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Living Legends


Tom Cook pioneered the turf program at Oregon State University

Posted 11 July 2017 · 850 views

 

During a 30-plus-year career at Oregon State University, Tom Cook was doing more than running one of the country's top turfgrass programs. He also viewed his job as part-time matchmaker.
 
"Looking back now, it's pretty funny. I thought what I did was run a dating service, matching personalities with golf courses," said Cook. "You have to get to know the students and their style and match them with the right superintendents so they could progress in the industry."
 
Cook, 67, took over the Oregon State program in 1977 when he was just 27 years old. During the next 31 years, until he retired in 2008, more than 300 students went through the program that Cook ran mostly as a one-man show. 
 
"I couldn't seem to accumulate enough funds to hire anyone until about six years before I retired," he said. "But I had lots of energy."
 
It wasn't until 2001, when he hired Brian McDonald as a research assistant that he had paid help.
 
"It was like the Great Pyramids: Nobody knows how he built it. Before I got there it was just him. What Tom managed to do by himself is a mystery," said McDonald, a former student under Cook who graduated from Oregon State in 2000 after a career as an accountant.
 
"The university never game him a dime more than his salary. When he started the turf farm, he was bringing his own lawn mower out there. That's how far it has come."
 
Of those 300 or so students, about 200 went into the golf business and 150 or so eventually became superintendents, Cook said.
 
His influence on the turf industry in the Pacific Northwest still reverberates today, said Tod Blankenship, CGCS, a former research assistant at OSU under Cook's successor, Rob Golembiewski, Ph.D.
 
"Tom is a legend here in the Northwest," said Blankenship, now a parks director for the city of Wilsonville, Oregon.
 
"You go to any golf course in the Northwest, and there's a pretty good chance that there's a Beaver running the show, or an assistant or someone in the ranks. It all starts with Tom. There really wasn't a program here before Tom."
 
Cook was unique among his peers across the country in that he never earned a doctorate degree, and thus never had a research appointment. That did nothing to diminish his work, or the effects of his extension work across the state. He spent about 75 percent of his time on the job teaching. He was the turfgrass extension agent for the entire state and still managed to do tons of research.
 
"A lot of his stuff didn't get published, but he had so much research that he'd done over the years," Blankenship said. "I think that foundation alone, the amount of research that went on that no one knows about, it laid the way for what they're doing (at Oregon State) now."
 
"It all goes back to Tom. There really wasn't a program before Tom."

 

It was like the Great Pyramids: Nobody knows how he built it. . . . What Tom managed to do by himself is a mystery."

 

In the years since he left Oregon State, Cook has drifted away from golf somewhat and has developed a fondness for lawns and landscaping. He still lives in Corvallis with wife Marilyn in the house they've owned since 1984, where he has grown a yard that, as McDonald said, looks like it belongs on the cover of a magazine.
 
Shortly after he retired, Cook co-authored a book with Ann Marie VanDerZanden entitled Sustainable Landscape Management: Design, Construction and Maintenance (Wiley, 2010). Soon after, he went off the grid for a while, but has recently rekindled his interest in lawn and landscape management.
 
"I went into a fog for a while, but I'm kicking around an idea for another book," he said. 
 
"Lawns are fascinating. They are a cornucopia of plants, and grass is only one of them."
 
Throughout the duration of his career, Cook encountered changes in management practices, seed varieties, equipment and chemistries used to manage turfgrass pests.
 
"Things are different here in the Northwest than everywhere else. People had to make their own knowledge base," he said. "To keep up, I read everything I could get my hands on. And we had a lot of projects going on at the farm.
 
"For me, another pipeline was my former students. I spent a lot of time visiting golf courses and talking to superintendents. I learned from them. They're pretty innovative and creative and they would share with me and I would learn from their successes, or failures."
 
Cook loved turf and he loved his students.
 
"His favorite thing to do is mow," McDonald said. "Ii remember when I got to Oregon State as a student and would volunteer at the farm, and he would come out every Friday afternoon and mow. I thought we were failing because he was out there mowing, but it was just his way of keeping in touch with the turf and his down time where he could look at the turf and be by himself."

 




Jackson served industry as a superintendent and communicator

Posted 30 May 2017 · 930 views

 

For much of his career in golf, Joel Jackson almost seemed more like a media type than an industry insider.
 
