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Sam Dunning: A Man So Full of “Content,” It Wouldn’t Fit in One Cover Story

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I wrote the August 2018 cover story entitled “Hunting for Unicorns” for Golf Course Industry Magazine (GCI) about one of the rarest creatures of all: the disappearing Pro/Super.  One of the Pro/Supers still working today who was kind enough to sit down and be interviewed is Sam Dunning.  Sam has been the Golf Professional and the Superintendent at Cleveland (MS) Country Club for more than 4 decades—yes, you read that right: he’s been the Pro/Super for 41 years!  Sam is a colorful and engaging guy (you’d have to be to stay at one club for that long without getting fired) and notes from his interview spanned pages!  There was simply too much information and not enough room in the magazine for all of his insight, humor, and stories from his time at the helm.  So now that the August issue of GCI Magazine is available online and the printed version is headed to mailboxes as we speak, I present to you my unedited notes from the interview with Sam Dunning.

Enjoy the following and let me know what you think on Twitter by tweeting me @lipouts.

All the best,

Nathan


When did you start at Cleveland CC?  July 11, 1977. I was 25 years old and they said here it is. I came for interview in June. They had over seeded greens and they kept them watered for an event in June and they were immaculate.  I took the job and started in July. I got there and the rye grass had died and there was hardly any grass on the Bermuda greens.  Holy cow! That was my first experience with grass. Unfortunately that was the beginning for me to start learning.

Were you hired to be the pro/super from the start or hired as one or the other and then given the other responsibilities?  I was hired as pro/ superintendent. Cleveland CC was a 9 hole course and actually very few golfers. So, at that time of my career, I spent lot more time on course. We had one other employee and quick couplers for water. Heck we were glad just to have water. We built another 9 holes in 1995 and also an automated irrigation system. I used to go out and push buttons and water whether it needed it or not just because I was so happy that it was automated. Whew, what a pretty sight after moving sprinklers and hoses every hour for 20 years! Now 18 holes and 400 members and I’m finding myself spending most of my time in the pro shop, preparing and running events, lessons, teaching juniors, and more of a consultant on the golf course. Of course when something goes wrong on the course, it’s still Sam’s fault [laughs].  Also, through the years I have found out when the course is perfect, it is because of rain and good weather.  When it’s not as good, it is always the fault of Sam and Avent–our head golf course supervisor and the real worker on the course.

Are/were you a member of both the PGA and the GCSAA? I have been a Class A PGA member of the Gulf States Section [PGA Hall of Fame 2008] for past 41 years.  I’m also a member Mississippi Turfgrass Association.

Why do you think there are so few Pro/Supers and why do you think young people are not choosing to go that route? Actually now, the demands and expectations for each position is overwhelming at times. To meet the expectations of most members at most clubs, you have to specialize in only one area. It is not appealing to youngsters because of the training process and education that is involved in each career. I also think the financial return is probably not very attractive as some other jobs they could pursue. Plus working weekends and holidays can turn people away.  I was so fortunate to learn turf, even though I am still learning, growing up at Canton CC in Canton, Mississippi.  I worked for a legend pro/super, Robbie Webb, during summers and weekends while in high school, and college at Mississippi State. I also worked for Mr. Webb as a PGA assistant professional at Canton CC for the last 3 years before coming to Cleveland CC. I worked on the golf course, in the pro shop, and anywhere else he told me to go. I also learned to cook great hamburgers and mix some really strong drinks working in the clubhouse. The hours were extremely long, but as I look back, it was a great learning experience. Plus I always had someone I could call or rely on when things might get a little shaky.

Biggest challenges of being a Pro/Super today?  Time!!!  Finding the 8th day of the week to catch up. But heck I have been trying to catch up for 41 years. It is very easy to cut yourself too thin and find yourself not doing a good job efficiently at either job. Obviously, I have been truly fortunate to have great staff on board. Avent Payne is phenomenal on the golf course. Also, a very supportive manager, Aaron Lasker, and board of directors, and fantastic membership seem to go a long way in making positive things happen. The time away from family life is a huge challenge. Being at work every weekend and on holidays goes unnoticed at work, but your family sure notices you are never home. Every day I go to work feels like my first day on the job 41 years ago. Those 19 greens are like children. I feed and water them and also many times seem to be punishing them with aerification and verticutting. There is always something to do; but you have to realize that doesn’t mean I always do it.

Biggest advantages/rewards of being a Pro/Super today? Biggest advantage is first, both of us seem to get along okay and we work great together when it’s time to coordinate events with course work. [laughs]  We are always trying to peak course for every event. But seriously, to see the golf course look so awesome and peak for an event, knowing how much work Avent Payne, my chief boss man for 24 years, Willie Scott, who has been with us 19 years, and his crew have done to make it happen. Also, for me to get outside on the course and take notes and push water buttons, just to get away sometimes from problems that occur inside. I could never be an inside man permanently. Way too many phone calls and issues to deal with that occur inside.  It’s good to get out on the course and clear my head.

Do you think the golf industry could be helped if there were more Pro/Supers? Definitely depends on the club situation. Possibly a smaller 18 hole club or definitely a nine hole club could benefit tremendously. But it can be overwhelming at a bigger club and would take a very special person to be able to handle both positions. He or she must have their heart in the job to make things look good. It is not a 40 hour a week job and you have to know what’s going on everywhere. I went to a nice club a couple of months ago and asked the professional what kind of greens they had, meaning which variety of bermuda (Champion, TifEagle, etc.)? He said “I think some kind of bermuda, but I’m not sure.”  That really woke me up.

If we could train young people to be Pro/Supers, which would be easier:  turning a young super into a Pro/Super or turning a young pro into a Pro/Super?  Why?

