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From the TurfNet NewsDesk

  • John Reitman
    As an owner, operator and superintendent, Matthew Woodcock spends a lot of time on the golf course.
    Since he and wife Jill bought Old Erie Golf Club in Durhamville, New York three years ago, Woodcock increasingly spends more time on the course, even if the time allocated to various tasks changes year to year based on shifts in the number of customers playing the course.
    "We've had steady growth of 15 to 20 percent every year since 2021," said Woodcock. "We're seeing a lot of new golfers. We are seeing more women and more kids who are 16, 17, 18 years old. We're seeing more demographics than we did three years ago.
    "I had to hire someone to help on the golf course because we've grown so much."
    That extra help allows Woodcock to spend more time inside Old Erie's modest clubhouse so he can tend to other business matters at the course located about 30 miles east of Syracuse.
    Mind you, Woodcock is not complaining, and he welcomes the added business. Buying a golf course in the middle of a pandemic admittedly was a risk that has paid off for the Woodcocks. Indeed, there have been real costs (and benefits) stemming from the pandemic, and Woodcock's story is an example of how Covid has changed the business of golf.
    Just about every industry has been affected since the start of the pandemic in 2020. Many of the changes have been positive, others not so much. Golf has not been immune.
    Millions of newcomers have taken up the game in that time, and fortunately many of them have stuck with it, leading to an unprecedented amount of play. The game's popularity has been on a constant uptick in participation for the past four years after two decades of decline.
    The 520 million rounds played in 2023 were a record high. The Covid-driven surge in play during the past four years prompted Stuart Lindsay of Edgehill Golf Advisors to say in 2022: "It took us 19 years to lose 85 million rounds, and we regained all of them in two years."
    Although play is way up, new course construction still is way down during most of the past two decades. There has been a net loss of about 1,500 courses during the past 18 years, according to industry reports. As course closings continue to outpace new construction, the average number of players per facility has exceeded what Jim Koppenhaver of Pellucid Corp. has said is supply-demand equilibrium of about 35,000 rounds per year per 18-hole equivalent by as much as 11 percent.
    All that extra traffic can take a toll on turf conditions.
    "What is the true cost of Covid? What is the cost of Covid with all that extra play?" asked Chris Hartwiger, director of agronomy for the USGA Green Section.
    "The extra traffic is real. If there is 20 percent more play, then sure, there are going to be 20 percent more ball marks and 20 percent more divots. The more wear and tear there is, the more turf quality goes down, but that doesn't slow down golfers."
    At Old Erie, Woodcock is devoting more time to maintaining the golf course due to the boost in play. He is aerifying the greens three times more than he did in 2021 when he bought the golf course.

    A new group of golfers, both young and old, have been regulars at Old Erie Golf Club in Durhamville, New York, since the pandemic. Old Erie GC Facebook photo "I am doing more cultural practices than ever. But I don't know if that is because of increased play, or because of my obsession with making this the best golf course it can be for $25 and a cart for nine holes," he said. "I'm also putting three times as much sand down. 
    "The last couple of years we've had warm, dry summers. We're blessed and cursed. We only irrigate our greens. That's 1 out of 77 acres. The rest is Mother Nature-dependent. We don't have any cart paths. That means golfers don't enter and exit the fairways at the same place, so that spreads out wear."
    With play up and new course construction is down, many clubs are capitalizing on increased revenue streams to make improvements through restoration projects.
    So many courses are or have been under renovation in the past several years that something as basic as sand has been difficult to come by, and contractors to move dirt often must be booked months in advance.
    "Many are taking the money from all that extra play, and the smart ones are reinvesting it back into the club," said Thomas Bastis, CGCS, competition agronomist with the PGA Tour.
    Labor continues to be a concern for many businesses since the pandemic when hourly workers across the spectrum were told they were non-essential. Since then, workers who have taken that message to heart have been slow to return to jobs flipping burgers, or raking bunkers. Many of those who have returned have made themselves available to the highest bidder, with golf often losing employees to other businesses in other industries.
    Other challenges brought on since the pandemic include skyrocketing costs of new — and used — equipment, fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides, and supply chain issues that make getting that new machinery in a timely manner a true test of patience.

    Matthew Woodcock says play is up 15-20 percent each year at Old Erie Golf Club since he and his wife bought it three years ago. Old Erie GC Facebook photo "Pricing has created real hardships. I've never seen anything go up in price like turf equipment has," Bastis said. "But the real problem is getting equipment delivered."
    Those rising costs coupled with slow delivery times have trickled down, leading to an increased demand for quality used equipment.
    Woodcock recalled shopping for a part that he found on the used market for $279, compared with $299 for the OEM alternative.
    "At that point," he asked, "what's the difference?"
    Woodcock has turned to a couple of different sources to help with used equipment, parts and even products to apply to the golf course.
    When he needs something, as the owner and operator of a humble nine-holer, he relies on colleagues near and far. He scours social media for superintendents who might have what he needs, and he and his peers at a handful of other golf courses in the area share inventory with each other as needed.
    "There are six or seven courses in the area, and we share parts with each other," he said.
    The same goes for fertilizers and chemical products applied to the golf course.
    "If I need something and someone has some lying around, I'll ask if I can bum some off them until my order arrives," he said. 
    As the pandemic has helped lead more players to the golf course, it likewise has, in many cases, provided an avenue off the course for hourly labor, a barrier to success that is not unique to golf. The challenges associated with labor struggles, as well as the rising costs of equipment, fertilizers and pesticides also have provided an opportunity for superintendents in an area where they excel — innovating to find new ways to get the job done.
