Ohio State University intern, David Blair, relates his experiences on the TOP Program, including an eighteen month stint at Quail Hollow Golf Club in North Carolina, the home of the PGA's Wells Fargo Championship
Growing up in Birmingham, I loved the outdoors. Never was I found sitting around the house, but always out riding my bike, fishing, playing rugby and, best of all, on the golf course. Now, at twenty-seven years of age, who would have thought I would have travelled around the world pursuing my passion for the outdoors, and it is golf course management that has kept me interested and active in the industry for over ten years.
At the age of sixteen, I had completed my GCSE exams and had chosen not to stay on at school. This choice was made on the principle of not yet knowing what I wanted to achieve in life. My parents would find me on the golf course most days, and they encouraged me to enquire about possible employment. After speaking with Richard Wallis, Director and Golf Course Manager at Wishaw Golf Club, he offered me a part time position with the team. This included mostly bunker work, general course clean up and basic machine maintenance.
After a couple of months, I was offered a full time position which I accepted. As I was given different tasks and more responsibility, I realised there was an art, a range of sciences and technical knowledge involved with this line of work which I found extremely interesting.
Working at Wishaw Golf Club was a great experience as I was a part of a small team. This meant I was exposed to in-house construction of greens and tees, bunker renovations and irrigation installations. Jamie Wade, a good friend of mine from school, also got involved in the industry around the same time as myself. We worked at Wishaw together for a short time and, over the years, Jamie and I have been able to share knowledge and guide each other through our careers. He is now proving to be an integral link in the maintenance team at The Belfry in Warwickshire at present.
It was while at Wishaw Golf Club that I completed both my NVQ Level 2 and Diploma Level 3 in Sports Turf Management through Myerscough College. This was under the guidance of Kevin McAdams and Wendy O'Brien. Wendy was an excellent mentor and still, to this day, continues to provide helpful advice and suggestions towards my career. I also achieved my chemical spraying certificates during my time at the club. They supported my education and helped with all funding, which I am truly grateful of.
After eight years at Wishaw, I decided to take the challenge of working overseas. I want to become the best course manager possible and feel that working overseas gaining experience in agronomics, construction, cultural practices and management skills is part of my journey to becoming successful.
I worked successfully in Sydney, Australia at The Australian Golf Club under Superintendent Phil Beal. The current layout was redesigned by Jack Nicklaus in 1977, featuring moderated undulations and water hazards. This was my first encounter working with warm season grasses, understanding its aggressive growing habits, whilst performing culture practices more frequently to maintain good playing surfaces. Also, I experienced heat stress on bent grass greens which is not so severe in the UK.
As most of us know, networking is an important tool, and I made some great connections during my time at the Australian. I went on to read an article online where Brad Sim, who was the Assistant Superintendent at The Australian Golf Club during my time there, had secured the Superintendent position at the highly ranked Cape Kidnappers, located in Hawks Bay, New Zealand. I had no hesitation in contacting Brad. He remembered me right away, and offered me a position during their summer season of 2013-2014 which, without any reservation, I accepted.
Cape Kidnappers, completed in 2004, was designed by legendary golf architect Tom Doak. The course measures 7,119 yards with of a par 71.
Here, they maintain pure bent grass surfaces, both greens and fairways, to a high standard, with fescues in the rough. I was mainly involved in the application of chemicals. This involved selective herbicide programmes, plant growth regulator programmes and foliar fertiliser application, as well as routine fungicide and wetting agent programmes. I also dedicated long hours in the greens and fairways aerification programmes.
Brad looks for at least two highly motivated seasonal greenkeepers each season which starts in early October and runs through the end of March. I would highly recommend this experience to anyone because of the skills I gained and the future doors it opened.
As I came to the end of my time at the Cape, Brad encouraged me to reach out to Mike O'Keeffe to enquire about The Ohio State University International Turf Management Program in the United States. Mike is the Program Manager. I contacted him via email and received a prompt reply within eight hours; he is extremely efficient. The reply was solid - no soft talk - and delivered what the TOP Program was all about and its expectations. I was on board right away as Mike explained what the program could offer me and the doors it could open in the future.
