Seaview away.” Enduring the Winter
“If there is no snow (haha) we will trim back trees and branches to prevent overgrowth and promote air movement. We will edge cart paths, paint ball washers and benches. We also take the winter months to go over all of our equipment. We make sure all reels are sharp, oil is changed and that overall, we’re ready to go for
the season.”The Harsh Season of 2010
“Yes, last summer was hands-down, one of the hardest summers of my career. I come into every season with a plan as to when I will aerify, apply Chem, and put down fertilizer, but the weather can and does change those plans every year. I need to be able to come up with new game plans weekly, or even daily, depending on the weather. Sometimes you’re flying by the seat of your pants (‘controlled chaos’).”The Significant Change in 2010
“As of August 9, 2010, the owner of the course, Bill Gatz, took over operations of LI National. He has supplied us with a new fleet of maintenance equipment and brand new golf carts. This now takes a lot of stress off myself, the crew and especially the mechanic, because we don’t have to worry about breakdowns.”Maintenance Schedule
“Greens are mowed everyday and rolled 3 to 4 times per week.
Fairways, tees and approaches are mowed 3 times per week. Rough is continuous, at least once a week. Bunkers are raked everyday.
We core aerate greens, tees and fairways twice a year in the spring and fall. I try to aerate the greens as often as possible in the summer to relieve stress, but I do not pull a core. I will use small, solid needle tines in the summer months so as to not interfere with the golfer. As a 6 handicap myself, I do appreciate the expectations of our golfers.”
“There are times I will not roll greens. If the temps are so high and humidity levels are through the roof, it isn’t worth it to stress the turf out. I would rather putt on slightly slower greens than really fast dirt any day.” Organics and the Environment
“I am very aware of my surroundings. There are vineyards and houses right next to the course, so I use special nozzles on my sprayers to reduce drift and only spray when the conditions are right.
“I have used organic fertilizers and some alternative products for
treating different diseases with some good success, and will always keep
an open mind about using organics.”Overall Philosophy
“I would have to say that it is to never get too high or too low.
business can drive you crazy. If I come into work every day with a
good attitude, that will spread to our crew, and they will perform
Peter CashSuperintendent, Harbor Links Golf Club
Harbor Links Golf Course
“Harbor Links is a very demanding property. Town officials and guests alike expect superb conditioning, and to do it, a superhuman effort is required at times. We have bent/poa Californis style greens. They are straight sand and require lots of hand-watering to balance the moisture content in the hot and dry parts of the season. The golf course does between 40 and 45 thousand rounds a year (April through November), so finding time between groups to get on the green is a challenge in itself. The players also tee off as early as possible every day (front and back, Fri, Sat. and Sun.), so in order to mow and do our applications to the greens, we have to get out ahead of them daily. Peak season, the players tee off at 5:45 AM. The crew starts at 5:00 AM Mon-Thurs. and 4:30 AM Fri to Sun. The managers (Super and Assistants) start at a minimum of a half-hour before the crew to make sure all communication and planning is set.
“Harbor Links is also bigger than your average property. It is 450 acres consisting of 27 holes, 4 Athletic Fields and even mini-golf. Clubhouse lawns and beds are also extensive. We manage this with a budget comparable to an 18-hole private club in Nassau County. Harbor Links was originally a sand mine. There are those who say “it must be sandy”… but the truth is, we are growing grass on the spoils of that previous operation -- rocks, stumps, concrete and even asphalt capped with some clay and silt. And we water with reclaimed water full of sodium and bi-carbonates. It is a challenge, but one that we meet, accept and deal with well.”Working Through the Winter
“There wasn’t much that could be done on the golf course during this past winter season at Harbor Links. Normally, we can still use the chainsaws and remove trees or clean woodlines. But with snow and ice, it was too dangerous. We still service all the equipment (as usual). We have also spent time making the company-supplied housing more appealing and user-friendly.
“There is definitely a different approach when there is no snow cover…you can still work on the course by doing drainage projects, tee and bunker renovation, tree removal. Agronomically, you
begin to worry about being under snow and ice for so long.
Crown hydration and snow mold become concerns you tentatively plan for. Unfortunately there is little that can be done in a proactive sense in regards to these issues, other than a late season fungicide application.”Maintenance Schedule
“Weather dictates everything we do all year long. Period. We mow greens daily, tees and fairways 3 to 4 times a week…rough, 2 times per week… Fields, every other day and club lawns, once per week. Aeration is something we do spring and fall during the cooler months… Tees, fairways and fields 2X year and greens 3X per year. We roll the greens on average 3 to 4 times per week. We have long and short range planning, but nothing is implemented without checking the weather first, which we do at least 3 times-a-day. This dictates how far we can push the turf, watering… everything we do.” The Dry Summer of 2010
We did very well through last year’s drought conditions. We had everything done and in place by May 15th to have a successful growing season: applications, aeration, etc. I have Assistant Superintendents who are the heart and soul of keeping everything alive. Could not do it without them. We worked for about 40 days straight during the toughest part of the summer in order to make all the right decisions. Sometimes, you just have to be there. Weather is unpredictable, period. That is why you have a plan that is constantly under scrutiny and change, no matter the season.. You have priorities that dictate the day to day operation but as weather patters stay longer the priorities will change. We sprayed the greens at night probably six different times just because the weather was so hot and humid.”Organics and the Environment
“I believe that there are good products -- some are organic, and some are not. I have a New York State Pesticide Applicator’s License, as do my assistants and every Superintendent. We are educated on the handling and use of all products. We take it seriously and follow the label rates on everything. Harbor Links is an Audubon International Signature Sanctuary. It has an elite status and one that comes with strict environmental guidelines, which was true from day one. Superintendents are stewards of the environment and everyone should be as well-educated on the issues as we are.”Overall Philosophy
“My overall philosophy is that hard work and common sense are the best characteristics to have. Harbor Links is a high-end public golf facility and we keep it in the best shape possible. Actually, I believe we keep it in better condition than your typical private club. Harbor Links really is an extension of me and a direct representation of what kind of individual I am. I want golfers to play here and be ‘wowed’.”
