If confirmation is needed that George Thompson is a man from a different era, one need only look back to his first job as a superintendent.
Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Maryland, was fiercely loyal to its employees when Thompson worked at the Washington, D.C.-area club from 1963 to 1982. The way Thompson, now 78, recalls it, "the starter had been there 53 years, and three locker room attendants had 150 years of service between them. There were assistant pros who had been there for 30 years."
Then there was longtime club pro Fred McLeod.
A Scottish golf pro who won the 1908 U.S. Open at Myopia Hunt Club in Massachusetts, McLeod also logged more than 50 years as the club pro at Columbia. An honorary starter at the Masters for 14 years beginning in 1963, McLeod was so beloved by Columbia's members he was buried on the club's grounds after his death in 1976.
Those were the good ole days.
"I was the youngest employee there," Thompson said.
"In those days in the 60s, if you did your job to the best of your abilities, treated your employer and employees with honor and respect, you had a job forever as long as you could get along with people."
A Massachusetts native and a protege of the legendary Joe Troll, Ph.D., at the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture, Thompson retired in 2001 from the Country Club of North Carolina after a 39-year career as a greenkeeper that began in 1962 as an intern at Ravisloe Country Club in Homewood, Illinois. Thompson hardly has been idle since "retiring."
Today, Thompson, 78, still works one day a week at a sod farm, does some consulting and for the past 15 years has worked with Mike Ventola, teaching turf management at Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst, where he shares his vast knowledge with would-be greenkeepers. He approaches his second career with the same hard-nosed style that made him a success as a superintendent.
"This is a good program, and I really like the way Mike has it set up," Thompson said. "Most of our graduates do pretty well after five years. We weed out those who aren't serious before a superintendent has to do it.
"They really have to enjoy this business, or it's not for them. If you don't like it you have to find something else to do, because this is not an easy business."
Most of our graduates do pretty well after five years. We weed out those who aren't serious before a superintendent has to do it...
Thompson had a no-nonsense approach as a superintendent.
"I wasn't a nice person to work for. I couldn't stand it if someone was late. I couldn't wait around all day to see if someone was going to show up for work or not," he said. "I'd give someone one or two warnings, and after that I'd just fire them."
He suffers no fools in the classroom, either.
"George is from that John Wayne era," said Sandhill's Ventola. "He's a man's man, and people respect him. He gets people to buy in and commit and want to work for him."
In hindsight, Thompson was well prepared for a second career as a college instructor, because that is how he approached his job as a superintendent for nearly 40 years. He's left a long line of former assistants who now are superintendents at courses all across the country, including Doug Lowe.
Lowe was an assistant at James River Country Club in Virginia from 1988-2001 when he left to take the same position at the Country Club of North Carolina.
"I took a lateral job at CCNC to work for who I thought was one of the best superintendents in our region to continue to learn the trade and be the best I could be," said Lowe, director of course and grounds at Greensboro Country Club.
"George's leadership style was the perfect combination of delegation and training. His many years of experience both at CCNC and his previous high profile courses in the Mid-Atlantic brought a lot of knowledge and experience to the table, which he graciously shared with those of us were seeking how to learn to be successful in this business. I can't imagine a better person to work for during that particular phase of my career and am forever grateful he gave me the opportunity."
George Thompson (right), during a Sandhills field trip with his students to Preston Woods in Raleigh, NC.
Thompson graduated from UMass at a time when not a lot of superintendents were college educated. Mowing heights then were not nearly as low as they are today and thus many of the low-mow-induced diseases that plague contemporary superintendents were not an issue in the 1960s. Weeds, on the other hand, were a constant problem, and there were not a lot of tools available to help fight them.
When Thompson took the job at Columbia in 1963, he did so with the understanding that he would be named superintendent in a year-and-a-half. Always on the fast track, he was named superintendent after about a year.
"I had a tough time. I wasn't really ready for the job at Columbia," he said. "I made a lot of mistakes that first year, but I ended up doing pretty well.
"It was pretty darn hard to grow grass inside that (Washington, D.C.) beltway. We had a lot of issues with crabgrass and goosegrass and Poa, and we didn't have the products back in those days to deal with it. If you hit a divot out of the fairway, there'd be six goosegrass plants in it the next day. We had so much goosegrass, we used to call it Washington bent. It was horrible stuff to deal with. If we could get the Poa annua through July 1st, we had a pretty good year. Then the damn crabgrass would fill in, but at least it was green.
If you hit a divot out of the fairway, there'd be six goosegrass plants in it the next day. We had so much goosegrass, we used to call it Washington bent...
"We didn't even have fungicides for Pythium. We'd spray Dexon or Dyrene or some other fungicide that didn't do much good."
Superintendents in those days learned a lot through trial and error. Not only were today's chemical tools absent, scientific research was not what it is now. Thompson learned early on that he had to get creative if he was going to be able to stick around and take advantage of Columbia's famed hospitality.
"We tried to grow Bermuda, and every fall we'd plant the newest bluegrass or fine fescue, and all we'd end up with was Poa," he said. "We'd spring Bermuda in the summer in bare spots, and winterkill would take out the Bermuda about every third year, and all the other grasses would die in the summer. The fairways weren't much, but if we kept our greens alive, we kept our jobs."
Thompson gradually made a name for himself at Columbia with his superintendent/scientist approach to some combination of grasses that would provide year-round color in the transition zone.
"George was a scientist-superintendent," said Sandhills' Ventola. "He worked out chemical solutions to problems - things like Poa control - before the chemical companies did. He sees the world from a scientist's perspective"
Thompson with Melodee Fraser of Pure Seed Testing, on a trip to Oregon.
Thompson attributes much of his success to Troll, who encouraged UMass students to take on new challenges and challenge their comfort zone. That included a not-so-subtle hint to strike out and see the world and broaden their knowledge base by managing as many turf types as possible in as many different geographic locations as possible to maximize their value in the job market.
"He told us to get the hell out of New England," was how Thompson recalled it.
(Troll) told us to get the hell out of New England...
"He was a military guy. He had been a chief petty officer in the Navy and a say-it-like-it-is kind of guy. He was tough, but he was all for the superintendents and getting our salaries up."
Thompson took that advice to heart and struck out for Chicago in 1962 for an internship at Ravisloe Country Club under George Nelson, who would become president of the GCSAA the following year.
"I didn't have a problem with going somewhere else," Thompson said. "I'd read where Chicago had the highest salaries in the country, plus they only worked for about five months a year. That all sounded pretty good to me."
He helped other UMass graduates get out of their comfort zone as well by hiring them at Columbia and later in North Carolina.
"I opened Chicago for the interns, I opened up Maryland when I hired about 16 UMass guys at Columbia," he said. "And I helped get a lot of Stockbridge guys down to North Carolina as well."
At one time it had been said of Troll that he probably had former students working as superintendents in just about every corner of the country. After more than 40 years in the the turf maintenance business, Thompson has developed his own vast sphere of influence.
"Walking across a conference, going to National with him, you can't get across the floor because he knows everybody. He literally, in four hours, can't walk the whole floor," Ventola said.
"He could drive around the country and find someone almost in every state who was his assistant and who is now a superintendent. In fact, some of his former assistants are now starting to retire. He has a big family tree."