The staff at the university had warned me from the moment I applied that this would be the toughest test in my career. The programme has an excellent reputation and I had some idea of what to expect as my cousin Nigel Caldwell also went through the programe at two excellent courses, Southern Hills, and TPC Sawgrass. Nigel is now the Head Greenkeeper at The Oxfordshire, and many more past trainees are working around the world.
Ohio State University is one of the largest universities in the USA with over 55,000 students. It is renowned as having one of the best turf programmes in the country, along with the biggest football stadium I have ever seen, seating 105,539 people!
The turf programme, which is managed by Irishman Mike O'Keeffe, brings around one hundred 19-29 year old single male and female turfgrass trainees, from approximately 32 countries, into the States every year for a 12 -18 month duration. Mike works with all the top courses in the country, and reckons he has a course for all levels of skill and ability.
Students work on cool season courses from April to October and warm season courses from November to April. The programme also offers trainees a chance to attend eleven weeks of University level classes in turf management, agronomy, and modern golf course design, between January and March each year.
Robert Trent Jones Golf Club
The club is located in the State of Virginia, 30 miles west of Washington DC. It has gained a national reputation for providing an extraordinary golf experience for its members and their guests. The magnificent design and superb conditioning have earned the course numerous honours and it is rated as one of America's top courses.
Additionally, hosting the President's Cup tournaments, where twenty-four of the world's top players compete in match play competition, in 1994, 1996, 2000 and 2005 has further enhanced the stature of the club, putting it 'on the map' as a world championship test of golf.
Jones did a masterful job of designing the golf course, most notably by teasing the golfers with water. The large lake is the central point of the golf course, with eight holes on the back nine running adjacent to it. It is visible from nearly every hole on the course, yet on only one hole - the par-three 11th - must the ball be hit across water.
The course is kept in tournament condition everyday. This is expected from the membership, who are so high profile I am not allowed to mention their names! Having the greens running at lightning fast speeds every day is the standard. We cannot allow anything to be below the highest standard possible. We have pure Penncross Bentgrass greens, tees and fairways, and it takes good management from Course Superintendent Scott Furlong CGCS, and assistants Scott Cornwell, Scott Thomas and myself, to keep these surfaces in top condition.
When I started as an intern I shadowed the assistants, carrying out all the important jobs i.e. spraying, fertiliser applications, golf course setup and irrigation work until I was comfortable enough to do the jobs on my own. When working with people with such knowledge and ability, you cannot help but learn something new every day. 80% of turf managers in America have degrees in agronomy or turf management.
The golf club rents an apartment one mile away where the interns live-in. This is a great way to meet new people and network with American turf students. This isn't your average apartment. We had the luxury of a gym, swimming pool and tennis courts. Scott Furlong CGCS, the Superintendent, knows how difficult it is to get good trainees, so he went the extra mile and paid for the best apartment. In return the students gave 100% every day, as we knew we were appreciated.
The RTJ Philosophy
The perception that courses in the U.S are flooded with water each night is far from the truth, certainly at Robert Trent Jones. The aim is to keep the golf course playing as fast and as hard as possible seven days a week. This means that all surfaces are monitored for wilt during time of stress. No watering is done at night on the greens at all but is carried out by hand in the day time, and the fairways are only watered between rainstorms, ensuring that water is only used where it is needed. This operation is carried out by a crew of trained employees numbering anything from four to fourteen. There is a dedicated crew for greens, tees and fairways and, occasionally, the rough.
Temperatures reaches 95O Fahrenheit (35O Celsius) on most days, so you always have to be on your guard, even when you are only watching 3-9 greens, as anything can turn and start wilting at anytime. We continue to monitor until the sun has gone down and everything has stopped wilting.
This practice is not as easy as it sounds. The course is situated in the mid Atlantic region, the disease pressure is very high and humidity reaches up to 90% on many occasions. We have to be precise in the amount of water applied on certain areas. In such high temperatures, you can only mist the area, and not add water, the aim being to cool the plant down to get it through the heat stress period. Keeping the plant canopy cool is vital. Adding more water can cause more damage by literally boiling the plant in excess water.
