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John Reitman

By John Reitman

Etchells remembered as a mentor and friend and as a pioneering agronomist

Think of influential people in the turf business, and the name Ed Etchells is not exactly a household word - even among golf course superintendents. But there are plenty who believe no conversation about the giants of turf is complete without mentioning his name.

022521etchells3.jpgA native of Philadelphia and a 1964 graduate of Rutgers' turfgrass management program, Etchells was the first superintendent at Nicklaus's Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio. He later oversaw agronomic programs at Nicklaus-designed courses worldwide for 29 years before spinning off his own turfgrass consulting business in 2001 in Tequesta, Florida.

Credited with jumpstarting the careers of dozens of golf course superintendents, Etchells died Feb. 13 in Lake Worth, Florida, after being diagnosed with Covid-19. He was 78.

Those who worked with him during the past six decades remember him as a great agronomist and a no-nonsense manager.

"He developed a lot of cultural practices that today are common," said Mike McBride, the former Muirfield Village GC superintendent and co-developer of the Brandt iHammer line of turf nutrient products. "He taught me cultural practices to maintain turf, but he also taught me how to deal with personalities, which is probably more important. 

"If you asked Ed questions, you got really good answers, but you had to know when to ask him questions - and when not to. He was a very intense, very detail-oriented guy."

Jim Sprankle has a long history on Nicklaus-designed courses, including the Loxahatchee Club in Jupiter, Florida, where he has been superintendent since 2007. He recalls when Etchells hired him as superintendent at Cabo Del Sol, a Nicklaus design in Mexico.

"Ed told me 'This is a big job, don't **** it up. Don't make me look bad,' " Sprankle said. "Every day in the back of my mind I thought 'Don't screw it up.' 

"He was stern and direct. That's the way he was - business was business. But outside the office, he was a good friend and would do anything for you."

When Nicklaus was building Muirfield in 1972, it was with a PGA Tour event in mind. And he wanted a golf course superintendent who could push the turf and coax out of it the conditions that both Nicklaus and his fellow pros would demand for an annual tour stop. Nicklaus saw the conditions he was looking for at Brookside Golf and Country Club in nearby Worthington, where Etchells was superintendent.

"He was one of the original guys, who said we can stress a green and get speed out of it," Nicklaus told TurfNet.

I remember one year, I gave Ed hell because he got the greens too fast at Muirfield Village. I think it was '79. He had the greens cut, triple cut them at one-sixty-fourth of an inch or maybe it was three-sixty-fourths. It was really tight, and we ended up getting a lot of wind that was not forecast, and sunshine, and on the golf course, the greens got over 17 (on the Stimpmeter). Watson won the tournament. I think I shot 79 the last round - and moved up.

After six years as superintendent at Nicklaus's home course, Etchells turned over the reins at Muirfield to his assistant, Charlie Hutson. 
But Etchells did not move on, he moved up, as vice president of Golfturf, the agronomic division of Nicklaus's Golden Bear International. In that role, he consulted on or developed agronomic programs for all Nicklaus-designed courses around the world. That made him the person to know for anyone aspiring to be a greenkeeper on a Nicklaus course. In 2001, he struck out on his own, migrating Golfturf into his Tequesta-based Greens Management consulting firm.

Jon Scott is one of those agronomists who credits Etchells with launching his career. 

Over a 27-year period, Scott, principal of his own Traverse City, Michigan-based consulting firm, worked two stints with Nicklaus sandwiched around a nine-year career as vice president of agronomy for the PGA Tour. He began his career as a superintendent at various locations, including Grand Traverse Resort in Michigan, and Valhalla in Louisville, Kentucky, both Nicklaus designs. 

"My goal was to become a superintendent at a Jack Nicklaus golf course," Scott said. "I remember someone telling me 'if you want to do that, you have to know Ed Etchells. He taught me the business side of golf course consulting, and he taught me more about relationships than I knew anyone could. 

"He gave me the opportunity to advance myself, and that is what I needed at the time. My career with Jack led to a career with the PGA Tour and it ended with Jack. And it is all because of Ed. I can't say enough about how he influenced my career."

022521etchells2.jpg

Ed Etchells (far right) with (from left) Ivor Young, Jim Gerring, Pandel Savic, Jack Nicklaus and Bob Hoag playing the first round of golf at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, in 1973. Photo courtesy of Muirfield Village Golf Club

Etchells' reputation as a mentor was a reflection of his personnel management skills and his abilities as an agronomist. He turned to foliar fertilizer programs and light frequent applications of sand topdressing and lower amounts of fertilizer in granular form when few if any other superintendents were, says McBride. Because of his pioneering ways, Etchells was called in to consult when Augusta National converted from Bermudagrass to creeping bentgrass putting greens before the 1981 Masters.

"He developed techniques with green quality, green speed, green firmness and green resilience," McBride said. "Ed had to figure out how to do that stuff. You don't realize how much work there is to do to get a golf course to the expectations of Jack Nicklaus."

Etchells was able to meet or exceed Nicklaus' expectations - most of the time. However, Nicklaus himself pointed to the 1979 Memorial Tournament as an exception. Damp and gloomy weather dominated the tournament, and those conditions were expected to last through Sunday's final round. When the weather broke, the combination of sun and wind, and Etchells' handiwork, left Muirfield's greens more like trying to hold a putt in a bathtub.
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"I remember one year, I gave Ed hell because he got the greens too fast at Muirfield Village," Nicklaus said. "I think it was '79. He had the greens cut, triple cut them at one-sixty-fourth of an inch or maybe it was three-sixty-fourths. It was really tight, and we ended up getting a lot of wind that was not forecast, and sunshine, and on the golf course, the greens got over 17 (on the Stimpmeter). Watson won the tournament. I think I shot 79 the last round - and moved up.

"That was Ed. He liked to take things to the edge. Not always to the edge does it work. He was a very creative and innovative guy in golf course maintenance, and he did a good job."

If you asked Ed questions, you got really good answers, but you had to know when to ask him questions - and when not to. He was a very intense, very detail-oriented guy.

Sprankle first met Etchells when he was hired as superintendent at Damai Indah Golf and Country Club, a Nicklaus design in Indonesia. They remained lifelong friends.

"I was 25 and green as green can be," Sprankle said. "I'd heard rumors of Ed Etchells, and that he was all this and that. I wondered 'Who is this guy? He sounds like someone I don't want to mess with.'

"I was cocky, but we hit it off. He was my agronomist. He came in once a month, and we'd walk the golf course and go to dinner and it was 'see you next month.' He took to me, and I accepted him as my mentor, and we hit it off as friends."

A great mentor and friend, Etchells also had a hard side that made him and those around him successful.

"He was direct and stern, and that rubbed some people the wrong way," Sprankle said. "He was a good friend and would do anything for you, but business was business."

Said Scott: "He was the right person at the right time for me to make the jump from a good superintendent into agronomy consulting that launched my second career. My career with Jack led to a career with the PGA Tour and ended with Jack, and it's all because of Ed. He helped me understand what it took to be successful."

Survivors include son Edward, Jr., (Kimberly) and grandsons Michael and Christopher.

Due to the Covid pandemic, the family is planning a future memorial service to celebrate and honor his life.

"I just talked to him on his birthday," McBride said. "He was a mentor obviously, but he was a great friend, and we stayed in contact. I will miss the guy."

Edited by John Reitman

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