John Gall knows golf courses from every angle, and not just for his job as a course superintendent at the Cherry Hill Club in Ontario, Canada. He is an enthusiastic golfer himself, and appreciates the great architecture of golf’s golden age of design. He sat recently for our 9-part interview, and offered candid and precise answers to each question.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself, where you’re from, where you work, and how long you’ve been there.
I’m originally from the Toronto area. I have been a golf super since I was 22 and have taken care of courses in Sault Ste. Marie in northern Ontario, Oshawa near Toronto, St. Georges in Toronto and currently Cherry Hill Club in Fort Erie, Ontario. I have been here for 10 seasons.
2. How did you get into golf course grounds and maintenance? Did your education/training propel you that way?
I caddied at Thornhill Country Club north of Toronto for several summers and was lucky to get a job on the course when I turned 16. After graduating in economics at Western University in London I went back to Thornhill CC as I didn’t like the job offers in accounting. I attended the University of Guelph’s Turfgrass Course and was then offered the Asst Superintendent’s position. Soon after I accepted the Head Superintendent’s position at the Sault Ste Marie Golf Club.
3. What aspect of course maintenance is the most critical/difficult, that the average golfer/member would have no idea about?
Maintaining a course is as much art as it is science. There are many decisions made based on being able to know what the plants can handle. Irrigation is the most important daily decision during the summer months. In striving to keep the course firm and fast you must also keep it alive. Older courses have high populations of poa Annua and it is quite a balancing act to keep it happy through icy winters and hot humid summers. All of us try to promote higher populations of hardier creeping bentgrass on all fine turf surfaces but Poa will always be around an older course.
Keeping diseases such as dollar spot in check can be a challenge when Mother Nature decides to make things difficult.
Drainage is far more important than most lay people think. Good drainage helps all the other factors easier to deal with.
Equipment maintenance is taken for granted by most players also. Who would believe that greens mowers are sharpened on a daily basis for an event such as the US Open?
4. In contrast, what aspect of golf course upkeep is overrated, yet you keep hearing about it?
Consistency is a term you hear when course conditioning is discussed. When you have spent your entire career working with several courses you realize that no two areas are the same whether it’s a bunker, green, fairway or tee. Trees, exposure to wind, sun and differing soils cause changes continuously. We may use the same mowers on all the greens but they all have their own mini climate and will be somewhat different.
5. Some people love trees. How do you feel about trees on a golf course?
Trees make a golf course look beautiful and can be very strategic when they are healthy. Some species have shallow roots, block air movement and all shade the turf so they need to be well away from anywhere you would like to have healthy turf. Other species, when they are in good locations and are deeply rooted can be beneficial to golf courses. For example, we have 2 specimen trees on the first hole at Cherry Hill. One is a 300 year old Black Walnut and the other a 350+ year old White Oak.
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?
As a student of architecture and an avid player I like to see lots of width in fairways to provide different angles into the hole locations on the greens. Mowing lines should wrap around bunkers so they don’t look forgotten out in the rough. Fairways are best when tight and firm allowing lots of roll although sometimes that is into the rough.
We like to have rough where you can find your ball but you lose some control of distance and spin when you hit your shot. Density plays an important part in reducing control.
7. If you had all the money and support from your membership, what direction would you point them that they might not be aware of?
Like many traditional golf clubs built in the early part of the 19th century, Cherry Hill would benefit from further drainage installation. This would be extend the season somewhat and provide firm conditions for the shoulder seasons. Incorporating this with additional topdressing would provide amazing playability.
8. Talk to us about your grounds crew. How many do you have on staff and what is the critical part of assembling a top notch crew?
Brendon Suess is our Assistant Superintendent, David Plyley is our mechanic, and Marty Proulx is our irrigation technition. They are the unsung heroes at Cherry Hill along with our other 12 seasonal staff. They go out of their way to provide the great conditions once you show them what good turf is. They have come up with many innovations to promote conditioning efforts here.
What question haven’t we asked, that you would like to answer?
Where have you been to get ideas about course setup and tried to implement programs to emulate those conditions?
I have been fortunate to play many great courses and especially like the conditions at Oakmont in Pennsylvania, The National in Toronto, Royal County Down and Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, Devils Paintbrush in Toronto, Belfair in Hilton Head and Cypress Point. It is very instructive to play other properties, meet their Superintendent and learn how they keep their courses. Sometime you can’t duplicate the conditions but you can strive for them.