He guided me through the necessary paperwork and visa process which made things easier. It was about a four week process, sending emails to and fro with Mike and my host course, waiting for my visa interview with the US Embassy and then to receive all my official documents allowing me to travel to the US.
My placement for eighteen months was at Quail Hollow Club, located in Charlotte, North Carolina under Superintendent Keith Wood. My eighteen months at Quail Hollow was made possible by completing a twelve week course online on stress physiology set out by Karl Danneberger, Professor at The Ohio State University. I feel the literature was advanced compared to studies I have seen before, but this encouraged me to work hard and I completed the course with distinction.
Typically, you tend not to stay at one course for the whole time, but Quail Hollow had so much to offer and, with preparations for the 2017 PGA Championship already underway, I felt I would learn so much. I discussed my decision with Quail Hollow and Mike, and they supported me one hundred percent.
Quail Hollow Club is a Championship course which hosts the Wells Fargo Championship PGA Tour event annually. I have watched the tournament on television over the years, so to have been placed here was overwhelming.
The course was originally designed by famed golf course architect George Cobb in 1961. In the intervening years, the course has undergone a series of improvements, including modifications to several holes by Arnold Palmer in 1986, and a redesign by Tom Fazio in 1998, as well as 2013. A par 72, stretching 7,470 yards from the back tees, complete with water hazards, bunkers and tree lined fairways, it provides a true test of golf.
I arrived toward the end of April 2014, and I was made welcome from the second I stepped foot onsite. Quail aim to go above and beyond, taking good to better and better to best.
The course was in immaculate condition in preparation for the world's best golfers as the Wells Fargo Championship was just one week away. Thrown in at the deep end is an understatement. Having my first experience of a PGA Tour event one week after arriving in the US had me on edge, but it is these challenges which I thrive on.
Mike had told me to be prepared for long hours and high temperatures, but you do not really understand how long or how hot until you are actually amongst it. The summers are brutal; high temperatures in the nineties (32+Celsius) for weeks on end, with little or no rain and high humidity. It took a little time to adapt, but I soon got used to it.
The crew consists of three assistant superintendents, twenty full time greenkeepers, five interns (four of which were through The Ohio State Program) and a handful of Hispanic labourers. During the Wells Fargo, there were over one hundred members on the maintenance crew made up of volunteers and full time staff. At 3.30am my alarm would go off, and I was not arriving home until 10.00pm. It was crazy, but this is what it takes to set up a tournament ready course to present to the world.
In the coming years, not only are Quail Hollow preparing for the 2017 PGA Championship, but also the 2021 Presidents Cup.
Keith and his assistants want to offer the best internship possible. Mine included equipment operations, pesticide calibrations and applications, fertiliser programme development, weed identification and eradication, record keeping, water management, course set-up, irrigation operations and repairs, sub air operations, large scale construction projects, budget management and leadership training.
Quail Hollow is situated in the transition zone; a great experience to work with both warm and cool season grasses in one location. I experienced two overseed processes. The process starts in mid-September. I was mainly involved in the chemical preparation of turf, ensuring pre-emergent herbicides were applied within a set time frame. Secondly, we cut all the Bermuda grass low, this was usually a one to two week process which would allow the ryegrass to sprout more readily as it was in close contact with the soil. At the end of September, we had contractors in to spread the seed at 400lbs (roughly 180kgs) per acre. Once the seed was down, it was a matter of keeping it moist in preparation for germination. After germination it was into establishment and preparation for the Wells Fargo Championship. Mowing varies due to establishment rate and continued pre-emergent applications leading up to Christmas and into the new year, as well as wetting agents, fertilisers and fungicides all to set time frames.
After the tournament, we sprayed the whole golf course, (except for the Mini Verde Ultradwarf Bermuda greens) with a herbicide. This was in order to kill all the rye grass, which was a fascinating process to see for the first time. As the rye dies out you see what Bermuda survived the winter, and how much sod is going to be laid. Fifteen acres in total were laid this past summer. Some of these were due to construction projects of new tees, tree removals, and new viewing areas for galleries of future tournaments, but most were for winter kill and poor transition.