As director of communications for the Florida GCSA for almost 15 years and editor of its magazine for 25, Jackson was by default the face of the association. 
 
Although his face and name are synonymous with trends relevant to turfgrass managers throughout Florida and the Southeast, many might forget that Jackson had a long career as a superintendent, too.
 
Jackson's five-decade career in golf also included 20 years as a superintendent for Disney Golf and three years at Orlando's posh Isleworth community. Jackson, who turns 75 in November, all but gave up golf cold turkey in 2015 when he and his wife, Susan, left the sun and fun of Central Florida for the sun and fun of Southern California in 2015. He's met plenty of folks who congregate regularly at nearby Balboa Golf Course, but despite urging from his wife, he can't muster the desire to join them.
 
"I played at chapter meetings. I'd stay and play after work at disney," said Jackson, who once played to a 10 handicap. "I'll go to the driving range at Balboa. Should I play? Yes. No. Yes. No. I just don't have the motivation.
 
"I exercise at a track. It's 3.1 miles out back. I don't try to hit 10,000 steps a day, or anything like that. I know I need to get back out and play golf. Mentally and physically, I know it's a good thing to do."
 
After all, it wasn't a retirement spent on the golf course that drew the Jacksons to SoCal, anyway. The reason they ventured west was to be close to their daughter, Jennifer, who works as a producer in the film industry.
 
When he's not hobnobbing with Hollywood insiders, Jackson spends time doing what he does best - meeting people, building new relationships and making new friends. And when you live in urban metro Los Angeles, there are a lot of places within walking distance where he can do that.
 
As much as he understands the place of effective communication for today's golf course superintendent, Jackson is a bit of a throwback, too.
 
He doesn't have a formal turf degree, and instead learned just about everything he needed to know on the job or in a seminar.
 
A native of Tampa, Jackson joined the Coast Guard after college. When he left the service, he earned a master's degree in geology from the University of South Florida, and spent some time early in his career teaching science in Apopka, a northwestern suburb of Orlando.
 
Teaching never scratched Jackson's itch, and he bopped around several clubs throughout Central and South Florida, picking up the trade before finally landing with Disney in 1977. 

 

We had bentgrass at Isleworth. That's where I was introduced to white patch. I'd never heard of that before."

 

After 14 years of tending the turf at Disney's Lake Buena Vista Course and helping prep for an annual PGA Tour event, Jackson left Disney when some guy in Orlando named Arnold Palmer convinced him to manage cool-season grass at Isleworth.
 
"We had bentgrass at Isleworth," Jackson said. "That's where I was introduced to white patch. I'd never heard of that before."
 
He returned to Disney three years later in 1991, taking over the reins at Osprey Ridge and finished out a 20-year career for the company in 1997.
 
It was during his years as a professional communicator where many in the industry had the chance to meet Jackson.
 
He began editing the Florida Green for the Florida GCSA in 1990 and was the association's director of communications from 1998 until he retired two years ago. He wrote, took photographs and even sketched his own editorial cartoons.
 
"Joel was the glue that held the association together and made it stronger," said Darren Davis, CGCS at Olde Florida Golf Club in Naples. "He kept us moving forward at all times. Having been a golf course superintendent, the editor of the Florida Green and a past president of the FGCSA, prior to becoming a full-time paid staff member, Joel had the knowledge and past history that enabled success. Joel was an icon in Florida and the association. His personality, his work ethic and his passion made him successful. It was a joy to work with Joel and he is missed in Florida."

 




Dick Rudolph: A lifetime of lessons

Posted 04 April 2017 · 1,149 views

Leaders spend their lives inspiring others to strive for greatness, often against overwhelming odds. 

 
As a superintendent for 40 years at multiple golf courses across California, Dick Rudolph, 71, knows the importance of encouraging and motivating others. It was a skill he learned as a noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, where convincing others to do more than they thought was possible often could be the difference between life and death.
 
"I learned a lot about management in the military," Rudolph said. "People came from all walks of life, and you quickly learned who you could trust, especially in a combat environment."
 
Change came rapidly in the Army in the 1960s. After completing NCO training at Fort Benning, Georgia, Staff Sgt. Rudolph moved on to Fort Lewis, Washington where he trained his own men for battle.
 
