Feature Interview with Dave Wilber
August , 2006
Dave Wilber is a turfgrass consultant and agronomic advisor. Since 1991 Dave has independently run Wilber Turf and Soil Services. Dave consults with over 200 existing golf facilities worldwide as well as providing service to construction and renovation/restoration projects working with architects, owners and golf course superintendents. Dave is a graduate of the Landscape and Turfgrass Management Program at Northeastern Colorado and later attended Colorado State University majoring in Soil and Turfgrass Science. Over the past several years Dave has had the opportunity to work with Tom Doak, Kyle Phillips, Coore & Crenshaw, Gill Hanse, Tom Fazio and several other leading architects on their projects’ turf and soil issues. Dave has a special place in his consulting heart for Linksland grassing and the Bent/Fescue playing surface. Dave started working in golf construction when he was 16 in Colorado, picking rocks and shoveling sand.
1. What is your background?
I grew up in a small town in the mountains of Colorado. When I was a teenager a golf course was being built very close to my family’s home. Most of the locals were upset, but I looked at it as a way not to have to play cowboy for a living or a lifetime. I met the golf course superintendent, Mike Kosak (now the GM at Sonoma Golf Club), and later applied for a job with him. I had no idea about anything to do with golf. It wasn’t really part of the local culture. I knew I liked being outside and that the work couldn’t be harder than any kind of ranch work. The summer I started there were 4 of us working to grow-in 9 holes and the second 9 was being built, so I ended up working wherever I was needed, and because I could operate equipment and knew how to weld and stuff that all ranch kids knew, I got to see and be a part of all the work being done both by the greens crew and by Wadsworth Golf Construction. Pole Creek Golf Club was designed by Dennis Griffiths (as part of the Kirby/Player firm) and ended up being Golf Digest’s number 1 new public course when it opened. I had a chat with Mike Kosak one day and he encouraged me to pursue an education and a career as a golf course superintendent. My senior year of high school I was accepted into a very hard to get into ROTC type program and all I really wanted to do was build golf courses. I did two years at an agricultural based junior college in Northeastern Colorado that had a Landscape and Turf Management program and I was offered a scholarship to be on the Rodeo team there, so it worked out and I didn’t have to do the military thing to get an education.
I spent summers and my required internships working with Mike Kosak on another Colorado grow-in and I spent some time working for Wadsworth as well. After finishing the two-year program at Northeastern, I took an assistant superintendent’s job at a very busy public course in the Denver suburbs that was doing a large renovation. Not long after I started the superintendent quit and the director of golf maintenance offered me the position. I was 20 and I was a superintendent. It wasn’t exactly my plan, but it seemed to be progress. I took classes at Colorado State Univ. in the winter after that.
I finished that renovation and then did another grow-in of a course near Boulder, because Dick Phelps, the architect there liked me. Again, you have to understand that I knew nothing about golf. In fact, I started playing because I felt I had to, not because I wanted to. Coal Creek Golf Course was nearly finished when I got a call from a friend of a friend and interviewed to be the superintendent at a club contemplating a renovation project in Northern California. I remember it was about 10 below zero when I got on the plane in Denver to fly to Sacramento for the interview and that afternoon I played golf with the club president in January in short sleeves and I thought that some warm weather looked good. So I took the job. The course was a Billy Bell design and was nothing special, but it was my first private club gig, so I learned how to deal with committees and a GM and that sort of thing. Gary Grandstaff, who besides being the super at the Pete Dye Golf Club also did some design consulting. We didn’t do all the renovation work we could have, but we did work really hard with a small and dedicated staff and not much money.
Coming to NorCal was wonderful. I got to see all the amazing golf courses like Cypress Point and Pebble and San Francisco GC and I realized that I didn’t know anything about golf. I turned up the heat on learning more about the game as well as challenging myself to begin to grow grass in a more sustainable, pesticide free way, which was a good thing to do in Northern California and Lake Wildwood CC was a good place to do some trial and error.
2. How did you make the transition from Golf Course Superintendent to Turfgrass Consultant?
I had met and started using Dick Psolla as a soils consultant while in Denver. Gary Grandstaff made the introduction and I thought of Dick as “The World’s Smartest Man.” On one of his visits to me in California he talked to me about this amazing opportunity to really study soil science along the lines of true sustainability with an organization called Brookside made up of a bunch of independent agronomy consultants. I begged Dick for info. I’m sure I was quite a pest. And my phone started to ring because people heard that there was something interesting happening at my golf course. So Dick encouraged me to participate in the William Albrecht training program through Brookside Labs. I was invited to become a Brookside consultant and it was very interesting but I had my eyes on another superintendent’s job and wanted to go back to construction and grow-in circles.
