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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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