As I mentioned before, the summers are brutal in Charlotte, with months of no, or very little, rain. This meant some eight to ten guys dragging hoses around for twelve hours a day keeping the sod alive. Tedious and mentally draining to say the least, but it was all a necessary part of my internship training.
A significant portion of my time at Quail was spent on a spray rig. Accurate pesticide calibration and application were vital. This meant learning, understanding and putting into practice the imperial system so that mistakes were not made.
Keith would set interns and other staff members homework, relating to diseases, fungicide classes and chemistries. He wanted us to understand why we were applying a certain product and when it should be applied. I became familiar with high tech GPS sprayers which we used for tees, fairways, approaches and rough applications, as well as eight nozzle walk, spray hawk booms on the greens.
On top of this, I carried out routine maintenance tasks operating and maintaining machinery. Pedestrian mowing of greens, tees and collars, mowing of fairways, approaches and rough, course set up and presentation to a high standard, greens rolling, verti-cutting and topdressing, as well as both pedestrian and tractor mounted aerification. The equipment and machinery at Quail is any Superintendent's dream as there is not much they don't have, due to a strong budget.
Being mentored by Keith, he demonstrated how to maintain Championship surfaces year round. These smooth, firm, fast surfaces were maintained by double mowing daily at 0.090" (2.5mm), foliar fertilisers and PGRs applied weekly, as well as double verti-grooming and topdressing, also on a weekly basis.
Dryject was a procedure we carried out in the spring. It is a revolutionary service which can be added to maintenance programmes. It can reduce the need for core aerification as it relieves compaction, increase water filtration, allows oxygen into the rootzone and amends soil by distributing sand and soil amendments into the profile more completely. Dryject leaves the surface smooth and playable, and I would adopt this into a maintenance programme of my own.
We used the BLEC Vibra Sandmaster on every fairway; a piece of machinery I was not too familiar with. It creates sand slits 20mm wide and as deep as 200mm at 260mm centres to help move water off the surface and into the drainage system.
Another machine that I did not know too much about was the Air2G2, which was demoed at Quail over the summer. This provided a great opportunity to broaden my machine operation skills and to experience different methods of maintaining oxygen levels in the soil. The machine works by sending three probes into the ground, releases air at determined psi and fractures the hard pan, relieving compaction and increasing porosity. A slow process, but effective with almost no disruption to the playing surface.
The summer of 2014 saw a brand new short game facility created in a two acre site. Another great experience for me to witness large scale drainage plans, irrigation installation, the construction of two USGA spec greens and three bunkers. It was also my first experience using Mini Verde sprigs to grow a new green in. 419 Bermuda grass sod was laid over the remainder of the site. The new facility was opened in the autumn of 2014.
Quail Hollow operate the Toro Links irrigation software with VP field controllers. The irrigation source at Quail is a large lake centralised on the golf course that is filled primarily by rainfall and run-off, but also supplemented through deep bore holes.
As you can imagine, the water quality is not properly balanced for turf health. The irrigation water contains a high pH and moderately high levels of bicarbonates and salts. To effectively manage the turf, it was deemed necessary to amend the water through urea sulphuric acid. As we all know, acid melts down solids, the water treatment system from PrimeTurf is designed to buffer pH, and break down the high bicarbonate and salt levels, alleviating any detrimental effects to turf stemming from the irrigation water. This allows the plant to remain healthy and take in nutrients that are applied to the turf rather than binding them up.
In locations where temperatures commonly fall below 25OF (-4OC), covers are not only recommended, but are considered mandatory. The winter months in North Carolina fall well below freezing and the use of permeable turf covers are used on the greens. This helps protect the crown of the plant from winter injury.
We would cover all twenty-six greens if temperatures were forecast to be below 34OF (roughly one degree Celsius). The permeable covers are made from an uncoated woven poly material. Being permeable, they allow the turf and soil to breath but, at the same time, retain moisture and dramatically increases the sun's ability to heat up the underlying turf.