    For many, that has meant leaning on technological advancements — like robotic mowers — in the face of a declining labor force. Dan Meersman at the Philadelphia Cricket Club has been an early adopter of using robotic mowers in out-of-play areas. He hasn't made the move to robotics because of labor problems, but that technology definitely has come out at just the right time for superintendents who want to shift more manpower to in-play areas as golfer demands increase.
    "We have to be perfect every day," Meersman said. "(Robots) allow us to spend more time in areas that golfers care about."
    Bastis agreed that robots are not necessarily a cure for a depleted labor force, but do allow superintendents to concentrate efforts on areas of increased need.
    "Superintendents are asking themselves 'how can I make this better and do it cheaper?' I think that's why we're seeing so many (robots)," Bastis said. "Drones and robotic mowers, these types of things are not exorbitantly expensive. It's almost like why don't you have these things? 
    "There have been some challenges with Covid, but overall there is a lot of positive that has happened since Covid. I don't think anyone has anything to complain about."
  • Covia, the parent company of Best Sand, recently acquired R.W. Sidley.
    Based in Painesville, Ohio, R.W. Sidley is a nearly century-old provider of gravel, silica and other aggregate materials for construction and landscaping.
    Among R.W. Sidley's offerings is Pro/Angle sand, which is used by many golf course superintendents for use in bunkers, as well as topdressing and divot mix.
    "This is a win for superintendents, contractors and others who need the best bunker sands and other performance aggregates," said Terry Gwinn, Best Sand's sales manager at Covia. "The Sidley brands and Covia brands complement each other really well at a busy time for construction in the golf market."
    Since new course construction has slowed to a crawl in recent years, golf course renovations have become as popular as ever. There have been many challenges associated with renovations and rebuilds, including availability of sand. 

    Covia has acquired R.W. Sidley, the maker of Pro/Angle sand. "The biggest challenge has often been securing materials and transportation and combining these two brands should help with sourcing and logistics," Gwinn said.
    Pro/Angle sand is produced through a special crushing and grinding process that fractures silica quartz pebbles into angular particles, creating a playable, weather-resistant bunker sand. Pro/Angle is designed to exceed technical demands of golf course builders and architects and is engineered to meet USGA standards.  
    In addition to stable ball support and playability, Pro/Angle reduces the cost of bunker maintenance, the company says. Its angular particle technology delivers a host of benefits: 
    Excellent drainage  Superior slope retention  Greater wind resistance  Better overall product retention  Creates firm, consistent feel from bunker to bunker   Consistent color and sustainable appearance. With headquarters in Independence, Ohio, Covia is a leading provider of diversified mineral solutions to a variety of industrial markets, including glass, ceramics, coatings, metals, foundry, polymers, construction, water filtration, sports and recreation, and oil and gas. The company serves its customers through a broad array of products, including silica sand, nepheline syenite, feldspar, clay, kaolin, resin and coated materials.
  • Weather forecast for Tuesday, May 21. Graphic courtesy of T3 Golf The first severe weather update is in from the folks at Turf Threat Tracker. There will be a three-day outbreak of severe weather across the United States with the focus being mostly in the Midwest.
    In the attached images, areas marked in the deeper colors will be where there is the highest risk for severe storms. Today (Tuesday) will be the worst day of the three with significant severe weather risk in the western portions of the Midwest and Great Lakes.

    Wednesday, May 22 weather forecast. Graphic courtesy of T3 Golf
    Weather forecast for Thursday, May 23. Graphic courtesy of T3 Golf This information is provided by meteorologists Garrett Bastardi and Herb Stevens of T3 Golf.  Stevens is a former TV meteorologist and one of the original on-air personalities when The Weather Channel debuted in 1982. He has been providing weather reports to the skiing and golf turf industries for more than 20 years with Grass Roots Weather. In 2021, Stevens and Bastardi launched T3 Golf which provides golf course superintendents with short-term forecasts at a local level.
  • Audubon International recently named Mark O'Mell as its director of Signature Sanctuary Certification.
    O'Mell (right) has more than two decades of turf management and golf course maintenance experience. Most recently he was golf course superintendent at Piñon Hills Golf Course in Farmington, New Mexico. A graduate of the turf program at Michigan State University, O'Mell has also held superintendent or assistant superintendent positions at courses in Michigan, Panama and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 
    Audubon International's Signature Sanctuary Certification is for new or renovating golf courses, resorts and communities. The program involves comprehensive environmental planning with architects, owners, managers and key stakeholders to ensure sustainable design, construction and long-term management of each property. Its Bronze, Silver and Gold levels include all open space, landscaped areas, and maintenance facilities; Platinum level certification also includes clubhouses, lounges and lodging. 
    "He knows the golf course operations and maintenance business inside and out, and literally from the ground up," Audubon International CEO Christine Kane said of O'Mell. "His expertise and leadership will help ensure the program's continued growth as we add new members, especially at the elite Platinum level." 
    As director, O'Mell will work with each Signature Sanctuary member's development team before, during and after construction to ensure the property meets and maintains all sustainability requirements. He will also serve as primary point of contact for any inquiries from current, former and prospective members of the Signature Sanctuary Certification and coordinate with appropriate staff members on the development of program materials as well as marketing, growth, recruitment, and communications strategies. 
    "Working with Audubon International is the culmination of a career as a superintendent who worked with nature rather than against it," O'Mell said. "I look forward to working with current and future Signature Sanctuary members to become the best possible environmental stewards they can be."