Again, my plan was foiled a bit and in 1991 I made the decision to consult full time. I didn’t know at the time that in the superintendent world that becoming a consultant was a kind of veiled speak for getting fired. For me, nothing could be further from the truth, as my club begged me to stay, even keeping me on the payroll for a while to help me get a good start as a turf consultant. I was really honored. Looking back, I should have been scared to death, but I was too young and stupid to be afraid.
3. Please explain what is involved with turfgrass consulting.
I wish there was one answer to that. So many people think that the only model for a turf consultant comes by way of what a USGA agronomist looks like. Come in, be smart, write a report, send an invoice. Or if you put the PGA Tour model in place it looks more like: come in, be smart, prepare for a big event, leave. I just didn’t think doing it either of those ways was very interesting.
For me, I was just excited to get out on the road and share ideas with everyone I met. I was pretty naÃƒ¯ve about what it really took to run the business side of things. In fact, I still struggle with that. I just wanted to be out there. I focused on soil and soil fertility work, environmental enhancement and construction/grow-in. I thought I had something to offer with my passion in those areas.
So I had 6 months to generate some kind of income from doing soil testing and from offering my services to superintendents as a close partner and not a one-day visit kind of guy. And I just went out there and swam upstream.
I look back and think of how absurd it was that I thought I had anything at all to offer. The community of golf course superintendents doesn’t suffer fools much, but at the same time, they can be pretty eager to get new info, so I enjoyed some flavor of the month status. Mostly I just wasn’t afraid to work and to turn over some stones, meet superintendents, talk about grass and keep moving which is really the heart of what turf consulting is for me. Might sound easy or sexy if you are really into golf, but the truth is it isn’t easy or sexy.
I determined early on to be completely independent. This meant no affiliation of any kind with anyone selling products like fertilizers or sand or whatever. I built a business plan (if you can call it that) on being totally independent, focused on the needs of the superintendent, willing to travel as much as necessary, providing great lab work for both physical testing and fertility testing, and not having any employees or equipment.
Seriously, not because of the competition factor, but when people call me and ask about becoming a consultant now, I tell them the truth. I tell them it is hard and that they really want to look at doing something else or keep their superintendent job. It is very much the kind of thing that is totally a labor of love. There are political issues and time issues and the issue of what is good and what is not good being up to so many variable factors that make it hard. I also believe that there’s a certain amount of green thumb factor involved as being able to grow grass and more importantly knowing what part a system is failing when grass is dying. Sort of the X factor for turfheads. And if there’s an artistic side of consulting, then having some talent behind the science is important.
For years, I have traveled more than 200 nights away from home every year and that can really take a physical and emotional toll. But every day, even on the toughest days I love it. I love being on the golf course and I love being in touch with superintendents who are just working unbelievably hard and I love being part of solving problems. So I wouldn’t really know what else to do. On occasion I’ve done some executive searches or acted as part of an interview committee, but it is very rare that I involve myself with this kind of thing. I do offer up candidates that I think are amazing when asked and leave it at that. I vouched hard for one young superintendent and got him a job and he ended up having it go to his head and be a total fool and it cost me dearly as well as him and so I’m a lot more careful about who I recommend.
I realize this probably isn’t a great summation of what a turfgrass consultant is, but it seems to be such a variable thing these days that the answer gets more and more complicated.
4. Is your focus more on construction/renovation or working with existing facilities?
Both. It ebbs and flows. I think much of the reputation things come with construction and renovation and that’s a lot of what people hear about which is probably why this is being read on GCA and the existing club work is either pretty quiet or fairly uninteresting to people.
For me, the existing facility thing is something I approach differently, because I want the superintendent to succeed and I want every facility to get better.
Often not too many people know that I’ve been invited in to an existing club. I want it that way as opposed to some other consultants who like the world to know that they are coming to save the day. I’d rather see the superintendent get the glory and run in stealth mode. Seriously, I’ve been involved in some existing facilities that I can’t even talk about because it was such a sensitive thing to bring in an independent opinion. One superintendent and his committee chair even told me that I needed to pose as a fertilizer salesman so that no one would ask questions about why I was there. That was asking a little much.
And as much as possible I avoid doing a one day, “come and tell us how you think the course is” type of situation. I do it, but I do it under protest because I think the golf maintenance thing is so complicated that I can’t imagine how a short glimpse of an operation qualifies me to say anything of value. What’s really weird about that is often it is like the club is trying to stump me. For instance if I see something and don’t say anything or I just miss something because the green chairman drives past it at full cart speed it must be that I’m stupid or that they can tell members that the consultant was here and he didn’t say anything about a particular hot issue in the men’s grill.
