Mike McKenna, now plying his trade in India, reckons there are wonderful opportunities out there for young people in the turfcare industry. He explains; "A solid foundation of education in the British Isles can lead to some great experiences as this trade, this profession, can take you around the world, as I found out by signing up for The Ohio State University TOP program."
"This program brings close to one hundred turf trainees and interns to America every year, and places them at the country's top golf courses. There are many programs out there, but this one is by far the best, and I am a true example of that." Read on ...
I first heard of The Ohio State Program when I was eighteen. I had just finished college and was helping out during the summer at my local golf club. I soon realised that greenkeeping was my call in life; after four weeks I was hooked. After the summer placement was finished, I was offered an apprenticeship and took it without question.
Early the following year, I was looking through a trade magazine when I saw the advertisement for the OSU program. Long story short, I had spoken with Mike O'Keeffe, the head of the program, and everything was going along nicely, until I spoke with a superintendent who told me I would be wasting my time in the States. "Grasses are different over there and you can never apply what you learn back over here." I was young and foolish and I listened to him. This was the biggest mistake of my life at the time.
Fast forward twelve years and I took a seasonal job at Loch Lomond Golf Club. I had worked at the best courses in the North East of England (where I hail from) and worked on over ten European Tour events, but I wanted more. On arriving at Loch Lomond, I was told my flat mate was American and that he would be arriving, in a few days, from Ohio. Ohio? I'm sure that rings a bell.
Seth Rainier arrived at the end of the week from Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio, which is where a young Jack Nicklaus learned to play golf. It has hosted the Ryder Cup, US Open, USPGA, US Senior Open and US Amateur.
In the following months, my career was about to change dramatically. Seth and I would talk turf after work and go through his college work, as he had just finished his degree at OSU. The literature was very advanced and took my interest immediately; I had never looked in depth before into pathogens etc. This went on for a few months, he showed me the Buckeye Turf site (www.buckeyeturf.osu.edu) and I started listening to podcasts from Prof. Karl Dannenberger.
Just before the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond, I spoke with David Cole (the course's superintendent) and he said going to the States would be a great idea. He had done it early in his career and highly recommended it. I spoke with Mike O'Keeffe again, and admitted my mistake. He was patient and understanding of me and guided me through the paperwork necessary and the visa process; an easy exercise with his assistance.
Somewhat spookily, my first placement was at Scioto and I learned a tremendous amount under Course Superintendent, Bob Becker. The crew consisted of eight full time guys, and the rest were summer casuals, mostly OSU turf students, plus a group of Hispanic labourers. We had about twenty-five guys working in our crew, all from different backgrounds; it was great getting to know them and their personalities.
The summer was brutal with high temperatures and humidity. It took me a month or so, but I got used to it - better than the rain and cold back home.
Water management is the key component in this part of the world; too much and you cooked the greens, not enough and they wilted and died. It was a great learning curve, watching how to use water efficiently with a well thought out IPM.
One thing you have to understand is the 'glass half full' mentality that US superintendents work by, and Bob Becker is a great example of this. He wants to add value to your CV, so he asks you to make a list of "what you want and what you need". I mentioned that I'd like to do a tournament - any tournament - whilst in the States.
Well, he ticked that box for me in style, when he arranged for me to work the entire week at Muirfield Village for the Memorial; a tournament I had watched on TV every year, back at home.
There were around seventy greenkeepers working on the tournament and it was like a who's who of superintendents from great American courses - Oakmont, Oakhill, Quail Hollow, Merion…
Muirfield Village is one of my all time favourite courses and, to get the chance to work on it, was a dream come true. Superintendent, Paul Latshaw, was first class; his passion for the job oozed out of him. It was another great learning curve. Fourteen on the stimp, wow!
I still network with many of the guys I met during that week, That's what the program can bring you - friends for life.