  • When it comes to attracting and keeping help on the golf course, the "it's my way, or the highway" management style probably has lost much of its effectiveness — at least as it pertains to traditional seasonal employees.
    "What stands out for superintendents is that generational differences is a layered piece. It's very hierarchical," said Amy Wallis, Ph.D., professor of organizational behavior and ethics at Wake Forest University. "There is a difference between the relationship between a superintendent and kids who are brand new to golf or college kids working over summer break and superintendents and, say, their assistants.
    Many business leaders believe those who fall into the Generation Z category (generally those born from 1997 to 2012) lack work ethic and are difficult to work with compared with older generations. That reputation is hurting many Gen Zers in the workforce.
    According to one poll, at least 40 percent of business leaders perceive members of Generation Z unprepared for the workforce and more than 90 percent of those polled admit that they try to avoid hiring them.
    Employers, including those in golf who rely on high school and college students to round out their seasonal roster, cannot avoid Generation Z workers forever. Gen Z employees already outnumber their Baby Boomer counterparts in the workforce and are expected to comprise 30 percent of the labor market by 2030.
    According to Deloitte, Gen Z is motivated by "engaging work" to a lesser degree than Boomers, Generation X and even Millennials. 
    Another survey by Work Trend Index indicates that nearly half of Gen Z workers prioritize personal life over professional, and more than half say they expected to leave their current job within the next year.
    Clearly, many Gen Z workers do not have the same level of loyalty to their employer that their parents and grandparents did. And while Boomers and Gen Xers were largely adept at working unsupervised and independently, younger workers today would rather be part of a team and they prefer structure in the workplace, Wallis said. 
    "They are more concerned about impressing each other than they are impressing their boss," she said.
    Wallis says there are ways to capitalize on what motivates Gen Z workers.

    Generation Z is motivated on the job by different factors than previous generations. USGA photo "One thing I suggest more and more in temporary work is team or group hiring 18-year-old kids, or those looking for summer help during college," Wallis said. "Bring five of your friends and we'll hire you as a team, and you get to work together as a team.
    "This generation is very relational, and they want to spend time with their friends."
    Wallis said she has begun giving team-based quizzes in her classes at Wake Forest, in which students collaborate to find the right answer to test questions. 
    "They perform better on these than they do working independently, and they study harder because they know everyone relies on each other to get the right answer," Wallis said. 
    Wallis says people approach the team hiring model in a manner similar to playing on an athletic team, and says it has proven to be quite successful in the manufacturing industry, for which she consults.
    In a time where there is so much competition for our attention and immediate access to information via the Internet, it is not surprising that Gen Zers, who have grown up in the digital age, crave instant gratification. 
    That same thirst for instant gratification often translates to the workplace for Gen Z, who also want structure in the workplace, Wallis said.
    "We know this generation values immediate feedback and immediate rewards. That's part of being young, but it also smacks of this generation," Wallis said. "They want to be rewarded for good work."
    Gen Z also seeks jobs with more structure, or as Wallis said, they want to be told exactly what to do — one task at a time.
    "In previous generations, if they don't hear anything from their boss they assume everything is OK. This generation wants to hear from their boss that everything is alright. They want that instant gratification."
    And they want to be rewarded for a job well done, she said. A concept that is catching on in the workplace for Gen Z employees is gamification, which, as its name implies, rewards workers for successful completion of an assignment. 
    For those worried that "gamifying" work might not be taken seriously by the younger workforce, Wallis said there are no grounds for such concern.
    "There is no evidence of that," she said. "Have you ever watched a teenager play a video game and see how seriously they take it? Many college professors are gamifying courses, and it is something students resonate with."
  • With just one hurricane making landfall last year, 2023 was the quietest tropical storm season in the continental United States since 2015 thanks to a season dominated by El Niño weather patterns.
    By many accounts, 2024 promises to be a much more active tropical season.
    In a new feature on TurfNet, Herb Stevens and Garrett Bastardi of T3Golf will provide periodic updates, warnings and critical information for golf course superintendents about potential weather events that could affect the day-to-day business of maintaining a golf course. The announcement was made during a recent TurfNet University Webinar on long-range forecasting for the remainder of the spring through summer.
    "Both Garrett and I believe that all the pieces are in place for a very active tropical season, and that would impact Florida, the Gulf Coast all the way over to Texas, and in this case we think the entire East Coast of the United States from Florida all the way to Maine will need to pay attention during the tropical season," Stevens said.
    During the course of the summer and on into autumn, Garrett and I are going to be providing some early heads up, hopefully, on significant weather events that can affect people anywhere in the country that are taking care of fine turfgrass."
    Stevens is a former TV meteorologist and one of the original on-air personalities when The Weather Channel debuted in 1982. He has been providing weather reports to the skiing and golf turf industries for more than 20 years with Grass Roots Weather. In 2021, Stevens and fellow meteorologist Garrett Bastardi launched T3 Golf which provides golf course superintendents with short-term forecasts at an uber local level.
    Their updates would reflect any potential major weather threat. The unpredictable nature of such calamities lends to the potentially irregular schedule of the updates.
    "If there's a potential tornado outbreak, if there's potential for a hurricane landfall, we're pretty good at spotting those things with a pretty good amount of lead time," Stevens said.
    "Anything like that pops up, and we think it would impact golf courses, and that's our primary concern, we will be writing up a summary of the nature of the threat, and it will be posted on TurfNet."
    Hurricane Idalia was the only hurricane to strike the U.S. when it made landfall in the Florida Panhandle on Aug. 30.
    The hurricane season runs June 1 through Nov. 30.