Sometimes I have to bite my tongue for an entire visit. Then I have to say to an unsuspecting superintendent, when he and I are alone, that he should look for a job or at least find a way to do better or some other bit of truth. I could never put a lot of what I have to say in a report that will be posted above the urinals in the men’s room. I once had to sit down with a superintendent and tell him that if I wrote a visit report and was accurate and truthful in what I had to say that their career would literally be over, not just the current job. It was that bad. So I didn’t write the report and didn’t bill the club and simply told the Green Chairman that I wasn’t the guy to help them and that they didn’t need a consultant. And I called the superintendent every day for a month until he finally went to a substance abuse rehab and turned his life around. To me that was the only way to help and I imagined that other consultants would have just thrown the guy under the bus.
But good open long-term relationships are very fruitful and my hope is always that I can be of great help in those healthy relationships.
Construction and Renovation consulting comes with a built in time value that means I’m involved for more than a short glimpse. It sets up a relationship or at least gives a better opportunity for it. I love the materials testing and the quality control help that I can offer because of having a good lab to get info from. I love supporting an architect’s vision with my experience in managing soils during construction, understanding the water issues, selection of turfgrass and getting a good leg into a grow-in.
The ultimate for me is getting to be there for the whole process and be involved down the road. It doesn’t happen as much as it should, but when it does, I think everyone benefits. Unfortunately facilities change hands or management and it often leaves little room for someone thought of as part of the old program. The other side of that ultimate for me is to see the young turfheads that I have met over the years as interns and assistant superintendents grow into amazing and talented professionals. I feel blessed to see that.
5. Describe your role for the construction of Kingsbarns.
I met Mark Parsinen and his partner Dave Cook as they were doing Granite Bay GC not far from where I live very early in my consulting career. Mark and I hit it off and we both saw each other’s passion and I owe Mark a great deal for giving me a shot when I really needed a break to do a higher end new project. Kyle Phillips was Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s design associate at Granite Bay and he was looking like he was going to move into a practice of his own, so we had a great team at Granite Bay. Mark’s background as a marketing consultant helped me a lot and he was a good mentor.
When Mark got involved in looking at a possible project in Scotland, I thought that he was one of those people who could probably make it happen because of the energy he can carry. Often introductions in our business are so important and I saw that Mark and Kyle had really come to something that was so unique by way of Kyle introducing Mark to some key players and by Mark insisting that something could be done with the right people. So I just stayed close and offered to do whatever I could.
I ended up being invited to a meeting in St. Andrews where I learned that one of my idols was going to be in the room along with a host of other really smart people. That idol was Walter Woods who had been retired as the Links Manager from St. Andrews for a few years at that point and I had always had him on my list of turfheads to meet.
I remember being physically sick, puking my guts out, just before going to the first day of meetings at Mark’s flat in St. Andrews. It was just all so overwhelming. I mean I really had this feeling of a moment where a kid from a small town in Colorado, who really had no experience at all compared to a Walter Woods, either being good at what he does or going home knowing that it was all just a sick joke. Seriously, I was out in the street next to the 18th at St. Andrews horking, having dry heaves because it was all coming down to a moment and I wasn’t sure I belonged there for the moment. I’ve always said that this business will humble a person. But I had prepared myself and done my homework and I had some ideas. I just had to stop barfing long enough to be able to be in the room.
Somehow I made it through that meeting and the ones that followed and I was determined to do everything I could to be humble and learn and at the same time stick up for what I believed in. So along with Walter Woods and Dr. Paul Miller from Elmwood College and Robert Price and Barry Cooper (the amazing UK drainage consultant) and Kyle Phillips and a bunch of other really smart people, we developed an agronomy plan that tackled the job of taking that particular piece of ground and making it great. We agreed on most everything and we didn’t on some things, but we all came to the table with our best ideas. Mark Parsinen taught me the benefit of playing it low key when you have to and speaking strong when you know that you know. I will always credit him for me being able to earn the trust of Walter Woods and to be able to learn from him and have him introduce me to so many wonderful members of the UK Greenkeeping community.
Paul Miller and Walter and I worked a lot on translating what everyone knew about management of a golfing surface that had been around for 100’s of years and trying to figure out how best to design a grassing plan and make a way to grow it in on a new project. It was right at that moment when I absolutely fell in love with the turf sward of a linksland type surface. Not just falling in love with Fescue or dry and fast conditions, but the whole package and all the parts that make up for an amazing surface for the game.
I just want to give credit to Stuart McColm, the first course manager at Kingsbarns (now with Mark Parsinen on his project near Inverness) and his assistant Innes Knight (who is now the course manager at Kingsbarns). What an amazing feat they pulled off getting the place open for a true world stage opening in 2000. I was there a few times for consulting, but those guys, at Walter’s direction, did the work and I don’t feel comfortable taking too much credit.
