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

sam_dunning_small

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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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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