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 Bob Kelly of Orchard Park country club in Orchard Park.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself, where you’re from, where you work, and how long you’ve been there?
I grew up in Michigan. Graduated from New Buffalo HS in New Buffalo, MI. I have an Accounting degree from Central Michigan University and a Two-year Turfgrass Management degree from Michigan State University. I did my Turfgrass internship at Medinah Country Club in Medinah, Illinois and was the Superintendent of Course #2 at Medinah Country Club for 2 years. I have been the Grounds Superintendent at Orchard Park Country Club since May of 1994.
2. How did you get into golf course grounds and maintenance? Did your education/training propel you that way?
My family moved to New Buffalo during the summer before my Freshman year in high school. I had really started playing golf a lot since I was 10 and I wanted a job where I could golf for free. So I started working on the grounds at Chikaming Country Club just before I turned 15 picking rocks in 2 new fairways. I worked my way up from there over the next 8 years doing everything from working in the proshop, clubhouse, and serving as the Asst. Superintendent/Asst. Mechanic my last year there. I originally went to school for accounting because I was good with numbers and didn’t know what I really wanted to do. I decided I did not want to work in an office all the time. A friend of mine from another high school came to do his internship for the Michigan State University Turfgrass Program at our golf course about the same time. I asked him a lot of questions and soon I decided to finish my last year of Accounting and enroll in the Turfgrass Management Program at Michigan State University the next year.
3. What aspect of golf course maintenance is the most critical/the most difficult, that the average golfer/member would have no idea about?
I will answer this question from the perspective that I am most familiar with… the Private Country Club. The constant change of people is the most difficult. We are a very seasonal job for many employees. While we have 6 full-time year around employees, we have only 3-5 employees that return every year. So every year approximately 40-60% of the grounds crew may be new. So every year you are retraining staff on how we want jobs done at Orchard Park Country Club.
The constant change of Board members is also very difficult. Every year we have a new President and 4 new board members. With this comes new personalities, new ideas, and new focus. Sometimes this brings small changes and sometimes there are big changes in operations. It not necessary a bad thing, but we sometimes have to change what our main focus is supposed to be how we maintain the golf course.
4. In contrast, what aspect of golf course upkeep is overrated, yet you keep hearing about it?
Bunker maintenance is very overrated in my opinion. Bunkers were meant to be obstacles that were to penalize poor shots. By definition they are hazards in the Rules of Golf. However, with TV golf and the awesome abilities of the professional golfer there is a perception that the surface of the bunker is to be so perfect that it is not a hazard anymore. Despite the fact that we only have 44 bunkers on the golf course we spend the second most labor hours on this portion of the golf course. Only the greens require more labor hours. We renovated our bunkers in 2013 and while we do spend more time hand raking the bunkers now we have decreased the labor hours to maintain the bunkers. We do have steep bunker faces that were more in-line with our original golf course architect, Walter Travis. These steep faces do require more hand mowing also, but the steep sand faces require almost daily maintenance trying to keep the sand up on the faces. This is where we saved the most labor hours. We can keep a more consistent playing surface because we are not pushing sand up the faces everytime it rains. This would create a very soft sand condition and the balls would plug unless we spent time compacting the faces also.
5. Some people love trees. How do you feel about trees on a golf course?
Trees can add a great deal to a golf course. From accenting the shape of a hole to being an important obstacle (design feature) to providing protection (for people or buildings). That being said a lot of trees were planted at the same time and many times they were very small. Many times the size the trees would become were not factored in to the location they were planted. The other factor that the people who planted the trees couldn’t possibly envision is how far the playing conditions have come in the last 40 years. And the demands of the golfers for those playing conditions on a daily basis. Trees that are on the East and South of greens and tees create issues. For the trees on the East research has shown that morning sun is the most important, not only the sunlight is important, but the drying of the leaf surface also helps to prevent diseases caused by leaf wetness (from irrigation and dew). The trees on the South actually can affect playing surface as the fall progresses. Our location being in the North, the sun gets lower in the sky as we progress toward winter. In the fall before the grass goes dormant just like trees is trying to store carbohydrates to survive the winter. When the trees block the sunlight the photosynthesis process is not as effective and less carbohydrates are produced. Many years this may not be an issue, but if we have a long winter or ice cover these shaded areas are the areas with the most winter damage many times.
Just a simple thought of that fact that many greens are cut below 1/8” (or .125”). We cut at .115” which do not leave much leaf tissue on the plant. The shorter the leaf tissue results in shorter roots generally, which less margin of error when dry or damaged. So as the playing conditions have gone up the need to have as much sunlight as possible has gone up. Unfortunately as the need for sunlight has increased the trees have become bigger and blocked more and more sunlight in many cases. Trees and grass can coexist if the mix is kept reasonable, but remember that is not a lot of grass in a forest and there is not many trees in the grasslands for a reason.
