Feature Interview with Scott Anderson,
Part I August, 2005
Scott Anderson, GCSAA, is the head superintendent at the Huntingdon Valley Country Club in Huntingdon Valley, Pa. While many courses in the district closed orare severely stressed due to the difficult weather conditions over the past few years, the 27-holes at Huntingdon Valley continue to play ideally for its architecture; that is firm and fast through the green with firm greens that only lightly dent with lofted approach shots. The course is kept ‘very’ dry when nature allows. Thus course conditions do change considerably with the weather. One day you’ll be playing a bump and run type game, the next day following a rain you might play the aerial game. The goal is always firm and fast. The course dries out quickly because it is not wettobegin with. Balls bound down and across the fairways guided by the skill of the golfer and the effects of topography and gravity setting the stage for a supreme test of decision-making and ball striking.
Scott has a unique way of looking at the maintenance and playability of his golf course. His water bill pleases the club, he aerates far less than most; the rate of application of fertilizer, pesticides and chemicals is dramatically lower than is common practice. Scott uses some unusual minerals and top-dressing mixtures. His is an integrated process that simply works; it is a tremendous bonus that it also saves money – a lot of it. Given the state of golf today, a revolution in golf maintenance practices is in order and Scott is surely one candidate to lead a ‘sea change’ where the priority is on playability and turf durability.
Scott has earned the complete support of his membership and works with such visionaries as Lincoln Roden III (see his December 2001 Feature Interview on this site) and Jim Sullivan (his son, Jim Sullivan II posts here regularly and is one of a very long line of championship golfers to come out of HVCC). Communication and education have been key components in getting a unified membership behind these successful practices. We hope this feature interview open people’s minds to new (in some ways old) methods. His practices result in ideal conditions for golf.Below areScott’s theories and practices.
1. The players and golf course at Huntingdon Valley Country Club are synonymous with tournament golf in Philadelphia. How would you describe the course conditions when you arrived in 1980?
After graduating from Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa in 1980, I worked at High Point golf farm (now Springmill Country Club) through that summer and then started working at HVCC in the fall of 1980. Having worked at two low budget public courses growing up, I was surprised at how wet and lush HVCC was. I remember playing that first Monday as an employee and having my ball plug in a couple of fairways. The course was pretty to look at, but not very firm to play.
2. Did the club have a defined plan for you when you arrived? What was the process within the club that led to the definition of the way the golf course would be maintained and therefore played?
Cut, water, and spray was the program back in the early 80’s. There were a handful of members who remembered the firm fast playing conditions that Dominic Thomas, an early HVCC superintendent, practiced. This was prior to 1964 when the state of the art (quick coupler) irrigation system was installed. This system was used until the mid 80’s at which time Toro heads were installed and operated manually until it was wired in 1998.
Dave Greely was hired in the early 70’s to take over for retiring Dominic Thomas. Dave was well known as a top turf manager and would keep every blade of grass alive within the confines of the irrigation system even if it meant over watering 90% to keep 10% alive. The course became a lush poa patch dependent upon life support provided by the cut/water/spray philosophy. In 1982 the state of Pennsylvania imposed drought restrictions in which Dave Greely chose to strictly abide by. The over-watered fairways quickly went into nearly complete failure without its life support. The turf loss in the fairways was in the 80% range. The 20% that survived, mostly bentgrass, simply went dormant and did just fine. Linc Roden, the new green chairman, was involved in the decision to overseed the fairways with Penncross bent grass in August. Linc was a low handicapper with a goal of returning the course to the firm and fast playing conditions he remembered and loved. Linc, along with the help of Pat O’Brien a USGA agronomist, researched maintenance techniques required to dry a golf course out. First he got the board to agree and then developed the ‘Quality Standards and Objectives’. The club was ready for protection against future drought restrictions and the promise of firm and fast.
The summer of 1983 I was the assistant Superintendent under Dave Greely. Much to Linc’s frustration the firm and fast program just wasn’t happening. The new bent grass was being over watered and HVCC was headed down the same old road. I was frustrated myself with the lack of acceptance to the new firm and dry approach. Dave’s attitude was ‘I’ve been through other Green Chairmen, and I’ll get through this one’. I resigned the end of August.