Back at Scioto again, Bob and his assistants spent hour after hour showing and teaching me how to produce and maintain bent grass to the highest standard, and also the most efficient way to maintain the course, without interfering with play. That man gives 150%.
In August of that year, Mike O'Keeffe came to visit. We talked about my move south for the winter. Part of the process that Ohio State build into the program is the ability to get along as a team, and this move south was a total team building experience. Over fifty guys move south every year, challenging us to make new friends, move to entirely different locations and work on different grasses.
Arriving in Orlando in late October felt like summer back home; it was glorious sunshine. It was going to be some winter, if you could call it that! My apartment complex was situated a mile from Universal Studios - we were in the perfect location for work and relaxing.
What you need to understand is that Mike has thought long and hard before he comes up with a course for you. He's been doing this since 1988, longer than many of you have been alive (sorry Mike), so he knows what works and what doesn't. He had a plan in mind for me and that was to head to Lake Nona in Florida, which was hosting the Tavistock Cup in March. This tournament is between the tour pros who live either at Lake Nona, Isleworth, Queenswood or The Albany Club in The Bahamas. In effect, it is an inter club competition, but with some of the best players in the world!
Lake Nona had won the cup the previous year. GMac, Hanson, Poulter, Rose, Stenson, Goosen, Fisher and Immelman are just a few of the pros that live at Lake Nona. It was weird seeing them day to day; it almost felt like a tour event every week.
My superintendent, Carson Kamps, was first class from day one; we sat and had a chat about the lead up to the Tavistock. He understood that I was on the program because I wanted to advance myself and become a top professional and, therefore, my duties would reflect that. I had a responsibility to lead by example and tackle the more complicated jobs. I was involved heavily in the application of fertilisers, herbicides and fungicides. Apart from course set up, this was my main job, spray hawking the greens in the morning and fairway applications in the afternoons.
The intense training at Lake Nona was fantastic. Carson spent a lot of time making sure that I fully understood the science behind producing surfaces as good as those at his course. I think one thing that will always stay with me is Carson walking on a green and making the following statement; "Mike, people like us don't do this job for the money, we do it because we are passionate about our job." How true.
The Tavistock Cup was a great success. The members and Pros spoke very highly of the course. It was great to get so close to people like Tiger Woods and Bubba Watson. The event is very relaxed; no ropes, everyone just walks up the fairways with the players. Lake Nona took the Cup again, much to my delight!
The time I spent at Lake Nona was a great learning curve. I had advanced my knowledge in so many different ways; calibration, overseeding, cool season grasses, warm season turf diseases, fungicide use and application, to name but a few.
You can't get training like this on any other program. I will be forever grateful to Carson and his staff for the six months I spent with him, as he taught me so much.
It was time to leave Orlando - no more Universal Studios, Disneyland, Sea World, International Drive, Cape Kennedy, Gaterland, Busch Gardens ... my local bar was the Hard Rock Café. Would I miss it? Probably, but I had decided to extend my stay on the program for another six months.
Mike O'Keeffe had contacted me about possible placements back north. Some very good ones came up and we were working hard to find the best one. Then I got a phone call from Bob Becker at Scioto; three of his management team were leaving and he needed me back to help train the new guys and add experience to the crew. It was a managerial position. Mike and I agreed it was the best move.
In late March 2012, I said my goodbyes to Orlando, got in my car and drove the 1000 miles back to Columbus. I left at 3.00am and arrived in Columbus at 6.00pm, a fifteen hour drive. It sounds bad, but I watched the sunrise in Georgia, travelled through North and South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. It was a fantastic road trip across the USA - and Bob paid for Mexican food when I arrived back, so it was worth it.
I was back at Scioto where it had all began. I was excited at the new challenge and to be back at, what was slowly becoming, my second home.
The first big operation was to Graden the greens. Some of the new staff had never seen the Graden in operation before, so it was a challenge.
At Scioto, we worked to achieve the maximum efficiency in the time limits given. We pencil tined the greens first, then used the Graden, which removed around 12% of the surface organic matter.