I definitely think turning a pro into a superintendent would be easier route to go. I’m sure there are cases where superintendent could become pro, but I haven’t heard of that situation. Both require extensive training. To become a PGA professional is a 3 ½ to 5 year process. Plus you must pass a playing ability test. I know there a lot of superintendents who can play well, but I don’t think most of them would want to go through the PGA process. Most supers aren’t trained to teach and most don’t really want to tackle that avenue.

On the other hand, most PGA pros have grown up playing quite well, and some have also worked on the course when they were younger.  It is easier to go through playing requirements early in career when you still have time to play, before the time of not having much opportunity to play once you start taking care of a course. But most pros also don’t have the technical training to do what an agronomist does.  That’s a tough question.

But I also absolutely believe a super should play as much as possible. You can tell so much more how a course is playing than just looking at it every day.  Oh and never get cocky about grass when it’s looking good.  It will turn around and bite you when you get a sense of complacency.

Share with me any stories or anecdotes about your time at Cleveland CC that you think the readers would find interesting. 

Oh my, where would I begin after 41 years?

I do remember in 2006 when we renovated our greens with Champion ultra-dwarf bermuda, I had a member after several days when the sprigs looked somewhat brown (but the roots were green), say to me “Any fool can tell these greens are dead already!” Miraculously, those dead sprigs have grown into fabulous greens.

Back in 1984, we were sprigging some tees and fringes and I had members tell me those upside down sprigs will not grow.  Amazing how those fringes and tees turned out so awesome.

I had been here 8 years and I had a ruling during our club championship that was not favorable to one of my favorite members and he said “Don’t you think you been pro here long enough?”  Then he just walked off.

Also, during a club championship, I had a member whose ball was clearly out of bounds between two stakes that were about 10 yards apart. He said he should be in bounds because if I had painted a line between the stakes to define out of bounds, I usually make the line more toward the houses and therefore he would be in bounds. He argued for a year.  An entire year!  Wow!!

A few years ago, I had a member kept telling me the holes weren’t set properly. He was lipping out every putt. I finally told him, do you realize how much you are raising the edges and also damaging the hole every time to get your ball out of the cup with you putter head instead of your hand? He said “Oh no, I don’t damage hole at all. I’m careful and press the hole with my foot when I finish every time.”

I remember one Christmas, I got a call about 9:00 a.m. “Sam, could you come mow the greens? My family can’t celebrate Christmas in Christmas Day this year and a couple of us would like to play.” The greens didn’t get cut that day.

This would be a very typical day:  I will have three members come in who just played together. One will say “These greens are slow as molasses!”  The very next guy will say “These greens are too fast! Did you spray bikini wax on them?”  The next guy in the group says “These are absolutely the best greens I have ever putted in my life! Good as Augusta National!” Guess who won all the money that day?

As I look back to the early and mid-nineties, my job as Pro/Superintendent, Delta State University Head Golf Coach, the building of an additional 9 holes at Cleveland CC, serving as Gulf States Section PGA President, those days were the most fun, educational, and learning experiences of my life.  And most importantly, I married my beautiful wife Mary Louise then too.

Anything to add?

In closing, after all the bumps in the road and headaches for the last 41 years, the biggest surprise of all came August 18, 2017 at the grand opening of our fabulous and amazing new pro shop.  The club president surprised me by announcing they were naming the golf course at Cleveland Country Club the ‘Samuel T Dunning Golf Course.’  I thought they were crazy, but what a great honor!  And I’m not even dead yet!

[END]

Be sure to check out 8 years worth of humorous stories from the world of golf in my archives at www.lipouts.com and buy my book “LIPOUTS: The Best I Could Do From the First Two Years” on sale now!  The eBook is only $1.99 and the paperback is on sale for $8.00, but only through Moonbay Media using this link >> BUY THE BOOK

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Upcoming Cover Story for Golf Course Industry Magazine’s August issue

Twitter is easy–sometimes too easy.  The ability to hammer out a few lines of texts on an iPhone and have it posted instantly on one’s timeline is addictive.  Having that seamless connection between one’s sub-conscience and the universe can be a problem for some (especially politicians and celebrities).  For me, it has taken me away from doing the task of actually “writing” and I want to thank Guy Cipriano at GCI for inviting me to write the cover story for the August issue.  I can’t say yet what the topic is, but the working title is “Hunting Unicorns.”  If that doesn’t intrigue you, nothing will.  When the magazine is published and the digital content is pushed out, be sure to check back here for a treat because I will be posting some additional content from the interviews I conducted for the story.  That content could not be included in the story due to space constraints, so be sure to check back in here at blog.lipouts.com

 
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Posted by on July 7, 2018 in Golf

 

Masters 2017 — Place Your (Prop) Bets

I’ll admit I’m not a gambling man. That’s probably a good thing given my luck in general the few times I’ve bought a lottery ticket or I’ve wagered a few dollars with a friend on the outcome of a ballgame. That being said, I just received an unsolicited email from a European betting service with a number of interesting “prop” bets for the 2017 Masters starting this week. Some of them are for things I never would have even thought of, but I thought it would be fun to share. There were too many to fit in a tweet so I’m posting them here for you to enjoy. I’m not providing the name of the service who sent me the email and I am not endorsing these by posting them here; so if you are a gambler, do so at your own risk. Enjoy the Masters!

WILL THE WINNER CRY ON THE 18TH GREEN?

Yes +550

No -1000

WHAT TYPE OF PUTTER WILL THE WINNER BE USING ON THE FINAL GREEN?

Blade -280

Mallet +220

SPONSORED WINNER WILL BE (LOGO MUST APPEAR ON FRONT OF HAT/VISOR)

Titleist +405

Ping +800

Callaway +800

Under Armour +650

Taylormade +325

Cobra/Puma +700

PXG +900

Other +400

WILL THE WINNER BE WEARING A HAT OR VISOR?