6. What was your involvement at Pacific Dunes and other projects with Renaissance Golf Design?
I met Tom Doak when he was working in Denver for the Dyes. It was a short meeting and I doubt he would remember. Later, a superintendent friend gave me his copy of the copy machine version of the Confidential Guide and I was so blown away by the honesty in it. Shortly thereafter I met Jim Urbina and Neil and Eric Iverson and some of the other Denver Dye guys who were working all over the world and I really thought that I should think about joining up, but I wasn’t sure my 16 handicap would hold up because someone told me that Pete and Perry only hired good golfers and I really wanted to be involved with grass and not just run a dozer.
Some time later I met Bruce Hepner and Tom Mead from Doak’s office. Mead was the ex superintendent at Crystal Downs and he and I really hit it off. He was one of the first people that I ever talked to who didn’t call some of my radical grass ideas crazy. Tom Mead isn’t with Doak anymore which is sad for me because I think that he would be enjoying some of the work that Renaissance is now doing.
I got a call one day from Mead and he was telling me about a project in Arizona that he and Jim Urbina were trying to figure out grassing on and he asked me to visit the site. I was just getting involved in Kingsbarns and so right after freezing by butt off in Scotland in December, I met Urbina and Mead in Arizona and I remember is was hot. It was awful, the airline had lost one of my bags and I was really jetlagged and I just wanted to go home and nearly called Mead and Urbina to cancel. I walked the site with Jim and Tom and we talked about grass a lot and soil and water and all that. Later I was glad I didn’t cancel.
I ending up giving my opinion as to grassing scheme for the Apache Stronghold and several other groups did as well. My choices weren’t selected and I was kind of upset because I knew I was right, but some bigger name turf guys got involved and were more vocal about their opinions. After the course opened, I was invited to The Renaissance Cup there and I wrote a really honest letter to Renaissance about what I thought. After I mailed it, I felt like I stepped over the line, but heard later that they read the letter aloud in their office and that they appreciated my passion.
Jim Urbina called one day and asked me if I could meet he and Doak in Bandon to look at their project there in late 1999. I was feeling like I had learned a lot at Kingsbarns that would help and offered myself gladly. Tom Mead was still with Renaissance and so he and I worked along with Troy Russell and Ken Nice who were growing grass at Bandon Dunes and we decided on a grassing spec. It felt like a good collaborative effort. We also worked really hard on moving soil correctly and testing material for suitability to build with and I think I did my job and was a small part of a whole bunch of good people who had amazing passion getting a good thing done. Troy and Ken were (and still are) very passionate about Links Turf and along with Jeff Sutherland (the superintendent there now) they were very open to new ideas.
I also got to help Troy work up a soil amendment and grass spec for the Sheep Ranch property after the burned gorse had been cleared and before it was to be a golf course. It was a good opportunity to see just how tough fescue can be as it came in with no irrigation and in the dry weather season.
So I’ve gotten to do various bits of what I do on several new Renaissance projects (including Cape Kidnappers, Texas Tech, Barnbougle, St. Andrews Beach, Rock Creek, Ballyneal and bits some of the others as well as some of the coming projects) as well as be around several of the renovation/restoration projects of theirs and am very blessed to have the opportunity. I take the work very seriously and hope that I’ll always have the invite to work with them on some projects.
7. How do you consult on renovation and restoration work?
It is always different as it depends on the facility and the architect. Sometimes I think my role is best described as being there to keep the superintendent out of trouble! But that’s not always the case.
I always want to look at their soils and see if there is anything that we can do that might be different than what would be the norm. I’m not afraid to look at older school ways of green construction and things like that. To me the biggest sins are committed when we have a course with nice old greens and we have to build or rebuild a couple of greens because of an architecture change and we don’t do everything we can to make the new greens agronomically similar to the older greens.
In a few situations I go as far as being project manager, but that is rare because I think that means being there every day and it is hard to pull that off and not make other clients upset. Often, like I mentioned, I’m brought in quietly and asked to speak freely. That can be fun and interesting at times.
I still have dozer skills and love finish work so I don’t mind getting involved in helping with that sort of thing. I don’t know too many turf consultants that can shape a little, run a trackhoe on a bunker or enjoy finishing greens, so I look at that as a good thing.
8. How do you view the relationship between Golf Course Superintendent and Turf Consultant?
There are really just two ways to handle the relationship—honestly or dishonestly. After 15 years of visiting hundreds of courses a year I can tell in the first moments of my conversation with a superintendent I haven’t met before if he is going to be straight with me or even wants me there even if he’s been my only contact with the club. Some are just eager for info and just open the books and open their hearts and everything is out in the open. Others are just worried about everything or just think they don’t need any help and are closed off.
Since I don’t choose to be political, I often have very frank discussions with superintendents and often we figure out quickly we can’t work together. It really doesn’t require a big scene, I just fade away.
But one of the things I see superintendents doing wrong is being so defensive that they fail to recognize that they could perhaps get a little help or learn something from a guy like me. It shouldn’t be threatening to learn. Or at least admit that there are things that you don’t know.