Due to the high disease pressure in these conditions, the club installed seven turf breeze fans in the winter prior to my arrival. These are installed just off the perimeter and give a constant breeze across the whole green, running at a wind speed of 4mph. The difference these fans have made during high stress/heat is amazing, keeping the air moving all day long while keeping soil temperatures to a minimum. Without these fans, soil temperatures can reach up 90OF (32OC). The fans are very quiet and do not affect play. They are turned on in June and not turned off until early September, running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I was able to use the hand watering hose I had tied round my waist all summer in conjunction with the fans. When you water into the fan it directs a mist across the greens. This is a much quicker and more efficient way of cooling the greens.
The irrigation system that is used at Robert Trent Jones is a Toro site pro system. This uses satellite radios to control the system, which is coded so that the heads can be turned on from any location. When the weather gets really hot and our hand watering crews cannot keep up, this is a great way to keep the golf course cool.
Having worked at Woburn Golf Club I knew what standards were expected of me. What I hadn't seen was what such a large crew could do on a daily basis. RJT has a crew of forty five people. The greens are cut everyday and the rest of the course every other day. Bunkers are edged once a week and every single job you can think of is carried out on a weekly basis, even down to hand picking weeds in pathways or edging heads. The crew is mainly made up of Hispanic personne. The golf club also provides housing and transport for these workers. They are very well trained and most come back every year, so they fit in with the running of the maintenance department very well.
Working with different cultures is a great experience and making an effort to learn their language earns their respect. Once you get to know these guys they are good to have in your crew. They are very reliable and hard working.
My arrival at RTJ coincided with 'aeration week'. I had been warned that this would be a very long and arduous week. It consisted of renovating the whole golf course - hollow tining, verti-draining, fertilising and top dressing. Each day we would start at dawn and finish at dusk. This is so we could complete certain assigned tasks on each day. Two of us were trained to operate a Toro Pedestrian Coremaster on the greens with 1/4 inch hollow tines. We completed this task in six hours, having everything cleaned up on all greens, including all nine putting greens; we were then ready for the next stage. We had to apply the amendments; Gypsum, Renovate, So-Po Mag and Hard Rock of Phosphate. We had four people spreading product. Be the end of the day we were finishing under lights so we were ready for the next day's plan. Observing how the Superintendents kept such a huge crew on schedule was a great learning experience.
It was a very heavy schedule but so much was achieved and it was even more satisfying, a few weeks later, when all our efforts were reflected in the condition of the golf course.
Disease pressure, due to high humidity, is very high, which means that many preventative spray application are needed. Over the course of the summer I gained so much spraying experience and learning about new chemicals. With such high disease threat it is so important to stay covered with preventative sprays such as Daconil and Bayleton. We also carried out regular applications of soluble fertilisers and plant growth regulators to keep growth and health in the plant to the high standards that are expected here.
The method used to spray the greens here is to spray hawk. This is a pedestrian operated 2 metre wide sprayer boom, which connects to the sprayer via a hose. This is a task which is very precise and involves a lot of concentration. It is sometimes difficult when wearing a full spray suit in high temperatures with 5.3 acres of green coverage to spray! All the other spraying was carried out with Toro spray rigs - 1250, 5600 and 5700 models. On my arrival I had limited experience on these machines, but by the end of the summer I was calibrating them weekly.
This experience will be valuable to me in the future. In America they use the Imperial measuring system. Trying to measure in ounces, pounds, quarts and gallons confused me at first, but I adapted quickly.
Spraying became a regular part of the week. Whether it was to spot spray a weed or spray the entire golf complex, the sprayers still had to be calibrated, and amounts double checked by others. There was no margin for error.