  • For superintendents who want to get the most from their resources whether on site or remotely, John Deere recently launched Operations Center PRO Golf, an addition to its Operations Center PRO suite labor- and fleet-management system.
    PRO Golf is a web-based golf course management platform that can be utilized via computer, tablet or smartphone giving superintendents the ability to manage their operations from anywhere at anytime.
    The platform also helps dealers to better support customer needs by working together on product issues and parts and service, which can result in improved efficiency and productivity.
    Through the golf course-management platform, superintendents can update job boards, assign tasks and monitor schedules; and track equipment location, schedule maintenance and monitor inventory in real time from anywhere through any connected device. 
    Benefits of the platform include:
    equipment and location history fleet and crew reporting job board management and crew communication managing labor costs parts inventory and dealer support scheduled maintenance and engine hours "By integrating the capabilities of our OnLink golf course management software into the Operations Center, we're providing our customers with a more tailored and efficient tool to manage their operations,” said Dave Anderson, product manager for John Deere. “This not only ensures the improvement of day-to-day activities but also enhances the overall sustainability and profitability of their courses."
  • Wendy Schepman is right where she is supposed to be. A teacher in the Career Technical Education center at South Fork High School in Stuart, Florida, Schepman runs the school's turfgrass program.
    Founded in 1989 by Keith Krueger, the program has sent dozens of graduates into the local turf market in jobs at golf courses, sports turf and lawn and landscape.
    The South Fork program includes both coursework and real world experience on the school's three-hole golf course. Students get the opportunity to conduct almost all tasks they would while working on a golf course, such as mowing, spreading topdressing and seed, bunker maintenance and servicing mechanized equipment. There also is a fruit grove to manage, and those who are 18 can train to get their pesticide applicator license.
    Schepman (right), a 2003 South Fork graduate, recognized early on that the program is unique and serves a critical role in training the next generation of professionals in the South Florida turf industry. After Krueger retired, she returned to her alma mater in 2022 after furthering her turf career first at Indian River State College and then the University of Florida and spending several years working for the St. Lucie Mets, the Class A Florida Complex League affiliate of the New York Mets based at Clover Park in Port St. Lucie.
    "I always wanted to be an ag teacher," Schepman said. "I worried that the program might go away if it didn't get another good teacher, so I aligned myself to take over the program."
    The demand for turfgrass professionals in South Florida is great. There are as many as a dozen golf courses nearby that either are under construction or on the drawing board. Not to mention, the area is flush with professionally managed real estate developments and nearby Palm Beach County has more golf courses than any other U.S. county.

    The curriculum in the turf program at South Fork High School in Stuart, Florida, includes maintaining machinery used on the school's three-hole golf course. Photo courtesy of Wendy Schepman Today, graduates of South Fork's turf program can be found on such golf courses at Seminole, Jupiter Island Club, Medalist Golf Club and Michael Jordan's Grove 23 among many others.
    Rob Uzar, superintendent at Hammock Creek Golf Club in Palm City, is another product of the South Fork program. Like Schepman, he too attended Indian River State College.
    He knew at an early age that he wanted to be a golf course superintendent. In fact, he jokes that he was pushed in that direction early on because Kreuger, the program's founder, and Ray McDonald, a since-retired golf course superintendent in the Stuart area, coached him in youth soccer from age 5 until he was 13 or 14 years old.
    "The program laid the groundwork for what it takes to work in this industry," Uzar said. 
    "You get to operate a mower at age 14 and you cut turf at one-tenth of an inch and not mess it up. It's really like on-the-job training."

    Students in the turf program at South Fork High School in Stuart, Florida, get the chance to conduct just about every task they would encounter on a golf course. Photo courtesy of Wendy Schepman The curriculum at South Fork also includes field trips. That list of destinations includes places like Hector Turf, a Deerfield Beach Toro distributor; the GCSAA show when it comes to Orlando; one of several local golf courses; a hydroponic farm charged with helping feed the homeless; and Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, the spring training home of the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals as well as each team's FCL affiliate.
    "I am the field trip queen," Schepman said. "Our students get a lot of jobs out of those field trips."
    The program sends a handful of graduates into the local work force and sometimes formal turf school at a two- or four-year institution. Uzar regularly employs South Fork students at Hammock Creek, which is only about 8 miles from the golf course.
    Uzar is also a member of the South Fork turf program's advisory board, a group of about six to eight turf professionals who help Schepman and the school steer the program.
    Next for the program is a new irrigation system for the 419 Bermudagrass on the three-hole golf course.
    That project began pre-Covid, was stalled by the pandemic and never completed. Schepman and the board currently are involved in navigating the complicated funding process dictated by Florida's public school system.
    "It's not like a gym where you build it once and you're finished other than basic maintenance," Uzar said. "A lot goes into this to keep it going. We're excited about getting it back to where it needs to be."
  • The village of Pinehurst has been synonymous with the USGA for decades. 
    Since Payne Stewart thrust a fist skyward in victory on the 18th green on Pinehurst Resort's No. 2 course in winning the 1999 U.S. Open, nine USGA championships, including the Open in 2004 and 2014, have been held on the 1907 Donald Ross design. This year's U.S. Open is set to be held at Pinehurst next month.
    The USGA Experience, which includes a variety of exhibits and the relocated World Golf Hall of Fame, opens May 10 in the recently constructed USGA Golf House Pinehurst that also includes a research and test center.
    Further cementing the relationship between the USGA and the community is a collaboration to help train aspiring golf course maintenance professionals. 