In their defense, over the last few years, I’ve seen superintendents hit with lots of reasons not to trust anyone!! Seriously, it really has gotten very strange when a green committee chairman can post about a superintendent’s job performance on a place like GCA and have it be pretty ugly in the court of public opinion.
So I think that more and more I’m faced with situations where I’m telling a superintendent that if he or she thinks they can’t trust me or don’t need me to not waste anyone’s time or the club’s money. At the same time, I’m often telling committee members that I can’t tell them every detail of what the super and I are talking about because so much of it has nothing to do with agronomy when politics are in play. For me the worst part is seeing that for whatever reason, the club and the super aren’t going to work it out and really not be able to help.
But I value the individual relationships I have with superintendents very much. Honestly, I don’t see too many people who actually like superintendents and who are willing to be an advocate for them. There’s a whole language and culture and history of “turfheadism” and it really is wonderful to be a part of that.
9. How do you feel about the state of agronomy in golf today?
Geez ¦where do I start? I think we are in a seriously bad place in a couple of areas.
The first is irrigation. More sins are committed and irrigation issues create more woes than nearly anything else. Irrigation systems have gotten so expensive to build and maintain and are now so much of the daily hassle that superintendents have to deal with. And the crazy thing is that we really aren’t being any more efficient with water use and management than we were 15 years ago, in my opinion. I’m sure some of the irrigation designers will disagree with me, but to me it has less to do with them and more to do with equipment manufacture.
Sprinkler heads aren’t better at water placement, unless heavily modified. Irrigation controls are pretty much just moded versions of what they always have been, a big start clock. From a design standpoint, we have some better mapping tools available, but irrigation design is still very field intensive and not really flowing with what is happening out there as to how we really need to water. Large greens are difficult to water because of common spacing. Small areas are trouble too and when we resort to using common home lawn landscape equipment to irrigate a play area, I think we see the gap in tech development.
A dirty little secret that lots of superintendents at new courses won’t talk about is how much they have to do to a brand new system to get it to perform. There are a couple of people out there working on new mapping and design modeling programs that look promising, but the established irrigation companies make it very hard for them to come to market with those ideas. I’m tired of control boxes sticking up all over, tons of valve boxes in play areas and greens with 10-12 heads around them being OK and normal. Water is just too important to ignore and I think we are going to have to do way better at using way less of it to grow grass if golf is going to be prosper.
I guess the other issue is this crazy notion that everything has to be green. I’m tired of courses talking out of both sides of their mouths on this. We see environmental stewardship awards given for all kinds of interesting habitat kinds of things, but no one ever says, wow you guys cut your fertilizer and water in half, stopped spraying fungicide every week, took the public opinion hit and lost revenue or members and here’s an award. Seems very weird to me.
I’m really excited about how much everyone is liking some of the latest lower input courses like Ballyneal and to a point the courses at Bandon. But we have a long way to go in the area of being off color being OK. And I think it is just too easy to blame the Television. I’ve seen knock down drag out fights over being green at places where the TV cameras never will be. What’s really interesting to me is how we talk about how much we love the UK golf courses but don’t want to see any of our majors look like Royal Liverpool did this past summer for The Open Championship. I’m serious. I hear things like, “I love The Old Course, but don’t bring that kind of conditions to my place.” If I was a better golfer, I’d scream out “Learn The Game,” over and over.
Lastly, I’m really uncomfortable about how information is getting to superintendents. Turfgrass research is in a bit of trouble and folks selling a product sponsor much of it. Superintendents don’t always hear what is really going on and often they rely way too much of the advice of salespeople rather than their own experience. Because I get to work in a bunch of different markets, it makes the picture clearer. I often see an area where the agronomy is dictated by what is being marketed and that’s not a good thing. Superintendents caught up in those situations don’t often feel comfortable being different when in fact their situation demands it.
10. What are the biggest mistakes that you see golf course superintendents making?
- Watering too much and watering incorrectly for their situation.
- Not aerifying enough and not taking compaction seriously as a barrier to air and water movement.
- Making easy tasks difficult because they think they need to be cutting edge.
- Not networking and associating with the clubs or courses in the immediate area.
- Not getting out to see other facilities and to align themselves with several close friends to mentor each other.
- Believing that they have to be buying something new in order to be doing their jobs.
- Not understanding the real details of their particular climate, like soil temps, wind run, degree-days and other climate data to use in making decisions.
- Not placing enough value in the basics, like good water management, good air management, having perfect cutting units and mowing well with them.
- Forgetting their soils and being focused on fertilizer instead of soil fertility.
11. Many people know you as a soils consultant. Why is soil so important to you?
I think for me soil is at the heart of what I do. Physical, chemical and biological properties are so important to understand if you really want to see a clear picture. I can get soil tests back on a golf course I’ve never seen and just from the tests I can start to tell what is going wrong.