Linc got wind of my plans to leave and asked me if I would take over as the interim superintendent while the club looked for a new one. They interviewed a hand full of candidates and hired me in October 1983. I was 25 with little or no budget or political experience. Way in over my head! Linc took me under his wing and we worked together implementing a different approach to turf management. I was young, open minded, and looked at change as an opportunity rather than a threat. I still tell people Linc’s comments coming off the course in those early days like ‘the course is great, I lost 3 balls in the rough and putted off the 11th green!’
Over the years I’ve been blessed working with some great Green Chairmen and strong committees. When I went to automate our irrigation system, Jim Sullivan Sr. suggested we simply eliminate fairway irrigation. A couple of years ago during a drought I received a letter from Linc Roden complaining that he was making ball marks on the greens. Our hose guys were not being trained correctly. Along the way these guys have helped tremendously in the evolution of our current day program. The thing that keeps it interesting for me is that just because it worked one year doesn’t mean I won’t try something different the next. I try to keep it fresh.
An important objective back then and still today was green speed. The initial goals were 9-10′ for regular play and 10-11′ for tournaments. We achieved this by minimizing fertilizer applications and irrigation use. We found that the old cast iron hand rollers, from the old barn, increased speeds 8-10′ for tournaments. We still use these when greens are too wet for power rollers. They do improve speed even on those super wet days. For a while I had to post green speeds in the locker room and at monthly green committee meetings. I pushed those greens to their limits to find out where they were. I was amazed at the turf’s stress tolerance and ability to bounce back. We used a lot of K+ potassium and under a half pound N per year. One of the key things though is that we stayed away from sand topdressing and to this day have only topdressed with sand once. It just didn’t sit right with me and my soils background.
3. What is your philosophy on remediation approaches to golf course maintenance? How do your concepts differ? My philosophy on golf course maintenance is very minimalistic. Fortunately this approach is consistent with achieving the playing conditions and stress tolerant turf our members love. Minimal inputs keep the costs down in fertility, electricity, labor, pesticides; basically every line item in my budget which is $1,150,000 for 27 holes. 75% of this is labor. Another benefit of our program is environmental stewardship. Minimal input means less pollution from packaging waste, electrical production (mercury in our streams), fuel use, ground water pollution, chemical exposure, etc. With this in mind I try to balance the desires of the membership with my desires to reduce, reuse, and recycle. When making decisions I try to look at cost/benefit not only monetarily but the cost to the environment.
The topic of water use deserves some attention. My philosophy is to never water the soil. Deep watering is avoided. I have found that the turf does just fine with just enough water for the day and periodic syringes as needed. This approach keeps playing conditions firm and fast, keeps water related problems down like saturated soils, root rots, diseases, wet wilts, accelerated growth, and fertilizer requirements. If rain is forecast the objective is to be as dry as possible going into the rain. Excessive moisture is definitely to be avoided. Since most of our watering is very minimal, we usually water between the hours of 5am and 10am. We avoid watering at night. This helps keep disease pressure down. I once was asked to speak to a class at Delaware Valley College about irrigation. The majority of the class was dedicated to things you can do to avoid watering. Some examples are having the intention of minimal water, turf selection, root hormones, minimal N fertilization/high K+, root pruning and tree work, soil modification, annual soil testing, organic fertilizers, rock dust minerals, not mowing in the heat of the day, wetting agents, growth regulators, allowing grain on greens, aeration, etc.
Our fairway irrigation is single row with Toro 690 heads. These heads slow down to half speed where they do not overlap resulting in incredibly accurate water distribution. These heads, as well as our watering (or lack of), philosophy keeps our water use down. Based on 18 holes it’s usually 4-5 million total gallons used for greens, tees, and fairways. Rough other than adjacent to fairways is on its own. Through the end of September this years water use stands at 7,000,000 gallons for 27 holes.
The heavier topdressing mix we use and our soil greens helps to keep water use down. The soil profile actually will wick moisture up as you dry the top out. Other benefits of our topdressing program are minimal fertilizer requirements, a resiliency to soil temperature changes on those hot afternoons. The soil approach keeps thatch down giving organisms that breakdown thatch a home. This requires less topdressing, basically 4 per year. Two from physical topdressings, and two from aeration plugs drug around. In my opinion caution must be given to drying out sand greens or soil greens topdressed with sand. I would think this would be a lot touchier than in our situation. The only down side to having soil greens is that if they get saturated, they take some time to dry back out, but we have never really had a problem with them when they are saturated as long as we have Ã‚¼’ aeration holes which we leave open when we aerate in May and October. Deep tine holes are also left open in the fall helping the soils to breath.