    The apprenticeship program pairs students with mentors. USGA photo A $1 million pledge from the USGA and other donors will fund the Greenkeeper Apprenticeship Program for the next five years, with dedicated instructors and in-class/on-course education at Sandhills Community College in the Pinehurst area. In addition, a new program at Horry-Georgetown Technical College in the Myrtle Beach area, and a hybrid-learning opportunity will be established and funded. The extensive commitment will provide tuition-free learning for all students – no matter where they learn – for one year and paid on-the-job training positions at partner golf courses for up to 200 apprentices.
    The expansion of the USGA initiative is made possible by long-term financial commitments from Ewing Outdoor Supply, the Dedman Foundation and Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, the Carolinas Golf Association and several private donors dedicated to golf and workforce development in the Carolinas.
    In its second year at Sandhills Community College, the career-development program offers flexible class times around on-course working hours, and pairs students with mentors. Apprentices learn the technical skills needed to make agronomic decisions that affect turf maintenance. After completing the course, students receive college credentials, a progressive wage scale increase and a journeyworker card through the U.S. Department of Labor.
    Of the 19 members in the inaugural GAP graduating class, 70 percent earned job promotions, and 18 graduates were assigned increased leadership responsibilities based on successful completion of their classwork. Members from the current class and last year's apprentices will assist Pinehurst's staff during the preparation for this year's U.S. Open, scheduled for June 13-16.
    To reinforce its commitment to inclusion, the USGA will provide 24 college undergraduate and graduate students from communities underrepresented in golf exposure to all facets of the USGA and the U.S. Open through its 10-day Pathways Internship Program that includes professional development, hands-on learning experiences and networking throughout the week.
    The USGA will also continue its Reduce, Renew and Reinvest program throughout the U.S. Open.
    Concession areas at Pinehurst will feature recyclable aluminum cups and beverage products, and food containers made from recyclable or recycled materials. Fans can also bring in their own personal reusable water bottles and refill them at any of eight water stations throughout championship week. The USGA and Pinehurst have teamed to install permanent power throughout the site to reduce use of diesel-powered generators this year and during future championships.
    The USGA's commitment to help golf courses reduce water use during the next 15 years also will be on display at Golf House Pinehurst. That exhibit will include The Glade, an outdoor landscape focused on sustainable practices, and a display on subsurface drip irrigation.
  • The Andersons has acquired the assets and business of Reed and Perrine Sales, Inc. 
    Based in Tennent, New Jersey, Reed and Perrine specializes in the manufacturing and distribution of premium turf fertilizers and control products.
    Founded in 1916 as a supplier of fertilizer products to the local agricultural community, Reed and Perrine today serves the golf, sports turf and lawn and landscape markets in virtually all points east of the Mississippi. The company built its reputation on on-site custom blending of its fertilizer products for its customers.
    The acquisition also increases The Andersons' breadth of offerings in the market. 
    Since its founding the company has expanded its reach beyond fertilizer products to include fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, erosion-control products, grass seed, landscape supplies, outdoor lighting, water-treatment chemicals and ice-melt products. The company also offers a complete line of accessories, including spreaders, sprayers, hand tools, wheelbarrows, adhesives and safety equipment.
    "We are excited to expand our opportunities in the turf business with the acquisition of Reed & Perrine," Joe McNeely, president, The Andersons Nutrient & Industrial, said in a news release. "Their strong relationships and experience in this market will increase our opportunity to connect and enhance our turf customer base, including commercial lawn and landscaping and municipalities, and provide those customers access to the full suite of The Andersons premium turf products."
  • TurfNet picked up five awards, including a best-in-show and three first-place honors, at the recent Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association annual Communications Awards program.
    Jon Kiger won a best-in-show Gardner Award — his fifth — and a first place award for Innovative Use of Social Media in the New Media category for the 2023 TurfNet Major Pools Presented by Standard Golf program.
    Garrett Schultz, golf operations manager at Prairie West Golf Course in Mandan, North Dakota, is a regular participant in the TurfNet major pools program that allows superintendents to "draft" a team of professional golfers in an interactive platform during each of the game's four major championships. 
    "There's no doubt about it; we live in the digital age of communication. TurfNet does an outstanding job of staying at the forefront of how this generation interacts and utilizes technology," Schultz said. "TurfNet's Major Pools are an annual highlight for me, and I've been lucky enough to win some great gifts from industry sponsors along the way. The social media posts and interactive polls offer a fun way to generate engagement and correspond with other turf professionals. Just one of the many ways TurfNet connects a truly global industry."
    With literally hundreds of golf pools available for the consumer market, the TurfNet Major Pools Presented by Standard Golf program typically draws well in excess of 100 participants for each championship.
    "The time frame for submitting picks to the major pools is very short — from Sunday night until the first tee time Thursday," said Kiger, TurfNet's director of media and membership sales. "By leveraging social media we were able to have hundreds of entries for each event. In addition to the top three places in the competition, there is a separate prize for Best/Most Creative Team Name. Once all the team names have been submitted we use the X Polling feature to determine the winner from four finalists. The final way we leverage social media is that we encourage the winners to post photos when they receive their prize packs. These photos go a long way toward thanking our sponsor Standard Golf and generating interest in the next round."
    John Reitman won two first place awards and an honorable mention for writing in the best column and features categories. His column There is nothing you cannot handle is about confronting and beating life's challenges. The story Police chase comes to an end when suspect wrecks stolen spray rig detailed the goings on at Jim Ager Golf Course in Lincoln, Nebraska, where Bill Kreuser, Ph.D., is the superintendent. The suspect was arrested after a chase through the golf course. The suspect wrecked his vehicle into a tree before commandeering a Toro Workman with a retrofit GPS spray rig. A police helicopter joined in before the suspect allegedly drove the rig into a Nebraska State Police vehicle 2 miles from the golf course.