I also believe very strongly in getting the best materials we can if we are building something. This doesn’t mean buying the best, because the best materials are often on site and we just need to figure out how to use them.
Mishandled soils during construction can spell disaster. I see so many ills that superintendents are given to them because the folks on the job didn’t think about compaction or removing it and we can just do so much better if we are thinking that someday we need to grow grass.
12. How do you feel about U.S.G.A. Greens?
It isn’t fair to single out just USGA greens in the discussion of sand based greens. First and foremost, sand is not soil. Sand is parent material for soil, so we have to get the sand in a sand based system to support life in order for that system to do well. It’s not easy and not always ideal from a soil life standpoint, just to have good drainage. We risk ending up with a sterile system that doesn’t have it’s own antibiotic properties or defenses for climate swings or general turfgrass support.
From a playing surface point of view, sand based greens are difficult in their modularity. Meaning that a well draining sand system right next to natural draining native soil is always going to be different in air, water, fertility and biological issues. You can’t water or fertilize them the same and so we see grass develop differently depending on the materials. In some cases this isn’t so bad, but often it causes issues around the perimeter of the green that are hard to manage and here again, our irrigation choices are technology limited.
A while back I started a topic on GCA about USGA Greens and really spoke my mind about these issues and my colleagues with the USGA took my words very seriously and caused me a bit of trouble. Not unexpected with the Blue Coats because they do very well at protection of their own. But the debate isn’t about what is good about USGA or not. It should be about golf. I think we just need to look at what has become the norm and see if down the road, it really is the best thing to do.
From a design standpoint, a USGA or California green needs to be shaped in the subgrade and doing it right takes away much of the final finish work that should be done. That’s not to say that contractors or builders or superintendents or architects don’t break the rules and move too much material on top. They do. And we often end up fixing those greens later. Some architects tell me that they can do it all in the subgrade. But when I ask them if they had a choice, which they would prefer, they always tell me that it is harder in the bottom and I agree.
So I always make sure that we’ve looked at all the materials on the site and in the local area to see if we can build something different and give more architectural opportunity. That answer might mean not building a sand based, modular system.
I’m working on a project right now that is in amazing beautiful sand and the owner was repeatedly told to build USGA greens because that’s what everyone does. I mean, we couldn’t find better sand than what they have 10 feet of all over the site and still someone thinks that spending $7 or more per square foot to import sand and build sand based greens in a sandy site is some kind of insurance. I’ll never be OK with that kind of thinking. Ever.
Lastly from a pure environmental standpoint, we are having more and more trouble convincing environmental engineering and regulatory types that a sand based, closed drainage, highly maintained system is not a possible point source of potential groundwater contamination. So the question becomes how we justify fighting that kind of thing or worse yet testing sumps and lysimeters on 18-20 greens every time it rains to the tune of $75K or more per year of testing. For the most part the system is pretty clean and doesn’t run too much nutrient out the drain tiles, but sharp environmental types tell me that we’ll never convince them we have complete control over that kind of system.
13. Please talk about the process you go through to develop a grassing specification for a new golf course.
I guess if there is artwork in my agronomy it is in this area and I hate to say that because it is also so much science.
I have this really crazy process I go through to study historical weather records and other climate factors along with soils, water and native vegetation and even local agricultural crops to understand what the area can and can’t support. I do all of this before I ever even think about looking at any other golf facility in the area. Then I do my homework as to what the local turfgrass gang is up to and that usually reveals quite a bit of useless but interesting information. Then I look at what the client wants and what the architect has in mind and balance those things against what the reality of the level of expectations and play will be. It’s a messy process, but in the end, I get to a place where I have two to three options for a total grassing scheme. Then I work on those options until my head hurts and I walk away from the whole thing for a while and let my head clear. I’m always really careful not to fall in love my own ideas too much.
And then, and this is the truth, I start over at the very beginning. Because I have to know that I didn’t miss anything or be influenced by something someone said that may not be true. It’s a grueling process for me and often it doesn’t come right away. I heard a favorite musician describing his songwriting process once and it seemed to be a lot the same.
I so know what I’m not the only one with good ideas out there and so at the end of it all, I’m often surprised when someone comes up with something different. I find it fun to debate and grind it out and see who has really done their homework. I then take the grassing spec and meld it with a soil management strategy to make the package complete.
But at last count I’ve done more than 75 grassing specs so something is working. What is funny to me is how much everyone wants to know a grassing spec, but they never ask what my soils work looks like. I mean, they’ll debate with me over a bentgrass cultivar, but never even ask how we intend to provide plant food nutrients to it!