4. How do you convince a membership, particularly at such an active golf course to adopt atypical methods?
The Green committee and the board have to be in agreement. The principles have to be communicated. The improved playing conditions will soon convince the membership as a whole.
At this point, convincing our membership has been done through communications in our newsletter and most importantly through the results. The program has withstood the test of time through droughts, harsh winters with virtually no winter kill, ice damage, and even the two previous years of excessive moisture. Note: the same mechanisms associated with heat, drought, and disease are involved in cold tolerance.
As for convincing a club membership elsewhere, I think someone has to take the time to do a little research into the maintenance of British golf courses, local successful private and public courses, the USGA, etc. I was talking to a golf course architect from Michigan the other day. His observations are that this approach works from the public course with financial constraints, to the private Country Club. A couple of my former assistants have successfully implemented low water programs into former wet golf courses. The transitions seems to take about 3 seasons of pushing turf to the edge where the strong get stronger and the weak grasses peter out. I continue to use what I call the 10% rule. I am willing to weaken or lose 10% for the good of the 90%. Once we lose that 10% we nurse the rest along. A good-looking golf course rarely plays firm and fast unless it’s during the transition from wet to dry. A membership has to be educated that wall-to-wall turf is not the goal. The superintendent becomes the ‘playing condition’ manager rather than the ‘turf manager’. Sometimes I still find it difficult to think that way. I constantly measure the pulse of the members to reconfirm what they want.
5. What signs tell you that a course is over-watered?
Some signs include thin, lush emerald green grass sometimes smelling of pesticides (more water/more fungicides). From a playability standpoint: virtually no roll, beaver tail like divots, ball washers heavily used, and long irons checking up. Some public courses like these conditions, they feel it speeds up play. We find that when our members, who are used to firm playing conditions, play away on a wet golf course, they tend to hit some fat shots. They have to adjust their game accordingly. Of course they have to do the same at HVCC when it rains. The varieties of playing conditions from wet to dry keep it interesting.
6. How long does it take to implement the process and when is there a noticeable result? Does the period of transition result in unplayable or nearly unplayable conditions for a significant period of time?
This type of program may not be for every membership. Some may be content with the current approach. If a club wants to take on a dry program, if they have the patience, they might want to take a hole and experiment for a season with the full understanding and feedback of the members.
A reminder that older clubs with soil greens topdressed with sand may have a difficult time drying them out. A layer of sand over soil is prone to quick temperature changes, nutrient holding variables, and limited microbial activity, all of which may be tough to keep turf on the hot summer day. Our success has been topdressing with a heavier sand/mushroom soil mix that matches and actually compliments the original native soil greens. As long as we keep these greens dry whenever possible (when it doesn’t rain) they hold up great with incredible firmness, green speeds, and stress tolerance.
We aerate these greens twice a year with Ã‚¼’ tines, and once with longer needle tines.
Limited pore space in these soil greens could and would be a problem if filled with the dreaded ‘water’. The interstitial water forces out critical oxygen out which causes anaerobic conditions and no roots. No roots require more water. It is a vicious circle. 7. How do maintenance practices differ on classic courses, one with a predominance of ground game options and another with a mixture of ground and aerial options?
Many of our members believe the ground game to be the superior golfing experience. Fortunately William Flynn (Billy) designed Huntingdon Valley with that in mind. Almost all the greens are open from the front to enable a shot to bounce in from a distance. The greens that are not open are tilted toward the player to accept a well-executed shot even when the greens are dusty firm.
The importance of keeping your ball on the fairway is crucial to putting the required spin on a shot into a firm green. I had a player raving about how firm the greens got once this year when he bounced over the flag on his tee shot on the par 3 13th hole. Scores do go up a little when the course firms up, but the majority of our members love it and the demand is put on shot making. With today’s equipment, how else do you defend par?
8. Some classic courses have pronounced slopes on some of their greens. How do you determine the green speeds for a golf course that may have one or more greens that go ‘over the top’ sooner than others?
At HVCC when conditions permit we can get speeds up to 13′ without losing too many pin placements to hold a 3-day event. Flynn’s long flowing contours coupled with a little grain (grass laid over) make it fun to read a putt. The ability to read grain separates the really good putters from the rest of us. About 10 years ago we changed from a goal of no grain to one of limited grain. Greens are checked by rolling a ball at a potential pin placement and making sure it doesn’t do a 90Ã‚° turn. Other factors are being able to stop a putt within two feet of the hole. The results have been great. Other benefits of grain and dry conditions include more interesting putting conditions, longer leaf blades, and stronger plants with deeper roots, less plants per square inch, and a greater chance of bentgrass competing with poa. On our healthiest soil greens we have roots out the bottom of the cup cutter throughout the entire season.