Hat -1215

Visor +765

No headwear +4550

WHO WILL THE WINNER HUG FIRST? (EXCLUDING CADDIE)

Child +225

Parent +605

Wife/Girlfriend +165

Wife holding child +305

No hug +825

Will there be a playoff?

Yes +300

No -400

WILL THERE BE A HOLE-IN-ONE?

Yes -140

No +110

TOP SENIOR

Steve Stricker +175

Fred Couples +325

Bernhard Langer +325

Vijay Singh +605

Sandy Lyle +5250

Larry Mize +5250

Jose Maria Olazabal +3250

Mark O’Meara +5250

Ian Woosnam +5250

TOP AMATEUR

Curtis Luck -117

Brad Dalke +714

Scott Gregory +267

Toto Gana +993

Stewart Hagestad +1244

TOP DEBUTANT

Jon Rahm +285

Adam Hadwin +725

Thomas Pieters +1409

Tommy Fleetwood +1415

Alex Noren +1410

Tyrrell Hatton +605

Mackenzie Hughes +3050

Billy Hurley III +4050

Si Woo Kim +3050

William McGirt +2550

Brian Stuard +3050

Daniel Summerhays +2550

Hudson Stafford +1015

Brad Dalke +7250

Curtis Luck +5050

Scott Gregory +6050

Toto Gana +8050

Stewart Hagestad +8050

WILL THE WINNER OF THE PAR 3 CONTEST WIN THE MASTERS?

Yes

+700

No -2800

WINNING SCORE OF THE PAR 3 CONTEST WILL BE?

Over 20.5

(-200)

Under 20.5 (+155)

WILL JACK NICKLAUS’ CEREMONIAL FIRST TEE SHOT SETTLE IN THE FAIRWAY?

Yes -300

No +240

WILL GARY PLAYER’S CEREMONIAL FIRST TEE SHOT SETTLE IN THE FAIRWAY?

Yes -315

No +245  

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2017 in Golf

 

“A Day with Pete Dye” (a reprint from August 2001)

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Today is Pete Dye’s 90th birthday!  An iconic figure not only in the world of golf course architecture, but also of the game of golf itself.  Decades ago, he changed the way many thought about the design of golf courses and drove Tour pros insane (something many suspect he quite enjoyed).  But on his birthday today, I’ve been digging around the archives and pulled this story I wrote in my monthly Lipouts column from back in August of 2001.  It was actually written about spending a day with Mr. Dye and Tim Liddy walking the grounds of one of Pete’s first designs–originally named Marsh Island GC in Ocean Springs, MS.

The course had already been closed for years at the time (a victim of Hurricane Georges) and we were working with a developer to try and breathe new life into the old course.  That project never made it out of the planning phase due to regulatory red tape and now the property is dotted with what’s left of homes after Hurricane Katrina.

A few things I remember vividly about that day:  it was Election Day 2000 and it was pouring rain!  Not just raining cats and dogs–absolute deluges as waves of rain came whipping across the property as a cold front dipping down from the upper Midwest came crashing into the warm air of the Gulf of Mexico.  We were ground zero.

The other thing I remember was what Pete remembered.  By that, I mean we walked (on foot) the entire grown-up golf course through waist high grass at times and the edges of marshes and we had to hustle to keep up with Pete as he recalled a hole here or a dogleg there.  It was a great time!

I also thought it timely to re-print this because Pete’s wife Alice (an accomplished architect and player in her own right and also a Past President of the ASGCA) was just announced as teh recipient of the Donald Ross Award at our annual ASGCA meeting in May of 2017.  As you read the following, please remember that it was written by a 29 year-old me (so it may sound a little “fanboy-ish” at times.  But  if you are a fan of golf, you’ll understand and forgive me for that.  With that said, please enjoy from 15 years ago (when he was a spry 74 year-old youngster), my story “A Day With Pete Dye.”

It was cold. And wet. And miserable. And I couldn’t have been happier. As I watched the cold winter rain drizzle over the tidal marsh in the distance, it almost appeared that the tall upright marsh grass (turned a grayish brown from the winter temperatures) was stretching out to meet the rain as it fell from the sky. This was Election Day 2000 and it was also the day I was to meet the man some call a living legend. You could even argue that he has had the most influence on the game of golf of any architect since Robert Trent Jones. I was going to be one of a handful of people spending the day with the Pete Dye regarding an upcoming project on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The Pine Island course (shut down since Hurricane Georges in October of 1998) was one of Dye’s first courses. The course — then named Marsh Island — was built in the late 1960’s for less than what we spend nowadays on eighteen green complexes. The owner felt that having Dye involved with the project again would not only bring notoriety to the Ocean Springs course, but that it was also the right thing to do since he was the original architect—good call.
I don’t really know what I had grown so nervous about as we sat waiting on Mr. Dye to arrive—his plane delayed by the bad weather. I have met a number of “famous” people in my life such as actors, comedians, politicians, and professional athletes, but for some
reason I had never been especially impressed by these others—let alone nervous about meeting them. However, meeting Pete Dye was going to be different. This insurance salesman turned golf course architect icon was self-made and time-tested for longer than I had been alive, with hundreds of golf courses around the globe to his credit.
To be honest, my first impression was that he wasn’t as tall as I had envisioned him being from seeing pictures in magazines. In fact, to the untrained eye Dye might even go unnoticed in a large crowd. No flashy clothes or fancy shoes. Maybe I assumed he would take over the room when he walked in like some well-traveled celebrity. That’s not to say he didn’t have the attention of everyone in the room—he did. But it was more like the respect all of the family gives your Grandfather when he prepares to bless the Thanksgiving dinner. Pete Dye is more of the quiet, thinking type than some might assume of a person with his extensive background.
There we were: eight of us trudging through the weather following Mr. Dye across 18 holes of overgrown rain-soaked fairways, along acres of tidal marsh, and through countless puddles of cold water up to our ankles—all on foot because he likes to walk a course. We spent about three hours walking the property and I got the impression that some would have had a difficult time keeping up with the 70+ year-old Dye if he had not kept stopping to admire the views from the course and out across the tidal marsh. Remarkably, he remembered a great deal about the course he had not seen in thirty years, commenting of certain holes that stood out in his mind.
As sunlight began to fade across the bay, about five or so of us decided to get cleaned up and go out for dinner before Mr. Dye had to catch his late flight home that evening. Just as he had been the entire day, Mr. Dye remained conversational and “down to earth” at the restaurant as he shared stories from years of travel and hundreds of projects around the globe. I tried to keep quiet and listen—at first not even mentioning our Indiana connection (both of us having family roots there). I wanted to hear what he had to talk to about and, after all, I can hear myself talk anytime. I learned from my parents at a very early age to take the time to “listen” to the stories of older generations and not just “hear” what they had to say. So, notwithstanding his impressive resume as an architect, I listened. And I learned. And believe me: you cannot imagine how difficult it is to spend a day with
someone like Mr. Dye and force yourself not to “pick his brain” at every chance you get.
As dinner drew to a close and we all said our goodbyes, we snapped a couple of photos and I ran off into the rain-soaked darkness, climbed into my car, and drove two hours home to my family—appreciating even more the value of time well spent with people worth admiring.
Copyright 2001 — Nathan Crace and Lipouts.com
 