    Reitman also earned honorable mention for his story on assistant superintendent Emily Casey's experiences with javelina at Seven Canyons Golf Club in Sedona, Arizona.
    In its 35th year, the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association is a 200-plus member association comprising editorial, advertising and marketing professionals who work in the green industry.
  • The potential benefits are many as robotic mowers burst onto the golf scene. Chief among them were that they might help solve the labor challenges facing the turf business.
    Now that robots are becoming a more normalized part of golf course maintenance operations for many, the most prevalent benefit might be that robots can be used to complete much of the mundane large-area mowing without compromising quality of cut while also allowing superintendents and their crews to focus more on labor-intensive detail work that will help improve the golfer experience. 
    With that ability to reassign human resources from humdrum tasks to more specialized work on a daily basis comes increased demand and expectations for improved conditions on in-play areas on the golf course.
    "Oh, 100 percent that's right," said Chris Johnson, superintendent at Palmetto Bluff, a golf resort property in Bluffton, South Carolina. "It's like anything else. When you get budget or staff additions, the expectations on that return on investment is that conditions are going to improve. That's just the burden we carry. When more is given, more is expected."
    Dan Meersman has a fleet of about 30 Husqvarna robots at Philadelphia Cricket Club, where for the past three years he has been using them on the lawn, tennis courts, an athletic field and parts of all three golf courses, including the majority of the primary rough.
    In all, Meersman says he mows about the equivalent of an entire golf course each week with the autonomous units.
    The Cricket Club is not necessarily struggling to find enough help, but using the robots allows the staff to concentrate their efforts toward higher priority, in-play areas such as greens, tees, fairways and bunkers. The quiet operation means mowing can take place overnight without bothering nearby neighbors or during the day without disrupting activities of members.
    "If we mow at night, it doesn't bother the neighbors," Meersman said. 
    "There was a deer standing next to one. If a deer doesn't care, golfers aren't going to care."
    In short, robotic mowers help Meersman and his team promote the club's mission statement that includes the following: "The Cricket Club provides preeminent recreational and social experiences for its members, their families and friends by maintaining exceptional standards in its facilities, programs, services and professional staff."
    "When something comes along that helps me enhance the member experience, then I am obligated to use that," Meersman said. 
    Robotic mowing technology has changed dramatically since the Precise Path RG3 showed up on the trade show floor in 2009 in New Orleans. Designed for cutting putting greens, the RG3 enjoyed only moderate success before subsequent owner Cub Cadet halted production in 2020.
    Since then, more than a dozen brands have burst onto the scene as manufacturers and end users have realized the real savings could be realized in maintaining larger areas while at the same time units have gotten smaller with longer run times on a charge.

    Robotic mowers are becoming increasingly popular in golf course operations. Photo courtesy of Kress Across the country at the Meadow Club in Fairfax, California, Sean Tully also is an early adopter of robotic mowing technology and as such is able to eliminate about three rotary mowings a week. He hopes to one day maybe eliminate the use of rotary mowers altogether, except for occasional emergency use. 
    "Right now, we're doing less than half of what they can do," Tully said. "I'm excited about the possibilities. For me, right now, we're able to remove two or three mowings a week."
    The relative lack of noise allows Tully to mow after he and his team have left for the day, or before they arrive the following morning.
    "We set times to run from 8 to 10 p.m. and 5 to 8 a.m.," Tully said. 
    Tully has since tested robotics mowers for use on fairways.
    "They're only as good as what we let them do. I'm excited about the opportunity we have. 
    "We just keep finding more work. If we can do that, that's 45 hours to do other work."
    The increased use of robotic mowing technology and resulting savings in time that allows maintenance staff to focus efforts on areas of the golf course other than fairways and rough likely will mean increased golfer expectations for conditioning.
    "There is a quality uptick at all levels," Meersman said. 
    "To be honest, there will be a raising of standards. Now, every day is a Saturday from a quality standpoint."
    Palmetto Bluff in South Carolina has about 10 robotic mowers, including some Husqvarna and some from Kress to mow common areas and large spaces around the property's hotel. 
    The time saved by using robotic mowers translates into increased expectations to deliver championship conditions on the golf course.
    "We have to see the golf course through the eyes of the owners and members," Palmetto Bluff's Johnson said. "Part of golf maintenance in general is to enable you to have fewer excuses. We want to be able to push the envelope. That's what we do as superintendents."
    Palmetto Bluff also contracts with a landscape company that uses robots. The quietness they afford allows users to mow up against and in close proximity to guest accommodations, homes and around the clubhouse with relative anonymity compared with traditional equipment.
    "We mow around short-game areas and close to houses on the property and some areas around the clubhouse," Johnson said. "We use less equipment and the quality of cut is better.
    "It made sense to start with robotic mowers in those areas. Robotics on greens and fairways, that's intriguing. We want to explore that." 
  • Harrell's and 3BarBio have teamed to launch a new microbial product for the turf industry.
    Azo Root is formulated to transform plant health and root development across a range of agricultural and horticultural applications. 
    Designed with  Live-Microbe packaging, Azo Root is made to deliver live, high-concentration azospirillum brasilense microbes directly to plant roots to help promote improved growth and recovery along with greater stress resistance.