9. How do you balance ideal firm and fast conditions on a golf course that has a few forced aerial approaches? How do you avoid having these aerial approach shots being compromised by the firmness of the greens?
Some modern designs or some redesigns may not lend themselves to firm and fast. I feel that it’s unfortunate that the ground game has been lost in this high tech age of today. Hopefully the pendulum will swing back the other way. Note that Flynn called for all carry approach shots on some holes, while others have front landing plateaus like #8 and #18.
10. Can you tell us about your practice of introducing minerals and organic materials to the soil? How you balance the support of good organisms and the ridding of bad organisms?
Over the past 10-15 years I’ve been drawn toward organics through both intuition and necessity. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, HVCC had dollar spot so bad it was scary. We had fairways painted white with certain fungicides and the dollar spot would laugh at it. After a couple of years of outright frustration, I heard dollar spot might be suppressed with organic fertilizer. I had side-by-side fairways with heavy dollar spot. I sprayed the 10th fairway with fungicide and applied organic fertilizer to the 9th fairway with dew on it. The fertilizer was then drug with a drag hose to smear it over the leaves. This particular time, the organic fertilizer did much better than the fungicide. The light was on!
Since then we have expanded our organic approach to compost tea full of beneficial organisms applied 3-4 times per month. Other products incorporated into the program include yucca extract wetting agents, fish emulsions, nitrogen fixing bacteria, worm casting compost, and bacillus thuringiensis (milky spore disease) mycorrizea fungi, root hormones, and rock dust minerals. All these products contribute to the success of the program. Another benefit is that thatch, even with Penncross in our fairways is broken down by the organic approach. We are able to aerate fairways with solid tines, where 2-3 core aerations were once necessary.
11. What are some of the innovative organic and rock dust mineral applications you use?
The most exciting natural product I recently learned about is the ‘paramagnetic volcanic rock dust minerals’. Research around the world is showing incredible benefits when applied to agriculture as well as turf. This relatively inexpensive product has been shown to improve drought tolerance, heat and cold tolerance, disease resistance, and insect resistance. The overall health of the soil microbiology improves and the plants growing in these soils also respond. Paramagnetism is a phenomenon the nuts and bolts of science have yet to explain. Subtle energies are said to be drawn in resulting in improved health of plants. The two products I’ve been using are Azomite and Planters II rock dust minerals. Based on what I’ve seen this past season, we are applying rock dust minerals on the entire property to improve the health of maintained turf as well as trees. This is referred to as ‘biodynamics’ and the internet is full of pertinent information.
Compost teas are used to mimic nature in a way by having beneficial organisms compete with antagonistic ones in the turf system. Brewing is easy and very inexpensive. Fungicide use has been cut back considerably on fairways and when we do have to use them, they work even better when sprayed with tea. Obviously some of the organisms must die when we mix the two, but it does seem to work. Since there isn’t much money in tea brewing, it really doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
12. How often do you topdress and with what materials?
Topdressing is important when maintaining close cut putting greens. One purpose is to protect the crown (growing point) of the plant against scalping. The crown is always trying to push up so we must either make small depressions (from aeration) or bury the crowns to protect them. Topdressing is done 4 times per year. Two from physical topdressings in the end of the winter season and again in mid August, and then two times during Ã‚¼’ tine aeration around Memorial Day and again in October we drag the plugs in. The topdressing we use is from Fertl-Soil in Kennet Square, Pa. The one we use is called medium sand biodressing. This is a great product especially when used in a dry program. Many clubs have gotten away from this topdressing at the recommendation of professional consultants. I think it’s the programs, not the topdressing, that should be looked at.
13. How often do you aerify your greens and with what sort of tines? We aerate greens twice a year with Ã‚¼’ tines, and once with longer needle tines.
14. You’ve trained a number of successful superintendents that went elsewhere to head superintendent jobs. Can these philosophies be exported to courses around the country?
Scott May at Manufacturers CC, a neighboring golf course, has been very successful at the firm and fast approach. We talk to each other a couple times a week to share information and talk about what we are seeing. He’s a great free thinker and we continue to learn from each other. Also, Matt Strader at Penn National Golf Course near Gettysburg, PA has done a fine job with this approach.