Within 24 hours of being shipped out of Oakland, California, Rudolph and his men were on the ground in Vietnam for their first mission near the Gulf of Tonkin. Surprises and booby traps lay everywhere, and Rudolph still remembers trying to make sure his men were aware of them.
 
"It was a shock to my system to say the least," he said. "Sometimes, I was in charge of a full company. It was a job, and we had an assignment. My goal was to accomplish the mission and look after the people underneath me.
 
By the time Rudolph left the Army, some 30 men died under his command. Needless to say, the experience taught him a lot about people . . . and a lot about himself.
 
"The military helped me develop a leadership style to where I felt as though I could accomplish anything," he said. "It was never a time to say no. You always had to find a way to say yes."
 
"I think about that all the time, actually," Rudolph said. "We would plan in advance, and I would tell people 'look right before you go left.' Still, sometimes people didn't make it, and it was disappointing when things didn't go the way you planned.
 
"I was lucky. I made it back."
 
Since 1976, Rudolph has put that leadership experience to work as a superintendent, including stops at places like La Costa, the Four Seasons in San Diego and Aetna Springs Golf Course in Napa. A graduate of Cal State-Fresno, he has mentored dozens who have gone on to become head superintendents.
 
"He's one of those guys who just wants to help people," said Andy Magnasco, superintendent at Carmel Valley Ranch in Carmel, California. "He's touched so many people."
 

 

Quote

The military helped me develop a leadership style to where I felt as though I could accomplish anything. It was never a time to say no. You always had to find a way to say yes."

 

Rudolph has had to heed some of his own advice about being tough in the face of adversity last year when he was squeezed out by a management company last year at Aetna Springs. He now is working for superintendent Matt Wade at Birdwood Golf Course at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
 
"My aspiration was to work as a superintendent until I was 75. I'm coming up on 72. The goal was 2020, but that didn't work out," Rudolph said. 
 
"It was slightly depressing after all these years not going to work as a superintendent. Not to have that position was disheartening."
 
Still, the course at UVA has been a positive change for Rudolph, who says Wade's philosophy of giving employees a task and the freedom - as well as the responsibility and accountability - to complete it is much like his own.
 
"He delegates and allows you to do your job the way you think is best. It's a nice transition for me," Rudolph said. 
 
"I'm still active and hop to be working in golf for many years to come."
 
Rudolph only started playing golf while in high school, but picked up the game quickly and became a pretty fair amateur player. Before transferring to Fresno, he was an engineering student at Cal Poly where he also played on the golf team. There he went face-to-face with some of the game's best, including a former Stanford standout by the name of Tom Watson.
 
As a true golfing superintendent, Rudolph is able to see the course from a player's perspective. 
 
Although he always expected the same attention to detail from his employees on the golf course that he demanded from his men during Vietnam, Rudolph also recognized that he had to take a different route to reach that goal on the golf course.
 
"I always demanded a lot and expected them to have an attention to detail," he said of life on the golf course. "I empowered them to do a job, but I never stood over them. I knew they didn't make enough to be whipped. Because of this, I felt as though they respected me, and I forged some good relationships with many of them."
 



Frank Dobie: Redefining success after more than 50 years

Posted 01 March 2017 · 1,375 views

Don't bother checking an episode of America's Most Wanted to locate Frank Dobie, and there is no need to scan those posters hanging on the wall in the post office, either. As a matter of fact, Dobie just might be the easiest person to locate in all of golf.

 
Dobie, 76, is the country's longest-tenured golf course superintendent. He has been a greenkeeper since 1961 when JFK still was in the White House. And he has worked at his current job, as superintendent and general manager of Sharon Golf Club in Sharon Center, Ohio, since construction began on the George Cobb design in 1964. 
 
For some added perspective, in 1964: Ford first unveiled the Mustang, the average cost of a gallon of gas was 30 cents, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had a year-end close of 874, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, the U.S. Congress formally authorized the war against North Vietnam, and The Beatles came to America for the first time and had the year's top song with I Want to Hold Your Hand.
 
Just how does someone survive 56 years in the same industry and 53 years at the same job?
 
Simple, says Dobie.
 
