Steiner, 69, has worked at White Bear Golf Course in Dellwood, Minnesota every year but once since 1967, including as a caddie, member of the crew, assistant superintendent and finally as head superintendent for the past 42 years. The only interruption in his service at White Bear came when he spent the summer of 1969 working for his uncle Jimmy Hines on the crew at the former Desert Air Golf Course in Palm Desert, California.
"I've just always tried to give golfers what they want, and that is the best possible product that I can produce. I try to be receptive to the things they want," Steiner said. "I've also always tried to be trustworthy. That has gone a long way. I've always had a good rapport with a lot of the members. When you love what you do, it's pretty easy."
Steiner recently was the recipient of the Minnesota GCSA Chapter's Distinguished Service Award.
During Steiner's 54 years at White Bear, a 1915 Donald Ross design, much has changed in the turf business, namely the ever-changing demands of golfers, the problems that arise as mowing heights go down and the equipment and products they use to manage the turf.
"It has become a lot harder as the years go on," Steiner said. "And it seems to keep getting harder as golfer demands go up."
In the 1970s, Steiner was mowing roughs with a five-gang unit and fairways with a seven-gang Toro Parkmaster.
"The changes in equipment and irrigation have been the biggest changes," Steiner said. "I've seen a lot of change over the years."
Being a successful superintendent . . . for more than 40 years . . . at the same place . . . requires relying on science. In Steiner's case, it means much more.
Steiner keeps up with current technology and management practices through continuing education, networking, seminars and even trusted sales reps.
When faced with an unknown disease that threatens to wipe out wide areas of turf, most golf course superintendents are pretty content to carve out a sample and send it off to an expert for analysis.
The key word is "most."
Since Steiner graduated from Minnesota in 1976 and became superintendent at White Bear in 1979, he has spent a significant amount of time peering at slides through a microscope, attempting to diagnose one of those diseases that nag at greenkeepers.
"I did it simply because I wanted to," Steiner said. "I wanted to be good at it, and I didn't want to be dependent on someone else for the information."
To many of his colleagues, he is known as Dr. Steiner.
Many of those same colleagues have used him as their turfgrass pathologist - helping to diagnose diseases on the golf course.
"I've chatted with a number of people about things over the years," Steiner said. "There are people who called and bring things over, turf samples with disease on them."
He places the samples in a plastic bag to hold in moisture then stores them overnight in the service bay at the golf course to keep them out of air-conditioning. He usually has plenty of material for the microscope by the following day.
"I think one of the most outstanding attributes that makes John deserving of this (MGCSA Distinguished Service) award is the respect he has among his peers," former White Bear Yacht Club general manager Linda Carroll said recently in Hole Notes, the publication of the MGCSA.
Steiner credits Carroll and current White Bear GM Chris Nathlich for supporting him throughout his career and late University of Minnesota turfgrass science professor Don White, Ph.D., for mentoring him early in his career and helping grow his love for science.
Although looking at living organisms that attack and kill turf might seem like work, it is a labor of love for Steiner.
"The thing with pathology is I just always loved it. I studied forestry pathology and plant pathology, and I love looking through a microscope at disease," Steiner said. "I've learned a lot about mushrooms, and mycology is a major passion of mine. Fungi and bacteria are the causes of most plant diseases. I've spent a lot of time grabbing everything I could find and looking at it through a microscope."
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