The next few months would be brutal, as temperatures soared into the nineties (mid to high thirties Celcius). It was the hottest July for fifty years in Columbus.
The main difference between the States and the UK is water management; with these types of temperatures - too much water or not enough can kill grass. Most people back home won't understand why too much water can kill grass, so I will explain. With high humidity, water doesn't evaporate with the water moisture in the air already being high. So, if you imagine excess water on a green's surface in high temperatures, it heats up and, in severe circumstances, cooks the grass plant. With this in mind, watering becomes the most important daily routine on the golf course.
We had two guys checking greens all day with moisture meters and another two guys on tees and fairways. This was an important learning curve, watching the science behind our watering programme. Keeping turf alive in this heat would be an important tool if I ever took a job in a climate with high temperatures.
The job was made easier by the fact we had just installed a new pump station. Bob had only one functional pump the season before and worked wonders running the system until the new one was installed. The new pump was installed the first month I was back; I got to see the whole installation. It was a great insight into how it works - never seen anything like this in my career.
The Toro Lynx system was the control programme that we used for our irrigation. We had Toro sensors in four of the greens that measures moisture and temperature. All this information was transmitted back to the main computer; it was a great tool to show what was happening on the greens. Bob sent me on a two day training course on the Lynx system. This gave me a great understanding of how it worked. I was very grateful, as not many interns would get sent on this course.
We next had to set the course up for a US Open qualifier; there were some top pros looking to progress to the championship. Now, in my career, I have worked on many Tour events, and getting the course ready for each was always a challenge, but not at Scioto. The course for general members play is to such a high standard that you could play a Tour event every week. The average green speed is 12, which is higher than most Tour events! That said, we wanted to make the course a challenge for the pros. After all, the US Open is normally the toughest of the US majors.
We set the course up in excellent condition; the greens were the best surfaces I had ever seen. The morning of the qualifier, I was checking the last green, after the guys had cut it, when Bob walked up. "What do you think?" he asked. "Well," I replied, "they are stimping over 14, they are firm as hell and as smooth as silk - you have destroyed my career. I will always strive to produce this standard and never get there." He just smiled; "how do we make them better?" was his reply. The scary thing was, he was serious!
That sort of comment was typical of Bob and the guys I had worked for in the States; they were always looking for perfection. These guys inspired me to think differently and never rest in my own pursuit of perfection.
With my time at Scioto and the States coming to an end, my next placement was on my mind. I spoke with Mike and we decided on New Zealand, at a course called The Hills in Queenstown on South Island. It holds the NZPGA in March and looks stunning.
I arrived in late January 2012. I had some issues with my visa, which delayed my arrival, but I received great support from Mike (as always) and Brendan Allan, the superintendent at The Hills.
Queenstown is stunning. They filmed scenes from the Lord of the Rings here, so you'll know what I'm talking about. The golf course itself was the only one I've worked at where any hole would be the signature hole at any other course. The owner, Sir Michael Hill, has done a fabulous job in creating a real gem, and the course boasts some of the best views you can imagine. There are also pieces of modern art around the course. For example, at the 18th, there is a Samurai warrior surrounded by over one hundred iron wolves; just one of many visually stunning pieces around the course.
When I arrived, the course was preparing for the NZPGA. Brendan and the team had the golf course in great shape. I had already worked on many Tour events, but it's the little details you pick up that count. The attention to detail was flawless, and I use a few tricks I picked up from Brendan to this day. The tournament was a great success and course conditions were as good as I'd seen.
Outside of work, I had the best time too. Arrowtown, a town just a few miles north east of Queenstown, is like going back in time. Simply put, it is beautiful. There is a pie shop there which makes some of the best pies in the world!
I spent my free time running in the mountains and taking in the sites. Queenstown is a place that doesn't sleep. All through the year, people flock to see its beauty.