One of my goals whilst in the United States was to volunteer for one of golf's major tournaments. Being on The Ohio Program opens doors. With the help of Mike and the financial support of Quail Hollow, I was lucky enough to head up to Whistling Straits in Wisconsin for the 2015 PGA Championship. I was part of the 'pro greens crew' measuring and recording green speeds both morning and night.
Not only did I work the PGA Championship, but four other tournaments in my eighteen months in the US. Both the 2014 and 2015 Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club, plus the opportunity to travel up to Dublin, Ohio, to give a helping hand to Paul B. Latshaw and his team at Muirfield Village during the week leading to The 2014 Memorial Tournament, and I was also able to participate at The Ridgewood Golf and Country Club in New Jersey for the 2014 Barclays Fedex Cup playoffs.
The Golf Industry Show is another fantastic opportunity to broaden your networking base, furthering education at seminars, and seeing the most up to date technology in the industry. The show was in San Antonio, Texas, and I would not have made it there if I had not had the scholarship from Syngenta. This scholarship enabled me to fly to San Antonio from North Carolina and allowed me to attend three seminar classes. Quail Hollow further funded my accommodation, making the experience enormously educational and stress free.
Aside from absorbing as much information as possible, these events are all about making contacts for your networking base, that will last for the whole of your career. You need to be confident, open minded, and not hesitant to talk to people as they may be able to help you with your future career moves.
I was lucky enough to meet the Superintendent at Le Golf National in Paris (hosts of the 2018 Ryder Cup) and Paul Burgess, the Head Groundsman at Real Madrid. They have both invited me to their facilities for a tour when I arrive back in Europe.
Not only that but, whilst at the Golf Industry Show, I was invited to the John Deere and Toro receptions as well as the Syngenta reception. This greatly increased my networking base. I have also kept in contact with Michael Parkin from Syngenta. He has provided me with extended helpful advice and has put me in contact with others that can help with the fields I am interested in.
I'm currently in talks with potential future bosses back in the UK, Europe and the Middle East. The job prospects are mind blowing and the TOP Program helps open these doors as it is recognised world wide.
Quail Hollow also provides accommodation for all interns. A three bedroom, fully furnished apartment with swimming pool, cable TV, internet and electric bills paid for. Over my eighteen months spent here, I had shared the apartment with fellow Englishmen, Spanish guys, Portuguese, Australians and, of course, US citizens.
You have to be open minded and willing to meet and get along with new people. The way I looked at it was, we were all in the same boat - all here for our internships, here to study, to build on our careers, to meet new people, to network, and to experience the American culture. These people become the best of friends as you work, live and socialise each day together.
Whilst in the United States, you have to experience the culture - Mexican food, cookouts, American style light beers and popular sports. Being in the south, especially, you see the enthusiasm and madness that is American Football. Charlotte is home to NFL team the Carolina Panthers, who have got off to an awesome start this season and, hopefully, will continue performing well. Not only football, Charlotte has minor league hockey and baseball teams. These are great social events during weekday evenings; there's no better way to relax with co-workers, enjoying a hotdog and a few frosty cold ones!
It's not all work and no play - during my time in the States, I travelled to Charleston, South Carolina for a long weekend with the two Aussie guys Jared and Ryan, and the Cape Cod kid Kevin! Charleston is defined by its cleanliness, cobblestone streets and pastel, pre-Civil-War-era houses, particularly in the bustling French Quarter and Battery areas. But, its safe to say, we found ourselves either in the pool or in various local bars! Austin, Texas was my next destination, on a long weekend away. Austin is not only the state capital, but lays claim to being the "live music capital of the world." I found myself in an Irish bar with a nice whiskey and a blues band playing!
Finally, I spent four days in New York before travelling back to the UK. The Big Apple is home to the Empire State Building, Times Square, Statue of Liberty, Central Park, Ground Zero and other iconic sites, all of which I visited on this trip. I also managed to meet up with an old room mate - the Cape Cod kid. Typically, we found a bar for a beer and then soaked up the busy street life of Times Square.
The Ohio State University Program has offered me so much and no other program would have afforded me these opportunities. Being placed at Quail Hollow was a dream come true, and my experiences there will always be a major influence throughout the rest of my career.