"You have to create advocates every year, people who will back you up, be proactive and positive," Dobie said. "There is always someone who doesn't like you. I have my detractors, I've had them all these years, but the advocates drown them out. Our membership police that, so I don't have to defend myself."
 
Dobie never had a greater advocate at Sharon than the late M.G. O'Neil, the former General Tire and Rubber executive who was the club's president for 46 years until he died in 2009. 
 
"He told me 'I don't want to talk to a bunch of people. I want you in charge of the whole program: general manager and superintendent,' " Dobie said. "I was general manager from Day 1 at age 24. I didn't know finance or food service. He asked me 'Can you grow grass.' I said 'yes,' and he told me 'we'll teach you all you need to know about the other things.' "
 
O'Neil's finance lessons were simple: "Don't spend more money than what you have to spend," Dobie said.
 
It sounds simple, but being frugal has helped Sharon remain healthy financially during troubled times.
 
"Every year since 1966 when it opened, the club always made a profit," he said. "There has never been an assessment on members, never been a deficit.
 
"We waited for stuff. We didn't pave the parking lot for the first 17 years. It evolved slowly, but we were always fiscally sound, and it's one of the reasons why to this day we have a full membership."

 

I've always said the only way I'd leave was if I was not being paid enough, I didn't like the people I work with or if I was not being challenged. I'm still getting all those things."

 

O'Neil was more than just a mentor to Dobie.
 
"He always told board members not to get involved in operations. Their job was to establish club policy, raise dues, and things like that," Dobie said. "He always told me that one of his biggest jobs was watching my back," he said.
 
A 1960 graduate of Penn State's two-year turfgrass management program, Dobie counts Joe Duich, Ph.D., and former Bob O'Link superintendent Bob Williams, among his mentors. Ironically, Williams's son, Bruce Williams, CGCS, in turn, was one of Dobie's former interns.
 
Dobie has been giving back to his profession almost since the day he started at Sharon. He's been on the board of directors of the Musser International Turfgrass Foundation since 1969, and has been its president since 1988.
 
To further illustrate just how long Dobie's career at Sharon has been, he recently hired a retired teacher who used to work on his crew decades ago, to tend bar.
 
Dobie has had plenty of opportunities to find greener fairways elsewhere, including a job offer from Augusta National.
 
"I've always said the only way I'd leave was if I was not being paid enough, I didn't like the people I work with or if I was not being challenged," he said. "I'm still getting all those things."

 

He challenged you every day. He'd always ask you quick questions and quiz you. It was the best place I could have worked.

 

Being challenged was why Jason Mahl chose Sharon for his internship after he graduated from Ohio State ATI in 2000. He had offers from bigger clubs, with more staff, but he chose Sharon because of the lower superintendent-to-intern ratio.
 
"He was well known, but I knew all about him, because we took a field trip there when I was at ATI," Mahl said. "It was always in the back of my head that it would be a good place to go and learn.
 
"He challenged you every day. He'd always ask you quick questions and quiz you. It was the best place I could have worked."
 
Frank Dobie's bunker construction method has been working for him since the 1960s.
A true innovator, Dobie developed his own bunker construction method in 1967 and says he is the first superintendent to use a bunker liner. Any changes to bunkers at Sharon since it opened have been either to enlarge, shrink add or remove them. None have been rebuilt due to failure of his system, In fact, a fairway bunker on No. 18 is the original bunker Dobie built in 1967.
 
Dobie also has been an innovator of nutrition, which, he says, has helped him prolong his career.
 
He eats only organic foods, never takes any sort of medication, "not even aspirin," and takes about 14 vitamins and supplements each day, including things like krill oil (for Omega 3 fatty acids), alfalfa (to ward off arthritis) and coral calcium for overall plant, err, bone and joint health.
 
He views supplements the same way superintendents look at some of the products they apply to turf.
 
"When the turf is calcium or potassium deficient, you add things that make the plant healthier and less susceptible to disease," he said. 
 
"I can't prove it works, but when I take them, I'm healthier and less prone to disease."
 
More than 50 years of success don't lie.

