The Superintendents series of interviews on buffalogolfer shines a light on the keepers of the green in Buffalo-Niagara. Chances are, you know the starter and the club pro. Have you met your course or club superintendent? If not, find out where she/he works on the grounds and make a point of getting to know the person who keeps the grass cut, the bunkers raked, and so much more that you never considered. This week’s interview is Jeffrey Ferguson of Rothland Golf Course in Akron.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself, where you’re from, where you work, and how long you’ve been there.
My name is Jeffrey Ferguson, I live in Williamsville, NY and I am the superintendent at Rothland Golf Course. I have worked there for 4 years.
2. How did you get into golf course grounds and maintenance? Did your education/training propel you that way?
I got into golf course maintenance because I have always been someone who likes to be outside and work with my hands. I used to ride past a golf course every day on the school bus, seeing the crew out on lots of little machines, and I thought it looked fun. I tried it out that summer and liked it so much that I decided to go to college for it. I received a bachelor’s degree in golf course superintendent, and have put that degree to good use.
3. What aspect of golf course maintenance is the most critical/the most difficult, that the average golfer/member would have no idea about?
Most critical and unknown to the golfers is keeping the course irrigated during the hot summers. There is a balance between too wet and too dry and it is hard to accomplish that with an old manual irrigation system with minimal controls and valves. Most people just think that we turn on the pumps and everything goes great but there are many things that have to go right each time we water, and getting the time perfect is not easy with large zones because some greens need more water than others and they are in the same zone so they all get watered the same.
4. In contrast, what aspect of golf course upkeep is overrated, yet you keep hearing about it.
The most overrated maintenance activity is cutting the rough on a constant basis. I am always getting complaints about the height of the rough. I have 27 holes and 300 acres to take care of, if is not a small job to keep the rough cut and we get to it all just once a week. It is called the rough, not the fairway.
5. Some people love trees. How do you feel about trees on a golf course?
I like trees on a golf course, I think they present a challenge from the shots that they block and the balls that get covered in leaves in the fall. They provide a great obstacle to work around for the golfers, making them think about their next shot. I also think they create a huge problem for grounds crews from the normal cleanup of sticks each spring, the leaves in the fall, and branches that fall in storms. Then there is the other end of it when a tree needs to be removed, that takes a lot of labor to cut it up and grind the stump and make it appear that it was never there. I like trees and think they provide a nice view and a challenge for the golfers, but they are very expensive if you think about all the time and labor spent to keep them looking good and cleaning up from them.
6. Talk to us about fairway width, mowing lines, and thick rough versus fairway cut. What sort of balance should be struck between penal golf and welcoming golf?
Fairways and rough are a constant struggle for us at Rothland. They are large and consume a lot of time to keep them cut. The struggle is if we increase the fairway width, it takes that much longer to cut them, and running a bare bones staff does not allow for much in the way of excess labor or extra people who can just switch up tasks and help out with cutting. The rough is the same way, we don’t want to shrink the fairways too much because there is a lot of rough to tackle each week so adding to it is not a good plan either. I have golfers ask if we can widen the fairways, but that would make it easier for them, and with only 7 bunkers on the entire property, they need some other kind of challenge than sand.
7. If you had all the money/support from your ownership/membership, what direction would you point them, that they might not be aware of?
With a large amount of money and the support of the ownership I would point them towards a new irrigation system and a new shop. Both are very old and needing constant repairs. If I had to pick one, I would go with the irrigation first because that needs to be changed and upgraded. The shop we can live with for a few more years before it falls over and would need to have something done about it then. Both of these are things that I have mentioned to the owners but they always seem to avoid all the questions about them every time, so they are not putting any thought into it other than it is too costly and they don’t want to invest in it right now.
8. Talk to us a bit about your grounds crew. How many do you have on staff and what is the critical part of assembling a top-notch crew?
My crew is small, in the middle of the season we have 5 people on the crew plus myself and the mechanic. That is not a lot of people for a large property, so there are many times that certain tasks get passed by for lack of labor. The crew gets the bare bones essentials completed every week, and if we have time then we can tackle small projects, but things like changing cups, raking bunkers, and divoting tees are things that should happen more often than they do now. As for assembling a great crew, you need to make sure you have people who want to be there. I have hired many guys who have lots of experience in the landscape or some other physical labor industry and they start out ok, but near the middle to end of the season they start to lose their drive to be there. It becomes just a paycheck for them and they eventually leave for another job or get fired for their lack of effort. Keeping employees happy by doing things to celebrate good weeks and telling them they are doing a good job is essential. You have to keep them feeling human and not like they are a robot. I prefer to hire people who are older for most positions because they seem to care more about their job and they are more reliable. The problem is that you still need some youth on the crew to carry out the heavy lifting tasks like digging holes for irrigation repair and laying sod. These are the guys who need the most supervision and generally cause the most frustration from a management standpoint.
9. What question haven’t we asked, that you would like to answer? Ask it and answer it, please, and thank you for your time today.
Most people just think you can hop on a lawn mower and make things right in a few minutes, can you explain what people think about your job and how much more involved it is than they can ever imagine?
Being a golf course superintendent is a challenging job for sure.Keeping the grass alive and healthy is defiantly part of the job, but there is so much more to it.We handle everything on the golf course from daily mowing, filling the water coolers, changing the pin location on the greens, to tree maintenance and removal, repairs inside the clubhouse, turf equipment repair, and to top it all off, managing the crew of people who complete all of these tasks.This job requires you to be a jack of all trades and master of none because you never get enough time with each thing to master it before you have to move onto the next thing.I am constantly in contact with my mechanic at the shop and the rest of my crew to make sure that things are getting accomplished while balancing the golfers coming out of the pro shop and onto the course so we can stay out of their way as much as possible.I love my job because of how many different things that it involves me in.I like the variety of it all.It poses a challenge every day that is new and exciting.