    Azo Root's formulation addresses traditional challenges in microbial product efficacy by maintaining the viability of beneficial bacteria through application, helping resolve longstanding issues such as poor survival rates in transit.
    Founded in 2013 by CEO Bruce Caldwell, 3BarBio is a biotechnology firm based in Columbus, Ohio that is dedicated to developing biological products that support sustainable agriculture practices by designing innovative packaging to deliver viable microbes.
    Trials conducted at Virginia Tech have shown improvements in turfgrass root health under stress conditions. These include increased root length, volume, and overall biomass.
    "With Azo Root, we're not just selling a product; we're offering a cornerstone for advanced root health programs," said Paul Giordano, Ph.D., Harrell’s director of agronomy. "Our trials on golf courses and in nursery settings have consistently shown that Azo Root outperforms standard treatments, making it an essential addition for anyone looking to boost plant vitality and growth."
    Azo Root is available through Harrell's and is a compatible partner for integration into existing soil-management and spray programs.
  • It is only fitting that Joe Vargas' favorite song was the Elvis Presley version of "My Way."
    Vargas' career in turfgrass academia at Michigan State University spanned more than a half-century and was marked by defying convention and going against many accepted methods and practices. Along the way, Vargas ruffled a lot of feathers, particularly among those who dismissed his methods and findings. But for every colleague, golf course superintendent and chemical company representative who questioned his methods, there were many more who became believers, especially after his research and peer-reviewed publications began to mount up. Cornell University professor Frank Rossi, Ph.D., said if there was a Mount Rushmore of turfgrass management "Joe Vargas would be on it."

    Vargas, who earned degrees at Rhode Island (bachelor's), Oklahoma State (master's) and Minnesota (doctorate), died Thursday, April 18 after a long illness. He had been suffering from pancreatitis for several months.
    "He did life his way," said Gordon LaFontaine, the longtime director of the Michigan Turfgrass Foundation and one of Vargas' best friends. "He changed things for many superintendents, and he definitely did it his way."
    For decades, Vargas was one of the most influential, entertaining and sometimes polarizing figures in turfgrass management. 
    "He came out with ideas that were not popular, but were later proven to be true," Rossi said. "Along the way, he had to put up with a lot of personal attacks.".
    A fan of Elvis, Vargas became as widely known for his impersonations and performances at turf conferences as he was for his expertise in turf. He was the recipient of the 2007 USGA Green Section Award, the Michigan State Distinguished Faculty award in 2019 and the GCSAA Distinguished Service award in 1997. He was inducted into the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame in 2016.
    From his views on anthracnose 40 years ago and his philosophy on fungicide use and resistance for disease control to his Elvis impersonations, Vargas was known for carving his own path.
    "When I found anthracnose killing annual bluegrass rather than heat alone, I thought this is going to be great, people are dumping tons of lead arsenic and calcium arsenate on fairways and greens" Vargas told Rossi in a 2018 episode of Frankly Speaking on TurfNet. "They're not going to have to do that, boy they're going to be so happy. Nobody was happy. 'Who's this young guy telling us it doesn't die in heat? We've known for 50 years it dies in heat. Who is this guy?' Oh my God."
    In that interview, with Rossi, Vargas recalled being asked to speak at a Rhode Island turf conference years ago by the late URI professor Noel Jackson, Ph.D., who suggested he put together a presentation on the highlights of his career.

    Joe Vargas, Ph.D., in his Elvis Presley attire with Michigan State colleague Kevin Frank, Ph.D. Kevin Frank photo via Twitter "As I put it together," Vargas recalled, "I realized my whole career was nothing but controversy."
    While some in the industry sought to discredit Vargas and his work, his colleagues at Michigan State convinced him to stay the course.
    They told him: " 'Joe, just do the research,'" Vargas said in the Frankly Speaking episode. ' "When you do the research, the truth will come out, and when it's published it will all go away.' 
    "It was really the superintendents who saved me. They were tired of fairways dying, greens dying, and they put fungicides out there."
    In return, Vargas was devout in his dedication to helping superintendents. 
    "He always had the superintendent's back," LaFontaine said. 
    "He could never tell a club they should get rid of a superintendent no matter how much he screwed up."

    Over the last half-century, LaFontaine spent as much time with Vargas as anyone, including endless miles on the road visiting golf courses at the behest of superintendents seeking advice on how to resurrect dead turf. 
    LaFontaine remembered one visit in particular.
    "There was a green with dead turf, and I asked Joe if the grass was ever going to come back," LaFontaine said. "He told me 'Jesus Christ came back from the dead in three days, but this green isn't coming back.' "
    During the early years of Vargas' MSU career, the pair would occasionally encounter a greenkeeper who balked at following Vargas' often unpopular advice. 
    "They'd say 'I don't have to listen to Vargas,' " LaFontaine said. "I told them, 'you're right, you don't have to listen to him, but the new guy who replaces you probably will.' "
    When LaFontaine built his own Pine View Highlands Golf Course in Houghton Lake, Michigan, Vargas took one look at the layout and told him the greens on Nos. 17 and 18 would be dead by summer.
    "He told me I didn't cut down enough trees," LaFontaine said. "By July 7, there I was cutting down more trees because the turf on those greens was dead."

    Throughout his career, Vargas became best known for his controversial views on fungicide use.
    "One thing that always used to make my blood boil was when I heard somebody finish a speech about fungicides and diseases they controlled and then youd get this: 'Don't forget to practice good resistance management by rotating different chemistries,' " Vargas said in the Rossi interview. "That needs to be banned, OK. It has not worked, and yet there are still people out there selling that, OK, so let this disappear from our vocabulary never to be spoken again — I hope."