Typical Spray mix
- Daconil: 2.5 gallons-9.5 litres
- Cuttless: 32oz pounds- 0.5 kg
- Urea: 50 pounds-23kg
- Kick: 4 gallons-15 litres
- Epsom Salt: 10 pounds-4.5kg
- 175 gallon sprayer Rate: 10.78 per 4 acres
Before my arrival I knew that the President's Cup was held at Robert Trent Jones but I hadn't realised that the Course Superintendent has a major influence on the maintenance of the golf green at The White House; The President of the United States' personal putting green! All the general maintenance is carried out by the White House groundstaff, but any major renovation, i.e. hollow coring, top dressing or fertilising is carried out by the staff of RTJ.
All the time we were so busy on the golf course I never gave a thought to the White House green until, one day, I was asked to submit all my details for a security check as I was going to the White House the following Friday! This is just one way that Ohio State Univesity make the whole experience so much more memorable for each intern.
In the days leading up to the visit my expectations were building. We were going there to hollow core, fertilise and top dress the green. As we approached the gates we were passing all the tourists looking in at the high security areas over the high fence. Then it hit me! I was going in there, to take care of the President's Green! If my friends could see me now!
As you would expect, there were many security checks at the main gate and even more at internal gates as we approached the green. This is situated no more than twenty yards from the Oval office in one of the most secure areas of the White House. As we worked we had secret service guards wandering around the lawns keeping an eye on us. Once we had completed all the maintenance to the green we were privileged enough to get a tour of the house. We were privileged to see places that the general public will never see, let alone step foot in! The status of the place is unreal and I will never forget the experience of a lifetime.
To top off a great summer I made the trip down to South Carolina for the Global Turfgrass weekend. This is organised by Ohio State University and involves classes and networking with all other trainees from all over the world. The 2006 Global Turfgrass Internship Shortcourse was held between October 27-29th at Sea Pines Resort in Hilton Head. Over fifty international turfgrass trainees from colleges in Australia, United Kingdom, Iceland, Italy, Spain, China, Brazil and South Africa are currently on golf course internships here in the United States. The trainees come to the workshop to gain an insight into the latest turfgrass management practices from OSU professors and industry personnel. Over the three days, the students receive over 26 hours of instruction both in the classroom and out on the course.
The interns are a very important part of Robert Trent Jones Golf Club and, even though I worked long days and many hours, the experience has been well worth it. I was lucky enough to be selected, out of many of the staff, to receive a scholarship. This enabled me to gain even more knowledge by taking extra schooling.
During the summer an Assistant Superintendent's position became available and, due to the commitment and hard work I had shown throughout my time here, I was offered the position. I was thrilled to be offered such a career opportunity. I have been in the position since September 2006 and am enjoying every minute of it. Being part of this golf club is an honour. My confidence level and career opportunities can only be better as a result of this experience and I would not have believed, when I stepped on the plane at Heathrow in May 2006, that I could advance this far in such a short space of time.
Ever since I arrived in the United States I have never once regretted making the small step over the pond. Deciding to leave my family, my home and the only place I've ever known is very difficult. I am so thankful for the help of my family back home. Without the support and faith that they have in me I might never have made such a move. Being the youngest of four children it's a wonderful feeling to speak to my parents and hear the proud tone in their voice. Their confidence in me has motivated me to continue my education and push myself further in my profession. Ohio State University has given me the opportunity to obtain invaluable experience through the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club.
I've come to realise that this isn't just a job but more like a family I have developed over the course of the summer. The people I have met are more than just co-workers. I was made to feel very welcome even before I arrived!
If you are sitting at home, with an NVQ or better, and feel that you need to get an edge on the industry, but do not have the connections, call Ohio State University. They do not really blow their own trumpet about how much they can do for you. But, if you are dedicated, hard working and willing to trust them for a year or eighteen months to change your life, then seriously consider this programme. I am just one of a hundred. Every other trainee has a story to write too, maybe even more of a success than mine, but I know many of them are going to be the future of this industry around the world.
Dedicated to my mother Mary McGregor and thanks to all of my family, Michael O'Keeffe and all the staff at The Ohio State University, Scott Furlong CGCS and Robert Trent Jones Golf Club. A few of my mentors: Scott Cornwell, Will Przybylek, and Steven Britton. From England: Ross Edmonds, Gary Ledbetter and Chris Hunt, Woburn Golf Club and Moulton College.