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Remembering Bob Cupp: How Our Awkward Conversation 22 Years Ago Inspired My Career and Changed My Life for the Better

bob_cuppPhoto: Golf Channel/Morning Drive

Like many others in the golf industry who have had the chance to get to know him or meet him, I was saddened to hear this past Friday of the passing of Bob Cupp.  In the two days since the news was made public, there has been an outpouring of support from across the golf world with words of praise not only for his body of work, but also for the man himself. You can read many of those with a quick Google search, including a great story by Ron Whitten via Golf Digest’s website.  For my part, I felt compelled to write about my connection to Bob, the unusual way we met, and the strange way he kicked off my career—even though I didn’t tell him about it for 14 years.

To understand, you need to know a little background about how our paths first crossed.  When I was finishing up college at Mississippi State, I worked as an assistant golf professional at Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point, Mississippi.  Bob designed Old Waverly in the late 1980s and it is still one of my favorite courses to play.  During my time at Old Waverly, I became friends with then golf course superintendent Bill Colloredo and told him of my desire since childhood to become a golf course architect after graduating from college.  I showed Bill some of my sketches and drawings and he gave me a copy of Bob’s original hand-drawn green plans for Old Waverly, which I carefully studied in my apartment while I sketched out greens I imagined for a “yet to be determined” golf course that existed only in my mind. I still have Bob’s green plans to this day.

This was in 1994, about the time that Old Waverly was talking with the USGA about hosting a US Women’s Open (which it would eventually host in 1999).  When I arrived at work one day, Bill informed me that Bob was coming to visit and look at adding a few bunkers to the course as part of getting the course ready for the presentation to the USGA.  To my delight, Bill asked if I wanted to tag along and listen.  I jumped at the opportunity.  The day Bob arrived, a group of us piled into multiple golf carts and followed hole by hole in what must have looked like a giant serpent snaking along the cart path.  Bob was in the front cart with owner George Bryan and I was way back in the back.  Each time they would stop, I would jump out and run toward the front, trying to listen and learn by osmosis.

When we were done and had returned to the golf shop, Bill asked if I wanted him to introduce me to Bob. “Of course!” I replied. We stood around waiting for the others to finish speaking with Bob and when the small crowd has thinned, Bill made the introduction.

“Mr. Cupp,” Bill began. “This is Nathan Crace.  He’s a student at Mississippi State and wants to be a golf course architect.”

“Nice to meet you,” Bob replied. “Good luck. It’s a tough business to get into.”

And just like that, it was over.  To this day, I don’t recall saying anything.  I was devastated.  In his defense, I don’t know what I was expecting.  Did I think he would say “Great! Pack your bags and let’s go! You can work for me!” Again, I really didn’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting what happened.  I tucked my tail between my legs and quietly slunk away to my car for the 25 minute drive back to my apartment in Starkville.

Then something strange happened.  About five minutes after passing through the guardhouse at Old Waverly, I thought “Who in the hell does he think he is? He doesn’t know me! He doesn’t know what I can and can’t do! I’ve wanted to be a golf course architect since I was ten and I’m not going to not do it just because he says so!”  I was, for lack of a better term, fired up.  I was mad and I was going to prove I could do it.  What I didn’t realize that day was that his brutally honest reply was the proverbial “kick in the pants” I needed to prove to myself that I could do it. I would have to work harder than others if I wanted to become a golf course architect, but I would do it.

That same year, I was taking a now-defunct course called “Golf Course Architecture I” and the instructor had convinced Bob to visit the class and judge our projects in conjunction with an upcoming visit he was making to the area.  He sat through the other students’ projects as I waited for my turn.  When it came time for me to present my design, he seemed to remember me.  Rather than asking me the same rudimentary questions he had been asking the others, he immediately engaged me in an in-depth hole-by-hole discussion of the entire course I had laid out.  Everything from the routing, the combination of holes, the angles of doglegs, and the placement of bunkers to the way he liked how I routed holes diagonally across natural features.  I was flabbergasted.  He was fully engaged and spent nearly a half-hour asking me about the smallest details and offering constructive advice for things he would have done differently.  It was as if we were the only two people in the room.  I left that auditorium feeling like I could be a golf course architect after all—all because Bob Cupp acted like he thought I could.