14. How does this process differ in the restoration/renovation process?
Paul Daley asked me to go into this a bit when I did my “Meditations on Grassing the Putting Surface” for his Golf Architecture Volume #3. What I found out when I was working on that essay is that there really isn’t that much difference except for taking into accounts what is already there and what the management of the current surface looks like. Obviously, on smaller jobs, we are fairly tied to matching up what is there. On the larger jobs, we sometimes have the option of some form of starting over.
Sometimes it is just easier because there is a history of turfgrass culture at an existing facility and maybe even someone there who has done some trials and knows what worked and what doesn’t. But often that information isn’t complete either.
15. Please talk about your role with Ballyneal.
When I first saw the property at Ballyneal, I fell in love. And I’ve gotten to see a ton of sites and this one touched me in a special place. There had to be golf there and it had to be unique. Sure, you can’t get Sand Hills out of your head when you think if this kind of place, but to me, I couldn’t get Machrihanish out of my head either. So I fell in love. Second to that was falling in love with Jim and Rupert O’Neal. The first time we met, we drove from Sacramento to Bandon to meet up with Jim Urbina for a couple of days and by the time we got our 16 hours worth of driving in, I think we wanted to work together. We are all from small town Colorado and we very much spoke a common language.
Originally I was asked to be the Director of Agronomy (or Head Greenkeeper or Course Manager or whatever ¦.) for Ballyneal. I was really excited about this, and during our talks about how this relationship might look, I think I saw a way to slow down on the number of days on the road consulting and focus on one property. My plan was to hire a superintendent to work with me at Ballyneal and to hire a superintendent/consultant to work with me in the consulting end and we’d get it done. But I think the love of Ballyneal clouded my good judgment and in our very small business, I got some heat for what everyone thought was going back to growing grass. I didn’t see it that way. I thought I could do both. But it was clear that both my consulting clients and my bosses at Ballyneal wanted me and not someone else on their sites as much as possible.
Right during the time we were working this out and contemplating starting on Ballyneal, my father died and it was very hard on me. A month later, my mom was involved in a nearly fatal car accident and it was all just too much for me to really deal with. My fierce independence groomed over the years didn’t help me either when I decided I just didn’t want to explain things (sometimes over and over) to Rupert O’Neal anymore and lost my cool with him. The truth is, he was the boss and I didn’t really want a boss. My wife and I weren’t seeing eye to eye on the possibility of me being in Colorado for extended periods and she didn’t want to move to rural northeastern Colorado to be the 14 year veteran golf widow that she is perfectly fine being in Northern California and I agreed.
So I had to make a really tough decision. I really wanted to remain in relationship with the O’Neal brothers, but it just didn’t plot out the way we were headed. I know they were upset with me at first, but later I was asked to resume a role as their agronomist and that role did sketch pretty well. Often, I want to be at Ballyneal every day. I never had a doubt in my mind before the first teaspoon of sand was moved, that the place would really be something. But the reality is that it wasn’t the right move. Going to the opening was kind of hard for me because Ballyneal represents that place where we all said it could and will be different. But relationships count and unless success goes to their heads, I’ll always be able to call Jim and Rupert close friends. I certainly don’t think that as their employee, I would have been able to keep that kind of relationship with them and still keep my independence, which seems to be very big at my core.
Dave Hensley is the superintendent there now and Dave is a special person and now I know that one of my core goals always being to help the young turfheads is taken care of by Dave being at Ballyneal. My hat is off to Dave. This is his first superintendent’s job (he was hired as the assistant and the first superintendent couldn’t deal and Dave was there much like I was when I got my first job). The difference is that Dave Hensley is much smarter and much more educated than I was when I came to my first job. He’s got his hands full and I just want to do what I do and stand behind him when he needs me.
I’d be wrong not to mention that fact that Jim Urbina introduced me to Rupert and Jim O’Neal and I owe Jim thanks for that. Bruce Hepner ran the work for Renaissance and Bruce believes in what I have to offer and he never excluded me when I was reeling from a bit too many heavy life events. So much of what we do is about the amazing community of people we get to interact with, so I feel fortunate to have had a chance to work with each and every person who was involved in the construction at Ballyneal.
16. Everyone asks what the grassing specs are for Ballyneal and you always dodge the question. Why?
By everyone, I guess we mean many of the GCA crowd but actually I’m getting that question all the time. Quite frankly it has become such a weird issue. I mean, now there’s like a competitive thing going on over grass types on some of the new sand hills region courses. Ron Whitten’s recent article in Golf Digest even talked about the grasses at Ballyneal and Dismal River as some kind of comparative contest. He got it wrong, however! (Geez, Ron, pick up the phone or send an email if you need to know about grass on one of my jobs).