15. What are some of the architectural features of Huntingdon Valley Country Club that you find most interesting?
Architectural features that are impressive to me are the long flowing contours, the openness of the approaches for the ground game, and the way Flynn took a tough piece of property and produced a masterpiece with a variety of side hill, down hill, and uphill lies. Occasionally you get a flat lie. HVCC has produced a lot of skilled players through the years due to the challenging nature of the design.
16. Tell us about the process to resurrect the C-nine at Huntingdon Valley. Environmental issues played a role in determining how much of the original Flynn work could be restored.
The resurrection of the C-9 was an interesting process. The course had been constructed with the other 18 holes in 1927. During the 40’s it was let go and it had basically grown over back to woods. The goal was to rebuild it as close to Flynn’s original design as possible and as inexpensively as possible. Its reconstruction was contingent on a vote of over 75% of the membership so every $10,000 in potential construction cost may have cost us some votes. So a conservative approach, including the dreaded low bidding, was in order. The permit process was difficult, and extended to some degree over seven years. We were able to show a history of minimal water, pesticide, and fertilizer use. The fact that we wanted to build basically soil type greens and that we were willing to protect sensitive environmental locations helped.
The 9-hole course was rebuilt for the sum of $1,250,000 including irrigation equipment and grow in costs. Ron Prichard was our master plan architect on the other 18, and after interviewing a number of other architects Ron was chosen to work on the C-9 project. Many of the green slopes were kept somewhat severe limiting pin placements. Some of these slopes had to be later softened to accommodate a good variety of pins.
17. Huntingdon Valley had a long and demanding course at the turn of the century, a 6300-yard course in the late 1890’s. With the construction of Merion East and Pine Valley the club saw its lead in championship design eroded. Flynn was called upon to design a new course for the club when they moved to the present site. His mandate was to design the three nines as successively more difficult tests of golf. What makes the C-nine the challenge it was intended to be?
The C-nine challenge starts with the first tee shot. Basically you are asked to draw your tee shot in order to hold a left to right sloping fairway. The second shot, although the green had to be changed due to its severity, is to a two-tiered green with a creek in front and a difficult up and down from just about anywhere else.
The second hole has to be one of the most difficult in the Philadelphia area. Although a little odd to play your tee shot shorter than your second shot; 180-200 yard well placed tee shot will leave an up hill 200-225 yard second shot. Once through these two demanding holes, the course loosens up giving you a chance to make a few pars.
Flynn designed the C-9 to be a long and difficult test of golf. The B-C blue tee combination slope is 140 playing at 7,066 yards and a course rating of 75.9 with a par of 70.
18. We are mindful of Flynn’s rather unique regard for trees on a golf course. How do you view Flynn’s use of trees in strategy at Huntingdon Valley?
Flynn’s original photos show wide-open areas at Huntingdon Valley with great vistas while other areas had holes corridors cut out of existing woodlands. Well-meaning committees along the way have cluttered the course with trees, especially with evergreen plantings in the 1950s. The typical combination of evergreens, specimen trees, and hard woods are being selectively thinned. We started our tree management program based upon the master plan created for us by Ron Prichard in 1996. We are gradually opening the hole-to-hole views that once dominated. A recent visit to Shinnecock is a great example of what a little tree work can achieve.
19. What are your plans for Huntingdon Valley in the near future? Are there some things about the golf course you’d like to see changed?
Just recently I toured the course with our current Greens Chairman, Mike Dougherty, to review our master list of projects and our unfinished master plan items. I was thrilled by the enthusiasm Mike has for tree work as well as keeping conversations going on restoring the 2nd and 3rd holes to their original design. It doesn’t look like we will be doing the green renovation work this year.
20. Can a renaissance in golf course maintenance happen as it is happening in golf architecture? You’ve discussed some of your practices, how do you think a revolution in the way turf for golf is maintained can be manifested? I think financial constraints will force a lot of clubs to take another look at how they maintain their golf courses. A lot of clubs have spent a lot of money on irrigation systems, regrassing with upright bents, and a host of other projects in an effort to improve. It is my belief that emphasis on playing conditions over wall-to-wall grass will be the next renaissance in golf. It’s hard to conceive, but a turf manager may some day be congratulated for losing a little grass in order to keep great playing conditions.