Flash forward to Fall 2008 and I had been designing golf courses for nearly 14 years.  Unlike others who worked under established architects, I spent the first eight years of my career working for a former golf course superintendent whom Bill Colloredo introduced me to in late 1994.  The two of us built an impressive body of work for two guys who had no formal training.  By 2008, I had been on my own for nearly six years and had been blessed to add some nice renovation work to my portfolio when I stumbled across a story about a project Bob was working on.  For some reason, I felt compelled to write to Bob to let him know that his words to me in 1994 were the catalyst for inspiring me to become a golf course architect—not to say “I told you so,” but rather to say “Thank you.” I sent him a letter telling him the story of our meeting at Old Waverly and how his reaction “lit a fire beneath me” to prove him wrong—and that I would always be indebted to him for that.

A week or so later, I received an email back from Bob.  He had been in Argentina working on a project and was just catching up on getting back to people.  To paraphrase, he said that he did indeed remember me from that day at Old Waverly fourteen years earlier as well as the night he came to campus to judge our project designs and that he was encouraged by my reaction to his verbal dose of reality.  He said he only wanted to be truthful with me back then that the golf course design industry is a tough one to break into without getting my hopes up.  He would go on to write a lengthy email explaining that he had been following my career from time to time (even noting my renovation at Ole Miss GC) and offering me sage advice going forward on everything from hiring staff to being a “gentleman competitor.”  He was genuinely happy for me and how I had responded to his challenge.  To this day, I have that email framed in my office and sometimes I read it when I need a dose of inspiration.

From that point, we would correspond off and on via email and the occasional phone call and Bob became the closest thing I had to a “mentor” in the world of golf course architecture.  In 2013, he and Ron Whitten were going to discuss their new book at the Golf Industry Show in San Diego.  On that same day, I was speaking at a panel discussion hosted by the National Golf Course Owners Association across the street and told Bob I would hurry from there and try to get over to hear them speak.  In an email, he encouraged me to come by if I could, if only for a few minutes to say “Hi.” Because of the timing of the two events, I only caught the last 15 minutes of the discussion, but we had an opportunity to speak for a while afterward.  As always, he was very gracious with his time and his words of wisdom and I enjoyed the stories he told in the short time we had that day.

The next year, Bob called to ask if I was interested in joining the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA). Was I?!?!?  That was my goal since I was a boy! He would become my lead sponsor and shepherd my application through the lengthy vetting process.  That’s why I was so excited to get to the 2016 ASGCA Annual Meeting in DC this past April.  We would finally have time to sit and talk in person—both as ASGCA members—and I could ask him questions and share stories and tell him in person how much he meant to me and my career.  The first night, a member of the ASGCA staff took me to the side and told me that Bob was not going to be able to attend and why.  He had just been diagnosed with cancer.  I was speechless.  Since he was my lead sponsor, they wanted me to know, but asked me to keep it to myself.  At the time, they were only telling a handful of people.  That evening, I sent Bob an email to let him know I was thinking about him and that he and his family would be in my prayers.  I closed with a note of encouragement, telling him that I looked forward to catching up at the next annual ASGCA meeting in 2017.  Sadly, we won’t get that chance.

Bob Cupp was many things to many people. Husband, father, grandfather, golf course architect, writer, craftsman, and Renaissance man.  There are many titles that applied to him and we should all strive to be as well-rounded as Bob.  We should all be so lucky to be remembered by all as giving of our time and inspiring to others.  Our industry may have lost a huge talent, but the world lost a great person and many people lost a true friend.  To me, he was the person who was brutally honest with a college kid who had his head in the clouds and forced him to buckle down and work hard to achieve his dreams.  I cannot believe that was 22 years ago, but I am so glad I told him what he did for me.  Too often, we don’t take the time to tell those who inspire us just what they have done for us in our lives.  Bob Cupp challenged me to be the best I could be and to become a golf course architect for one reason—because I loved the game.  For that, I will always be personally indebted to him.  I only wish I had the chance to tell him so in person one last time.

 

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Designs on Improving the Future of Your Course…and Your Career

The following article was written by Nathan Crace, ASGCA Assoc., at the request of the Mississippi Turfgrass Association for the May 2016 edition of MTA Magazine.  Visitors and subscribers to this blog can read it here before the magazine is published in May.

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Hard to believe, but 2015 is officially in the rearview mirror.  As we pass the off ramp to New Year’s and the College Bowl Season, the exit to The Masters is only a mile away; and with the superhighway to 2016 squarely ahead of us, more news outlets are reporting that the economy is turning around and things are getting better every day.  Depending on your choice of twenty-four hour cable news coverage (and the point in the news cycle when you choose to check-in), America’s economy is either roaring back and poised to be the driving force behind a global recovery or we are hopelessly lost in a death spiral of joblessness, natural disasters, unsustainable national debt, and a staggering increase in the number of reality shows on television.  So which is it?  Are we continuing to dive headlong into the Mariana Trench of a deepening global economic abyss or have we rebounded and are now headed back toward the surface, poised to breach stronger than ever and sail on happily toward the future?  Like most stories in life, perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.

There is another option that I keep hearing muttered about on the nightly news: maybe we have found a “new normal” where malaise and stagnant wages are fine for the majority of people, so long as they can still hammer a check every two weeks.  Call me optimistic, but I think the fall stopped a while back and we are starting to rebound, ever so slightly—and not as quickly as those in Washington might want us to believe.  But a steady improvement is better than a slingshot rebound.  Of course, it might just be the new-found optimism that we see every election cycle, but things feel to have bottomed-out and are now poised to come roaring back.  Don’t misunderstand: the rocket has not left the launch pad yet, but maybe we’re almost done fueling it and the engines are warming up.  From a personal perspective, phone calls and emails to our office are ticking up with inquiries about renovations, practice facilities, and—dare I say it—new course design.  Most encouragingly, these calls are not only from existing clients who tabled their projects years ago when the economy ground to a standstill, but also new clients looking toward the future.