 




Audiocast: Joe Alonzi, CGCS... Career superintendent, mentor to many

Posted 13 January 2017 · 1,068 views

In this episode of Living Legends, Where Are They Now?, host John Reitman chats with Joe Alonzi, CGCS, who retired in 2014 after 22 years at the storied Westchester Country Club. A superintendent for over 40 years, Alonzi is well known for having mentored many assistants who went on to successful head superintendent jobs in their own right.

 

Straddling the villages of Harrison and Rye, just north of New York City, Westchester Country Club is on the top shelf of golf course superintendent jobs. It boasts 36 holes designed by Walter Travis, a nine-hole executive course, and a history that rivals just about any other club in the country. It was a PGA Tour site for more than 30 years, and past members include names like Johnny Carson and Jackie Gleason.

 

With a hotel, an Olympic-sized saltwater pool, squash and tennis facilities, more than 6 miles of roads and a beach club located 5 miles away from the main clubhouse, Westchester is more like a small city than a mere country club.

 

 

Living Legends is presented by Nufarm. Check out the Nufarm Insider for the latest news from Nufarm.




Audiocast: Ted Horton, from UMass to Pebble Beach

Posted 08 December 2016 · 1,168 views

In this first audiocast in our Living Legends series on retired superintendents who made a difference, John Reitman chats with Ted Horton about his days from UMass to Winged Foot, Westchester CC and Pebble Beach... and the impact he had across the industry.

 

Presented by Nufarm. Visit NufarmInsider.com to get all the latest information on golf course management products from Nufarm.

 




Palmer Maples Jr.: Peppered with wisdom from experience

Posted 18 November 2016 · 832 views

When Palmer Maples Jr. walks into a room, superintendents still stand up and take notice. And when those same superintendents think the 84-year-old greenkeeping legend has left the building without saying good bye, they get up again and go looking for him.

 

Only when they find him hidden away in a back room of the clubhouse of an Atlanta golf course spinning tales of yesteryear to a reporter do they breathe a sigh of relief.

 

Whew, I thought you were gone, says one superintendent. Its always an honor to see you, utters another. Take care of that family, or see that they take care of you, says yet another.

 

Despite his age, Maples is as spry as most men 20 years his junior, and much of his outlook on greenkeeping still translates into todays world of hard, smooth and fast surfaces. Hes like that once-in-a-generation athlete who you look at, years after his prime has come and gone, and say to yourself dang, I bet he could still play today.

 

Maples spent parts of five decades as a superintendent in Georgia and North Carolina, and is part of the Maples family of Pinehurst that has spawned dozens of people across four generations working in the golf business. Now living in Kansas City, Missouri, Maples recently was back in Georgia to support former pupil Mark Hoban during the latters inaugural organic and native grasses field day at Rivermont Golf Club in Johns Creek.

 

They worked together in the 1970s at The Standard Club, where Maples was superintendent from 1970-76.

 

Im here mostly to support Mark, Maples said. There has been a time or two he has referenced what I did in my superintendent life, and I wanted to come back to support him today.

 

Considered a progressive superintendent and forward thinker for his era, Maples says much has changed in the golf business since he learned agronomy at the knee of people like Glenn Burton and Marv Ferguson.

 

Mostly the technology, Maples said. Its not only the equipment, but the personnel taking care of the equipment. When I started in the business, we had a three-quarter-inch hose and a sprinkler. Now, you can turn on a whole irrigation system with a phone.

 

Maples started in the business as a kid in the mid-1940s, right after World War II. He recalls mowing heights on greens in those days were as high as five-sixteenths of an inch.

 

When I started in the business, we had a three-quarter-inch hose and a sprinkler. Now, you can turn on a whole irrigation system with a phone...

 

Then it was one-quarter, then three-eighths, he said. Now, its ridiculous how close they shave it. Pretty soon, youll need shaving cream to mow greens.

 

Still, much of Maples philosophy toward agronomy still holds true today. He was years ahead of his time in maintaining open relationships with university researchers, budgeting and economics and the value of the lessons learned from a little dead turf now and then.

 

If youre not killing some grass now and then, youre not learning anything, he said. Youre not finding out what will work and what wont work, and you wont know the parameters of it.

 

If youre not killing some grass now and then, youre not learning anything...

 

One of the major challenges facing the golf business years ago still haunts the profession today: those who cannot recognize the difference between saving money and not wasting it. Maples said he learned that difference in the 1950s when a Wisconsin turf legend would visit Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, where Maples earned a two-year degree.