Not long after the tournament, I got a call about a job in Dubai and my short time in New Zealand came to an end, but every day I miss that place and its people.
I had spoken with Paddy Ryan early in 2013 about the possibility of working with him as assistant superintendent at Al Badia Golf Club in Dubai. Paddy was an ex OSU intern and had worked around the world. He impressed me with his passion for the job, as most OSU interns always do
I accepted the offer and packed for Dubai. The big reason I got the chance to work in Dubai was mostly down to the fact I had worked on warm season grasses in Florida. I can't emphasise the importance of working on different grasses/climates; it makes you so much more diverse and opens opportunities anywhere in the world.
Working in Dubai is brutal; 45OC degree summers and high expectations. On the other side of the coin, there are some of the best courses in the world, along with some of the industry's best agronomists. I can honestly say the relationship between the superintendents and assistants at all the courses in the Middle East is the best I have encountered anywhere in the world. Always there if you have a problem or a question, almost like a family relationship between the courses.
It's not surprising to learn that most of the guys are former OSU interns, or they have been involved with the TOP program to some extent. I learned so much in my time at Al Badia. Paddy, as with most of the superintendents I have worked with, spent time teaching me and giving me the freedom to introduce my own ideas.
Working on warm season grasses is where I knew I wanted to be, the high intensity and no down season suited my ambitions. I always hated winter back home; painting benches and clearing snow was not my idea of fun.
We had the Challenge Tour Final at Al Badia and working as a senior member of the team for the first time was a great experience. I also got the chance to work at Jumeirah Golf Estates for the DP World Race to Dubai final.
At the start of 2014, I knew it was time to move on and look for a superintendent job of my own. I had moved around the world, working with some truly exceptional people, but felt the next part of my development had to come from managing a course myself.
I spoke with Mike O'Keeffe (again) and made some enquires. The thing about being part of the OSU program is that you make contacts around the globe. It's amazing how many people I've met that know someone I've worked with.
After speaking with a few contacts, I met Robin Evans, Director of Agronomy and Construction for Troon Golf Middle East and Asia. We had a chat and discussed a few options. He had worked with some people I had, so it made things easier, as we both had mutual friends. Two days later, I got the offer to go to Bangalore in India and join Troon Golf. Of course, I accepted and got ready to move again.
The golf course in Bangalore is surrounded by 224 villas, which are still under construction for the most part. The site will boast a Marriott hotel and conference centres. It is owned by Prestige, one of the biggest companies in south India.
The golf course has huge potential, with a great layout in the shadow of the Nandi Hills. The team here for agronomy is around forty-five. We also have five mechanics and three vegetable gardeners. For most people back home, this may sound excessive but, when you work with warm season grasses on big properties, the numbers are needed, although doing monthly rosters and schedules can be a bit of a headache!
We have around forty hectares to look after, so we are busy every day. Working in big teams in the US gave me valuable experience in allocating daily jobs.
I'm also consulting and doing course visits to another project we have. It's a 12-hole course under construction, also owned by Prestige. We have the fine shaping complete and Toro Irrigation have just started installing the irrigation.
As most of you know, our job isn't nine to five, but I wouldn't have it another way. As my old boss at Lake Nona said; "we don't do it for the money ... we do it because we are passionate about turf!"
I have come a long way from Newcastle. Hard work and ambition has helped, but working with the inspirational professionals I have mentioned has made a huge difference. The TOP program is simply the best move I have made during my career. I would recommend it to anybody who has the drive and ambition to be a superintendent.
Furthermore, it's not only a program that helps train you professionally; it exposes you to different cultures and teaches you life lessons that will mould your understanding of life to a new horizon.
Anyone who has any questions, don't hesitate to contact me through Mike O'Keeffe - firstname.lastname@example.org
One final note I'd like to add - I don't miss home and wouldn't change my life for the world, but I do miss a chicken tikka pie and a pint at St James' Park on a Saturday!