It’s no surprise to anyone in the golf industry that things have been slow for the past eight years.  The term “slow” might be too nice when one looks into the golf course construction industry since 2006.  According to the National Golf Foundation (NGF), 2013 marked the eighth straight year that more courses in the United States closed than opened—by a long margin.  In 2013, the NGF reports that only 14 new courses opened for play (actually up from 13.5 in 2012), but the total number that closed was 157.5.  We’ll be generous and call it a market correction of the glut of courses built in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, but that is still a large disparity.  Before you panic and start filling up the prepper pantry in your bomb shelter, there is good news.  Golfdom Magazine’s recently released annual “Golfdom Report” (January 2016) of industry insiders, golf course managers, and superintendents reveals some cautiously optimistic findings. This is important because these are the players on the inside of the industry—not just golfers, professional economists, and the news networks’ talking heads.
Of those surveyed about their expectations for the golf economy for 2016, 65% were either very optimistic or cautiously optimistic, while 23% were neutral, and 11% were slightly pessimistic.  Only 1% of respondents reported being very pessimistic about the state of the industry for 2016.  Digging deeper into the statistics, there were some reassuring stories from across the country regarding rounds of play increasing in 2015 over 2014 with expectations for that increase to continue into 2016.  Then again, the giant gorilla standing quietly in the dark corner of the room is the new Waters Of The United State (WOTUS) overreach by the EPA…but I digress.  WOTUS is a story for another time when I’m not limited to three or four pages.  That being said, the “Golfdom Report” found that WOTUS may be part of the cause for some of the pessimism in the industry as it rambles its way through the court system with the final outcome as yet unknown.  The 2016 election was also on most course managers’ minds, but respondents were evenly split on how it would impact the golf industry.

Taken as a whole (and forgetting about WOTUS for the time being), the good news is that optimism is up and pessimism is down.  What does that mean for you and your club or course?  As my college economics professor was fond of saying, “It depends.”  What it does mean, however, is that maybe it’s finally time to pull those projects you metaphorically shelved years ago from the back of the bottom drawer and dust them off.  It means it’s time to start planning for the future again and not simply maintaining the status quo.  Optimism is afoot and you don’t want to be caught watching as the aforementioned economic rocket leaves the launch pad because you didn’t take the time to pick up your spacesuit from the cleaners.

Remember those ideas you had a few years ago to re-build a green or upgrade irrigation or renovate tees or re-build bunkers because the additional maintenance was taking your staff away from other areas of the course?  It’s time to re-visit those ideas.  There may be no better time in the last seven years than now to tackle that course-wide bunker renovation program or re-build those problematic greens that you’ve been fighting for years now.  With market prices falling, golf course contractors are still looking for work for their crews and you can still lock-in significant discounts on construction compared to the pre-slowdown era.   However, as the economic engine begins to warm up and interest begins to pick up in renovations, so do the laws of supply and demand.  As the contractors find their demand and their prospects increasing, so too does their price.

Just like it’s time to reconsider those bunker, tee, green, drainage, and irrigation renovations, it’s also time to think outside the box about things you can do to improve your facility that will attract new golfers.  Over the past six years, I have designed and built seven practice facilities—including full ranges, practice greens, and (my favorite) full and comprehensive short game facilities.  It’s an odd niche that I stumbled into seemingly by mistake at first, before the epiphany that I had—in fact—come full circle.  When I was a student in Mississippi State’s Professional Golf Management (PGM) program, part of my experience and training on my cooperative internships was teaching the game to golfers and helping them improve their game and subsequent enjoyment of playing.  I naturally gravitated toward teaching the short game.

Why naturally, you ask?  Because as a child growing up in Southern Indiana, no one in my family played golf; but my parents had enough land behind their house for me to fashion a short three-hole par-3 course.  Granted, I was only 11 years old or so; but if I was going to learn how to play, it was my only real option.  So I mowed out “fairways” and “greens” with our riding lawnmower, borrowed an old 7-iron and some even older balls from a neighbor who hadn’t played in years, and began to teach myself how to play by watching Jack Nicklaus for a few hours on television each weekend.  In later years, I even added sand bunkers to my course.  Because of the short length of the course, I quickly found myself hitting more old pitching wedges and less old 7-irons.  Soon, my school-day afternoons and entire summer days consisted of shagging hundreds of balls with an old pitching wedge.  When that became boring, I started opening the face and trying to hit flop shots over trees, sheds, and neighborhood children who were brave enough to stand still for long enough.  I was first exposed to playing the game by necessity—forcing me to become creative with my short game out of boredom.  There were no 60 degree lob wedges in that day.  When I finally saved up enough money to buy a 56 degree sand wedge at K-Mart, I remember that it had a dot-punched face—not grooves.  But it was on sale and in my leaf-raking-for-income budget.  So now, some 30+ years later, I have come full circle because I have been unknowingly using those life experiences from teaching myself to hit those shots and my expertise later in life from teaching others how to hit those shots to design what I feel are the best short game practice facilities for players of all abilities and imaginations.

Practice facilities (and particularly short game facilities) are important to growing the game for a number of reasons.  Flash forward to the recent economic slowdown and more courses are looking for ways to attract new players and retain existing ones without the expense of renovating the entire course.  Likewise, golfers are looking for ways to work on their games and/or spend time with their families without having to spend four or five hours on the golf course to do it.  These higher quality practice facilities fit the bill for both golf course and golfer.  With a smaller capital investment by the course and a smaller investment in time by the golfer, an added amenity can be created that differentiates your course from the one down the street and sets you apart in a tightened marketplace.