 

The economics of O.J. Noer. He said the golf course is not a place to save money, its a place not to waste money, Maples said. If you want to save money on a golf course, then that is troublesome. But if you dont want to waste money, you take the resources you have and make the best application of those. Some areas are going to get more attention than others. You have to make that division and establish your priorities so you dont waste money.

 

If you want to save money on a golf course, then that is troublesome. But if you dont want to waste money, you take the resources you have and make the best application of those..."

 

That is what Hoban is doing with his organic and native grasses program that helps him establish aesthetically pleasing, low-input areas throughout Rivermont so he can focus his attention and resources on greens, tees and fairways.

 

Those native areas dont waste money, Maples said. They help Mark reduce the cost of maintaining them, which in turn allows him to have more money for high-priority areas. He still has the same amount of money, but he can use more of it on fine turf.

 

Such drastic projects, he said, require constant communication with club administration and members, and that always was one of Maples specialties.

 

That was especially true with the pro. The pro always had to know what I was doing and why I was doing it, he said.

 

I had to let members know what I anticipated doing to the course to present them with the playing conditions they wanted.

 

Maples had a career in turf management that spanned parts of five decades. He earned a two-year degree at Abraham Baldwin in Tifton, Georgia after being personally recruited by Dr. Glenn Burton, a geneticist at the USDA Coastal Plains Experiment Station (later co-opted by the University of Georgia). He later attended North Carolina State University and Texas A&M before his academic career was interrupted by the Korean War.

 

Maples career is peppered with accolades. He was the recipient of the 2000 USGA Green Section Award and was inducted into the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame in 2002. A former GCSAA president (1975), he also was president of the Carolinas GCSA, Maples also was the Georgia GCSA superintendent of the year winner in 1971.

 

Understand Maples pedigree, and all those awards, honors and recognition start to make sense.

 

Part of the Pinehurst Maples clan, he grew up playing No. 2 because his granddaddy worked for Donald Ross.

 

At Texas A&M he studied under Marv Ferguson, father of the USGA method for putting green construction. After the war, he finally settled on the University of Georgia to complete his studies because more of my credits transferred there than to anywhere else.

 

During his days in the field at places like Charlotte Country Club in North Carolina and upper crust Georgia properties that rivaled Tara, Maples recognized the value of research, education and sharing knowledge with others. For those reasons, clubs at which he worked always had areas that doubled as university research plots, either for North Carolina State or the University of Georgia.

 

Any course I worked at, I always opened the door to trial work, he said.

 

Indeed.

 

In the late 1950s, he was hired as superintendent at Charlotte to oversee a bold, new project - regrassing the greens with a new warm-season turf, Tifgreen Bermudagrass, commonly known as 328.

 

Released in 1956 and developed at the Tifton experiment station, 328 is a cross between Cynodon dactylon (common Bermudagrass) taken in the 1940s from the No. 4 green at Charlotte CC and Cynodon transvaalensis (African Bermudagrass).

 

I took the mother of 328 off the greens at Charlotte Country Club and put the baby on, he said.

 

Early in his career, Maples developed a formula for producing superb putting conditions on Bermudagrass, especially going into tournaments.

 

One thing I would do was go to management and say these ARE the three dates that I am going to aerify greens, he said. They cant live without oxygen just like you cant walk around and shut up your nose without breathing. The grass has to breathe.

 

One thing I would do was go to management and say these ARE the three dates that I am going to aerify greens,

 

On Bermuda greens, Id put down a little sand every two to three weeks. Ten days after a good verticut and topdressing is when the best leaf surface was there. So Id back up from a tournament and do that, and we always had good greens.

 

His formula worked up until his retirement in 1997 from Summit Chase Country Club in Snellville, Georgia.

 

Before departing Rivermont, Maples left a few simple words of advice that helped him through a 38-year career as a superintendent.

 

Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a present, he said. Today is the present you have. Make the most of it.

 

More timeless advice from a timeless legend.




George Thompson: No-nonsense approach...

Posted 26 October 2016 · 13,804 views

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.

 

George ThompsonColumbia 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."








Living Legends: Where are they now? is presented by Nufarm US.

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