I guess I also heard so many people tell me that the thing we wanted to do at Ballyneal was a coastal linksland move and that I was doing the wrong thing. The problem was that I had just gotten done working on Tom Doak’s stuff down under and knew that Fescue and Browntop Bent would do OK in tougher climates, just based on my traveling around. Not necessarily to golf courses, but looking at grazing grounds and stuff like that. But no one who nay-sayed could really back up their thoughts with real info. We wanted the traditional surface that blended from green, tee and fairway. We needed something that didn’t need a lot of water and would possibly go dormant in the hot summer weather. We needed something that would take the abuse of very cold, very dry, very windy winters. It was an incredibly tall order to fill and in my mind just one grass or even two wouldn’t do it. My travels to lesser maintained facilities all over always showed me that the turf sward had many different grasses in it and that during the year this population transitioned back and forth.
You have to understand that when we first talked about Ballyneal, that they didn’t have much water at all. Perhaps none. So we were talking about the need to irrigate at all and if so, how. A lot like a Maidstone or Muirfield type of situation. So a lot of what people got on the rumor mill was based on a lot of gossip and we really couldn’t talk about the water situation while they were negotiating that part of their deal. The truth is, Ballyneal still doesn’t have much water. They have enough if they are careful and I think that is a good thing. I wrote a piece for them about the philosophy of agronomy and I said clearly that we wouldn’t just talk about being environmental, we’d walk that way and I was thinking about the use of water as a natural resource as a big part of that.
We’ve decided to hold onto the details of the specific cultivars and percentages of each because mostly it was what we could buy in a very tough grass seed buying year and because we knew that over time, like any traditional surface, it would evolve based on regular overseeding and our other inputs. Also, we have to remember that there are big differences in seed count between Fescues (350-500K seeds per pound), Blues (1.2M seed per pound) and Bents (6-8M seeds per pound), so our final sward of turf looks nothing like the by weight percentages. But the basics of the grassing spec look like this:
- Greens: 40% Chewings Fescue, 30% Slender Creeping Red Fescue and 30% Browntop Bentgrass.
- Tees: 35% Chewings, 35% Strong and Slender CRF, 20% Kentucky Blue (aka as Smooth Stalked Meadow Grass) and 10% Browntop.
- Fairways: 30% Chewings, 30% Strong CRF, 15% Slender CRF, 15% Browntop and 10% SSMG.
- Rough: 25% Strong CRF, 25% Slender CRF, 40% Sheeps Fescue and 10% Chewings.
Again, this is the basics, we had to adjust some for seed availability and things like that. And Dave Hensley is now overseeding with a different blend to overcome what did and didn’t do well in the initial seeding.
17. In ten years, where do you see the role of the more traditional playing surface?
I think the Bent/Fescue/Blue/Whatever surface has the possibility to be looked at as very green as far an environmental responsibility goes. It can be very low input and still be tough, even in hot weather.
I also think this kind of thing lets us marry green surface with green surround with fairway to get away from the modular look that modern architecture had brought to us. Then only the mower and our height of cut choices can really set how that end product works and looks.
I also think that the hickory golf club crowd and the traditionalist movement is making us think about how a traditional surface plays and I worry a little if more people don’t get to see it in the states because we don’t have enough spots to show it. One day, the golf world will see what they’ve missed out on and demand for more. Sites where this will work are hard to find, but they exist. So I have guarded enthusiasm for Linksland Grassing. What definitely keeps my guard up is how American turf management isn’t sure they really want to embrace firm, dry and fast brown grass. I think that many turf managers actually believe that they can get away with fertilizing and watering and doing all the usual things in an American manner with Bents and Fescues and the truth is, that sort of thing has held back the popularity of the Linksland surface, because treating it like that will never get it to develop correctly. We used to hear about all these failures of fescue and in my mind now the failure wasn’t in the fescue at all.
18. What’s next for you?
Thanks for asking!! I have some cool stuff in the pipline as far as new construction. I’m doing a thing with John Fought and Andy Staples called Sand Hollow in St. George, UT. Very exciting bright red sand! I’m working with Todd Eckenrode on a couple of things, one in Cabo. I’m advising on a couple of large renovations. I’m involved in a very sensitive site in the Lake Tahoe area called Martis Camp. Renaissance is using me for some work on a couple of projects.
Our existing facility work is exciting. I just made a hard decision not to do any more work for a large management company that was growing too large for my one man operation to keep up with. The other day I was in a superintendent’s office and we had soil tests going clear back to 1991 and it certainly makes it easy to make decisions based on history, so I want to continue to cultivate that.
I miss writing. Once my gig with Golfdom dried up, it has been a sad thing not to write as much, but there will be a time for that and I need to do more. There was a book in the works and that project could come to life.
I also miss doing some of the interactive and quite candid roundtable meetings with my young turfheads and we are going to start that up again because they are begging me to do it.
Mostly I just see myself working, doing the usual road warrior thing and trying as hard as I can to do what I do. I don’t seem to be happy doing anything else.
Many thanks for the opportunity to do this interview and to GCA members for their passionate words left here about The Golf.