At Orchard Park Country Club we have created a Master Tree Program with the USGA, our golf course architect, our Tree Maintenance company, and the facility where we purchase trees. We inventoried all the trees, assigned a health grade, assigned how important to playability the tree is, and whether it was affecting any important turf health. We also identified a list of trees that perform well in our soil type for future plantings and we try to use a variety of different trees from this list. From these grades we decided on which trees had to be removed immediately due to being a hazard to members, guests, and employees. Then we worked on trees that were failing in health and would either prune or remove. As we removed some trees we started planting where it was decided to replant keeping in mind proximity and location to greens, tees, fairways, and other trees. In some cases we are planting trees to replace other trees that are either failing, causing turf loss, or just so messy that they are causing disruption to play.
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?
All of these have to be taken into consideration based on your clientele that the golf course is catering to. If the amount of rounds completed in a day are important you do not want US Open 20 yard wide fairways with 4-5” rough. Basically the owner, management company, or the board of directors has to set forth what overall mandate is. If you have mostly low handicap players that want to be challenge you can have more penal conditions. You do not necessarily have to have narrow fairways to accomplish this either. If a lot of fescue, bunkers, and water hazards are in play then the precise nature of the shots will create a tough test of golf. In my opinion most of the difficult hazards to manage should be located where the better golfers have to manage them. When the hazards (including bunkers) are located to affect the high handicap golfer then you are penalizing the wrong people. The high handicap golfers include new golfers and children who are your future clientele and if they cannot enjoy themselves while learning will they become your future clientele? A wide range of the choices of tee locations should be available if possible also. The golfer can choose how much they want to be challenged. The speed at which the greens are maintained are a very tough topic. Many times the better golfers are the most involved and want to keep them faster than most golfers would like or the equipment and resources allow. Too many times people watch the speed of the greens on TV and decide that is the speed they want their greens every day. For one in most cases that is not realistic. I worked at Medinah Country Club where we hosted major tournaments. The speed during the tournament was not even close to the speed we maintained on a daily basis. Every tournament is run a little different, but just the sheer amount of the volunteers to accomplish all the work to mow 3-4 times per day, and roll, and hand water is beyond comprehension unless you have experienced it behind the scenes. The advances in technology have made maintaining playing conditions much easier with less stress on the grass, but the inputs of labor, mowing, rolling, aerification, spraying, and water management all go up exponentially as the speed increases.
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?
Infrastructure. As the playing condition demands increase the demands on the old equipment increases. This means they break down more often, which requires more labor to fix. We have had about the same size crew for the last 15-17 years, however, the allocation of labor has changed over the years. The demands on playing conditions has increased, but we have had to move labor to the shop to repair equipment and move labor to flowers as we have increased the amount of flower beds dramatically. While we have room to store most of our equipment, we store it in 4 different buildings in 4 separate locations. So almost every day we have to transport people to the equipment and from the equipment when it is put away. Our main shop is attractive as far as maintenance shops go, but over time has become a little overcrowded. This has resulted in most days we have to unload the shop to get the equipment out necessary for the day and reload the shop at the end of the day. Basically we have lost time unloading and loading the shop each day. The last infrastructure would be the irrigation system. We have upgraded our pump station as the old station basically was falling apart, but the rest of the irrigation is 33 years old now and technology has not kept up with the playing condition demands. It is a very costly investment and the everyday member does not see the advantages or disadvantages, just the final results. As systems get older more and more labor is used to maintain them not to mention the constant supply of repair parts. New systems are much more water efficient also. Installing more (smaller) irrigation sprinklers actually provides more uniform coverage, which can use up to 10% less water to maintain the same acreage.
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?
We have around 20 on the grounds crew, which includes the Asst. Superintendent, Mechanic, and Horticulturist. It varies a little each year depending on how many part-time worker we hired and how their schedules fit together. I think the most important aspect is finding people that can work without someone standing over them. We have 125 acres and while that is fairly small area for a golf course it is still way too big to watch everyone at once. They have want to be at the golf course and want to help make it the best course that we can. I try to find people that are good at what I not the strongest at, like Horticulture. I know enough about it as I have been around it for 34 years, but it is not my area of expertise. So I need to find someone that I can work together with that has that as an expertise. I think on a golf course you need a very good mechanic and one that is accepting of the nature of maintaining the golf course. When I have interview mechanics over the years I have always told them up front “I will keep putting topdressing sand on the greens, you will have to keep sharpening the reels”. Unfortunately, many golf course maintenance practices create more repairs for the mechanic and they really have to understand why you are doing certain practices to understand why they are making the same repairs all the time. I also like to have the reels checked every time they are used. This is a time-consuming process when you consider it can be up to 30 reels in a day if we mow everything that day. If the reels are adjusted to make clean cuts the grass heals faster and the grass is less susceptible to disease.
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.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I enjoy being outside and not being stuck in an office all day every day. Every day is different and I enjoy the challenges of different situations each day. That does not mean I always enjoy having the day go a completely different direction than I planned, but I do enjoy that every day is new challenge.