    LaFontaine said the Michigan Turfgrass Foundation was woefully underfunded when he took over as executive director. Meanwhile, as Vargas became a giant in turf academia and outreach, he became an invaluable resource in helping raise funds for research. 
    "With him out in the field, it became easy to raise money," LaFontaine said. "He really changed the world for people, and he did it his way."
    Vargas was a sought-after expert around the globe.
    LaFontaine recalls when the pair played softball together, and Vargas was pulled away when a limousine arrived at the field to take him to the airport to catch a flight to Saudi Arabia on a consulting visit.
    "He mentored so many people who are where they are today because of him," LaFontaine said. "He left the world knowing he really helped a lot of people."
  • Longtime superintendent Matt Crowther is among three new sales representatives recently hired by PBI-Gordon Corp. 
    Joining Crowther (top right) on the PBI-Gordon team are Sean Lehr and Chris Quinlan. PBI-Gordon is a Kansas City-based company that serves the turf and landscape markets with its line of herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and plant growth regulators.
    A graduate of the University of Rhode Island, Crowther has more than 30 years of experience in turf. In his new role with PBI-Gordon, he will be responsible for all sales initiatives for the company's golf course, sports turf and lawn and landscape efforts in the Northeast region.
    During his tenure at Cape Cod, Crowther was the recipient of the 2020 GCSAA President's Award for Environmental Stewardship.
    Lehr (center right) will lead golf, landscape, professional lawn care and agriculture sales for PBI-Gordon customers and distributors in Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri.
    Lehr has more than 25 years of expertise in the turf and ornamental industry, most recently as district sales manager at Wilbur-Ellis Co. He also has held sales positions with Koch Turf & Ornamental, J.R. Simplot Co. and Mears Fertilizer.
    Quinlan (bottom right) will oversee all sales initiatives for golf course, sports turf and lawn and landscape in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
    Quinlan has a 25-year career in sales in the turf industry, including stops at Profile Products and Barenburg.
  • Verne Lundquist, who has sat behind the microphone at Augusta National for 40 years, including the past 25 on the par-3 16th hole, is not the only icon retiring after this year's Masters Tournament. After parts of five decades overseeing conditions at the world's most famous golf course, Brad Owen is calling it quits this year.
    Owen (right), who has worked at Augusta National Golf Club for 37 years, including the past 27 as superintendent, is retiring, according to a statement by club chairman Fred Ridley. His retirement will be effective later this year.
    His achievements and dedication to Augusta National and the Masters Tournament were acknowledged by Ridley four minutes into a 40-minute pre-tournament news conference on April 10 that also recognized the contributions of Lundquist and former Masters champion Jack Burke.
    "As you may have seen the past few days, the Augusta National golf course and grounds are again in exceptional condition. This is a credit to every member of our agronomy and horticulture teams whose passion and dedication are unmatched," Ridley said in the news conference. "It also is a tribute to Brad Owen, our senior director of agronomy who is retiring this fall 37 years after his arrival at Augusta.
    "I want to thank him for always finding a way to elevate and enhance the natural beauty of Augusta National."
    A 1987 graduate of the Penn State two-year program, Owen earned a bachelor's degree in business from Appalachian State University in 1986 in his native North Carolina. His Augusta career began immediately after he graduated from Penn State, starting as an irrigation tech in 1987. He was named senior assistant superintendent in 1989, a position he held for eight years before being named director of golf course maintenance in 1997. He held that title for 25 years until he was promoted to senior director of agronomy in 2022 when Marsh Benson retired.
    There have been two constants at Augusta National throughout its 90-year history — conditions that sometimes have been the bane of other superintendents (what other course has a "syndrome" named after it?) and architectural changes to the golf course that began in earnest immediately after the inaugural Masters Tournament in 1934.
    According to club records, Owen has been the superintendent at Augusta National longer than any of his predecessors. During his tenure, he has seen some of the most dramatic changes in the club's quest to keep pace with stick and ball technology and a generation of long hitters that threaten to render the longest and most difficult courses irrelevant.
    Just this year, the back tee on No. 2 was moved back another 10 yards, stretching the par 5 to 585 yards. In 2023, the par-5 13th hole was lengthened by 35 yards, and a handful of holes were renovated the year before.
    "As we state every year, we're bound to a tradition of constant improvement," Ridley said in the news conference. "We maintain Mr. (Clifford) Roberts' philosophy that nothing stands still. We have committed to always move forward and we always will strive to do it in a manner that serves the competitors in the Masters, our patrons, consumers of our content, and the game of golf as a whole."
    Yearly changes to the course have been almost a regular occurrence as the club strives to remain challenging for today's players while retaining some of the intent put into the ground by Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones as well as the philosophy of Roberts, who, along with Jones, founded the club. Today, the course stretches to 7,545 yards, making it the third-longest course on this year's PGA Tour schedule behind the South Course at Torrey Pines (7,765 yards) and the Plantation Course at Kapalua (7,596).
    "As has been reported, last summer, the fifth tee was moved back and shifted away from the fourth green. In doing so, the fairway landing area was regraded and the bunkers were repositioned," Ridley said in the news conference. "While this hole now measures 40 yards longer, we believe this change maintains the original design philosophy of Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie, and not only continues our commitment to keep the course in step with the changing state of the game, but we believe it will have a positive impact on pace of play."
    A multi-year nominee for the TurfNet Superintendent of the Year award, Owen was named Superintendent of the Year by the Georgia GCSA in 2020.
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