Three such facilities (one at Annandale Golf Club in Madison, Mississippi, one at Tupelo Country Club in Tupelo, Mississippi, and one at Hattiesburg CC in Hattiesburg, Mississippi) are among the best for private clubs in the Magnolia State while Hattiesburg CC and two other facilities (at Ole Miss GC and at Mississippi State University GC) are among some of the top collegiate facilities—the short game facility at Hattiesburg CC was built in cooperation with the University of Southern Mississippi for the men’s and women’s golf teams as well as the membership.  I know what you’re thinking, and before you say “Adding areas for me to maintain won’t help my bottom line,” consider this:  a better practice facility will attract new golfers.  New golfers bring added play and revenue.  Added play and revenue necessitate a better budget.  And a better budget helps your bottom line.  The cause and effect may not be as direct as you want, but there is a real connection.  Just as there is a direct two-prong correlation between bunker renovations and cost savings/increased rounds, so too is there a relationship between better practice facilities and increased play/overall facility revenue.

Case in point is the aforementioned Tupelo Country Club.  In 2010, I was commissioned to develop a master plan for the entire golf course and existing practice facility (which at the time consisted of an undersized practice tee, a never-used chipping green, and a putting green).  During the planning and budgeting process, it was decided that the practice area would become Phase I and the golf course itself would be Phase II and completed at a later date.

IMG_4274Tupelo Country Club’s new chipping green is part of an award-winning practice facility.

Working with the club and course superintendent Jim Kwasinski, CGCS, we developed a plan to revitalize the driving range that included a practice tee large enough to accommodate the membership.  A new tee measuring 100’ by 285’ with internal drainage and a sand base now provides ample tee space that’s playable even immediately after a rain event with multiple target greens shaped to replicate actual greens as targets.  Additionally, a 6,500 sq ft short game green with bunkers and chipping areas and a new putting green give ample opportunity for members to work on their short games without being crowded.  But the most talked about feature of the new practice facility is by far the “Short Course” behind the driving range.  While on a site visit during master planning, Jim and I stood on the back tee of the 7th hole looking out over an expanse of scrub and small trees behind the driving range.  The conversation went something like this:

Me: That’s a lot of wasted space.

Jim: Yep, the club almost sold it about ten years ago to a developer to make condos.

Me: It would be the perfect place for a par-3 course.

Jim: Yes it would.

[Both turn slowly to look at the other as the epiphany hits both of us simultaneously]

Jim: Why not?

Me: I need to find a piece of paper.

Soon, I was sketching out what would become unique in its simplicity of operation and complexity of design—a large expanse of fairway with two double greens and a triple green spaced within it and a handful of bunkers strategically dotted throughout.  The only things missing were tee boxes—intentionally.  I didn’t want Jim’s staff to have to stop and mow tees and move markers and I didn’t want members to feel forced to play certain holes in a certain order.  It was designed to be freeform with “the only limitation being the golfers’ imaginations” [Note to self: Write that down—I need to trademark that saying].  Want to play nine par-3 holes with your kids? Perfect.  Want to stay in one spot and work on greenside bunker shots then turn the other way and practice fairway bunker shots? Perfect.  Have an extra hour of time and you want to work on a number of short shots and wedge shots? Again, perfect.  The short course facility worked so well that it has been written about in numerous industry publications around the world and (I’ve been told) even copied by other courses after they visited Tupelo CC (I won’t name names).  At the end of the day, Jim’s staff has a few extra greens to mow and a few more acres of fairway to cut.  However, the impact on the club has been a renewed interest among golfers and a way to differentiate the club from the competition.  It’s also a great way to advertise how nice the course itself will be once Phase II is completed.

Likewise, the short game facility at Annandale GC has been a boost to the club by providing a much-needed amenity to a membership with an above-average skill set.  We transformed the old bentgrass nursery area into a spectacular facility with two chipping greens that offer varying lies, elevations, bunker shots, chipping areas, and yardages.  Additionally, one of the green contains a “putting lobe” that is adjacent to the new teaching studio where members can have a private putting lesson.  The short game facility is adjacent to the driving range, so players can practice short to long irons as well as greenside and fairway bunker shots.  Again, Annandale superintendent Al Osteen, CGCS, has two extra greens to mow and a little more fairway area to maintain, but for a relatively small investment, the club has a facility that is used daily by the membership and sets it apart from other clubs in the area.   Another important thing to note:  Al built his facility with in-house labor and one golf course shaper.  Jim’s facility was put out to bid and built by a golf course contractor—proving there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat.

IMG_3197.JPGThe tri-lobed pitching green at Annandale in the distance and the chipping green in the foreground.

The short game facility at Hattiesburg CC is big enough to hit wedge shots from 120 yards away to an elongated green that measure more than 9,000 square feet with a separate putting green tucked away into a private corner.  Immediately adjacent to the driving range, it is not only easy to use, but beautifies the drive into the club.

If the economy is in fact about to take off and the future finally looks bright once again for the golf industry, you must be prepared and you must be ready to go when you get the call.  There’s no excuse for not doing your homework and being prepared if and when things begin to improve.  There’s practically no cost in getting prepared, but there could be huge opportunity costs in not being prepared.  Be smart, be prudent, and be ready.  Worst case scenario: the economy stays flat for another year and you have a fine-tuned set of goals and a revitalized plan to make them a reality.  With that in mind, here are three simple keys to being ready when the economic uptick finally becomes a financial jumpstart:

STAY TUNED IN/GET TUNED IN:

Stay current on current events.  This means more than reading just sports scores and keeping up with the Kardashians (you know who you are).  Take time every day to catch up on the news and know how it might impact you.  If listening to who got shot on your local news every night is more than you care to sit through during dinner, opt for a business news network.  Fox Business or CNBC, for example.  Do you know what’s going on in the petroleum markets lately?  Surely you’ve seen the difference at the pump when you go to fill up.  So you must assume that you’re not the only one to feel that rush of dopamine to your brain when a full tank now costs you $30 instead of $75.  That extra money in the collective pocket of the population translates into an increase in disposable income, including recreational spending.  Is your course ready to take advantage of that?  How about that irrigation project you’ve been putting off?  A drop in petroleum markets typically translates into a drop in the price of plastic products—like PVC pipe and drainage pipe—not only because of raw materials costs, but also transportation and shipping.  Do you have asphalt cart paths at your course?  Petroleum is a key ingredient in asphalt.  Might be time to look at replacing some of those paths your members have been complaining about.  We’ve all seen the stories of crystal meth addicts stealing copper wiring from commercial air conditioning units and trying to cash it in because the price of copper has increased so dramatically.  Did you know that innovations in irrigation like Rain Bird’s IC system drastically reduce the expense of copper wiring, not to mention the elimination of above-ground satellite controllers?  Maybe it’s time to start looking at those projects again.

More than just watching the news, ask yourself how involved you are in making news.  Are you on social media?  If you are, great!  If not, you need to be (and while you’re there, follow me @lipouts on Twitter. Trust me, it’s worth it).  That said, you need to plan ahead for how you will use your social media sounding board.  If you want to let people know what’s going on at your course and/or in your career, remember to KEEP IT PROFESSIONAL.  If you like to sound off on politics, your favorite sports team, or you can’t help but re-tweet those off-color jokes you see from your college buddies, you really need two separate accounts: one personal and one professional.  And since not many things in this day and age will sink a career quicker than a series of ill-conceived (or late-night drunken) tweets, do yourself a favor and use TWO DIFFERENT APPS on your phone to differentiate between accounts and help avoid the potentially career-ending accidental tweet.  Don’t add yourself to the list of teachers, small business owners, and US Congressmen who have found themselves suddenly unemployed because they sent a tweet using the wrong account or sent a tweet for public consumption that they mistakenly thought was a direct message.

And while we’re at it, if you don’t know what a tweet is or if you’re confused by the previous sentence’s mention of the terms “tweet” and “direct message,” stay off of Twitter until you have a chance to study up.   Better yet, find the nearest 14 to 22 year-old and ask him or her to explain it to you in layman’s terms.  Your son/daughter and/or grandson/granddaughter and/or his/her friends should suffice.  The same goes for Facebook, blogs, and other forms of social media.  Just like other advances in technology during the course of your career, don’t be left behind just because the changes don’t make you feel warm and fuzzy.  But remember, unlike the upgrade from hydraulic to electric irrigation, what you do on social media can potentially haunt you for the rest of your career if you’re not careful.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK:

You know your bunkers are in awful shape.  You know they have long surpassed the average useful life of sand bunkers (5 to 7 years for the sand, 5 to 10 years for the drainage, and 7 to 15 years for the bunkers themselves, depending on your climate and soil types) and you know you could actually save money on labor and materials by renovating the bunkers and better using the time you spend after every rain (pushing sand back up onto the faces and cleaning out the sediment that washes down and contaminates the sand) for other projects.  So start doing your homework now and research what options are best for you.  The same goes for irrigation, drainage, tees, greens renovations, etc.  When the time comes and the General Manager or the President of the Board stops you at work to ask you about capital projects, think of the satisfaction you’ll have from responding “Actually, I just updated a spreadsheet with some comparisons of cost benefit analysis and the savings from the renovations we need. I’ll email it to you before lunch.”  And think about the missed opportunity if your answer to “What do we need to do on the golf course?” is “Hmmm, I haven’t thought about it in a while.  Things have been pretty slow.  Let me think about it and get back to you” or “We need to renovate the greens, but I have no idea how much it would actually cost.”

PLAN AHEAD:

It’s never too early to start planning.  Just as you plan your budget, plan your family vacation, plan your retirement, or plan your fantasy football league, start by writing things down.  Multiple studies have shown that the success rates of individuals who write down goals and re-visit them are exponentially higher than individuals who only think about their goals.  And seek out advice from those professionals who can help you the most.  As a member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), I spend a lot of time fielding calls with potential clients and answering their questions regarding which direction they should be headed.  Part of my job is helping superintendents prioritize improvements to their courses and package them into a well thought-out and organized proposal with real world numbers and time lines.  Most ASGCA members (myself included) will make a site visit and spend some time helping you prepare this information with very little initial cost to help you get the ball rolling.  We know that with the right data and information at your disposal, your chances of successfully navigating the politics involved within your club are greatly increased.  Again, we do this for the growth of the game and because the industry is strongest when we are able to work together to advance the success and sustainability of the game. So pick up that phone or click that mouse or swing by PetSmart and pick up that new carrier pigeon you’ve had your eye on, and reach out to us so we can help you get the thought process started.  A wise man once said “It’s never too early to start planning, but it might be too late to catch up.”  In the interest of full disclosure, no one told me that—I just made it up [Note to self: Write that one down too and trademark it with the “limitation/imagination” one from earlier].

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Nathan Crace, ASGCA Assoc., is an associate member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA).  He is also a member of the Golf Writers’ Association of America and a published author.  You can follow Nathan’s insight into golf and other topics on Twiiter @lipouts.  For more information on Nathan, visit www.nathancrace.com or www.watermarkgolf.com/design and for more information on the ASGCA, visit www.asgca.org  

 

 

 
 

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“The Short Game Doctor”

Before Christmas, I did an interview with BackSpin Magazine for the March issue about growing the game by designing and building short game facilities. They did a great job to keep it informative and fun to read. It just hit news stands and there’s an online version on their web site.

Click here to read “The Short Game Doctor” on BackSpin’s web site.

 

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