Superintendent, The Bridge
The Bridge GC
“Built in 2001, we are blessed at The Bridge with creeping bentgrass turf, pennlinks variety on greens, and penncross on tees and fairways. From a Superintendent’s point of view, I feel very fortunate. Positive attributes include: Fast-draining soils, underground fresh water supply, USGA-spec putting greens, excellent quality of construction. We do have challenges in terms of our environmental approach. We have an extensive water monitoring program, and testing for nutrients and pesticides. Accordingly, our inputs to the turf are quite minimal – yet, the conditioning expectations are quite elevated. It’s a balancing act I both embrace and enjoy.”
“Preparations for the new season actually start in early October each year. At that time, greens, tees and fairways are renovated. The timing is important as early October is still early enough to ensure proper healing before onset of winter. In mid-November snow mold preventers are applied to greens, tees and fairways. With a forward-leaning environmental posture, traditional "dormant" feeding has been eliminated from our maintenance regime. Dormant feeding, a very common practice with proven agronomic benefits, has environmental concerns. To apply such a large amount of nitrogen, soluble or insoluble, at a time of year when the ground will soon freeze concerns us.
“The period of December/January/February is the most important time of year for our equipment manager. All course maintenance items are refurbished, sharpened and renovated for the upcoming season.
“This time is also a great time to attend industry conferences, renew friendships and stay abreast of industry trends. In many ways, once the ground begins to freeze/thaw, it's best for everyone to stay off and away. Having all of us well rested with a fresh mind in many ways moves the property ahead as much as anything else.”
Dealing with Varying Winter Conditions
“Constant snow cover without freeze/thaw cycles is ideal, but rarely plays out that way in metro NY. Unlike ice, snow is permeable. Ice is particularly harmful to annual grasses such as poa annua; the main turf on older courses. Perennial turfs, such as creeping bentgrass can tolerate 60-90 days of ice cover without damage. Snow cover is rarely problematic, especially if snow mold preventers were applied before the onset of winter. Ice cover is much worse, especially for the annual turfs.”
Summer Rain & Summer Drought
“Mother nature always drives the ship. Despite what can be viewed as a Herculean effort, superintendents really just minimize or enhance what Mother Nature gives us. The talented superintendents read what Mother Nature is doling out, figuring out what they can do to the plus or minus. We're all dry at the same time; we're all wet at the same time; we're all hot at the same time; etc, etc. It's what we make of it that defines talent.
“2010 was as challenging as I can recall in 23+ seasons of superintendenting. By summer’s end, we certainly had our battle scars, and the USGA mantra of firm and fast was quite literal. As referenced earlier, we all are usually facing the same challenges at the same time. Reading the season as it plays out in front of you is an art. This art gets easier with each passing season simply because the frame of reference becomes longer. The challenging years call for patience. At times, doing nothing but holding on is the best approach. Knowing when to pull in the reigns and simply hang on becomes a sixth sense.”
Organics and the Environment
“As previously mentioned, we have very real environmental challenges. Our water monitoring program is as extensive as any you'll find. We take the results very seriously, as does our community. Fully organic is unrealistic in our climate. That was very well documented with Cornell University and Bethpage State Park a few years ago under then-superintendent Craig Currier and Dr. Frank Rossi's watch. Having said that, we in golf have an obligation to minimize our footprint wherever possible. It's just the right thing to do.”
“In terms of my approach to keeping the course in good shape, I take pride in consistency. Over the course of a 25-week season, I think owners/members find value when a superintendent can minimize playability peaks and valleys. That's an approach I've always tried to focus on.”
Super Quotes from the Superintendents
“Weather is ALWAYS a factor when performing critical course maintenance – it goes with the
territory, so you adjust and move forward.”
-Steve Sweet, Mill River Club
“I need to be able to come up with new game plans weekly, or even daily, depending on the weather. Sometimes you’re flying by the seat of your pants.”
-Shamus O’Connor, L.I. National
“We have long and short range planning, but nothing is implemented without checking the weather first, which we do at least 3 times-a-day.”
- Peter Cash, Harbor Links Golf Club
“Mother nature always drives the ship. Despite what can be viewed as a Herculean effort, superintendents really just minimize or enhance what Mother Nature gives us.”
-Gregg Stanley, The Bridge