September 28, 2015 – Life in the golf industry literally brought Troy Thrall to his knees in 2013. Burned out, ticked off and fed up, he quit the only thing he knew and went laying tile for a friend. He’d pretty much done it all up until then. Pro, superintendent, general manager, even course owner, he’d chewed each of those bones at some point over nearly two decades but in the end the game spat him out.
“I swore off the golf business,” he says. “I felt like it was something that had run its course.” But then his knees started to hurt. “A year laying tile sucks,” he explains. “If someone ever sees me kneeling again they need to shoot me.”
There was some heartache too.
Thrall had grown up in golf and was raised in part by locker room attendants and assistant pros. Before a long commute to work in northern California his parents would drop him at their country club at 6am. “The cleaners had to unlock a door to let me in,” he says. “I’d hang out there all day then get picked up at 7pm. Golf is all I’ve really known.”
So in 2014, he started poking around again, looking for a way back in. Eventually he found one but it wasn’t exactly the front door. Really, it was more like walking in through the exit that everyone else had tromped out of. While they were now off growing ultradwarfs, Thrall would become the exception at The Windermere Club, maintaining the only bentgrass greens left in Columbia, SC.
When he started last August 3 the mercury topped 100 degrees with an overnight low of 82. That was all the reminder he needed to know that while he may be off his knees he was on a grass that had brought so many other superintendents to theirs. And, by his own admission, his previous experience on bentgrass was limited to putting. From a maintenance perspective it was “Zero.”
“I was flying by the seat of my pants,” Thrall says. “I found this relic of a spiker at the shop so we pulled it out and got it going and we spiked the heck out of them religiously. We did all we could to give ourselves a fighting chance. ”
On arrival three greens had barely 60 percent grass coverage and the rest were about 90 percent with the worst loss around the fringes and slopes. Dollar spot was rampant on the ageing Crenshaw and Penncross mix. Thrall found one hose on the property, a leaky 40-ft. thing with a broken nozzle. “Talk about feeling like the one-legged guy in a butt-kicking contest,” he says.
Not surprisingly, there were a lot of nights when sleep was hard to come by. “There was a lot of self doubt in those first 90 days,” Thrall says. “It was the only time in the past 10 years when I questioned what I was doing. I’d heard the bentgrass horror stories. I knew the nightmares could happen.”
So Thrall “leaned heavily.” He first called Chris Williams now with Helena Chemical Company. Williams managed bentgrass when he was across town at Spring Valley Country Club. “Two or three days later he just showed up,” Thrall says. The two rode the course for hours. Soon after, Derek Oglesby of Corbin Turf and Ornamental Supply, who had maintained Crenshaw in Memphis, TN made a similar visit in response to a call from Thrall.
“I mean, I was guessing basically,” Thrall says. “Most of the research over the past 10 or 15 years has all been geared to the ultradwarfs. So Chris and Derek’s input was invaluable. They confirmed that we were on the right track by just concentrating on the very basics. They both said we needed a starting point, we needed to establish a baseline and work from there.”
Thrall also “picked at” former boss and Carolinas GCSA past-president Jeff Connell, now at Fort Jackson Golf Club on the eastern side of town. Thrall was an assistant to Connell at Columbia Country Club and says he will always be thankful for two philosophies he carried away from that time.
“Jeffery would always start each day telling us that we were going to make the golf course better that day,” he says. “Even it was a small improvement, it didn’t matter. We were going to do something to make it better. His other big message was that it’s all about the greens. You focus on the greens, then the greens and then the greens. Get them right and the end-user’s focus narrows. They become less interested in the other stuff.”
Last fall, Thrall began inter-seeding with A1-A4 bentgrass and repeated the process this spring. He started double-cutting and rolling. “The only thing we can bring to the table at the moment is to have the best greens in town,” he says. On a mid-April morning in the clubhouse two long-time members, women, tell Thrall he’s on right track in that regard. “The greens have never, ever, looked this good. Truly,” one tells him.
“I’m not naÏve enough to think there won’t be periods of stress,” Thrall says. “It will get crazy at times I know. But three good aerifications a year and getting the irrigation system working properly makes a big difference. I don’t think I have to be intimidated by these greens. We have a plan now. So let’s see what we can do.”
Time will tell whether The Windermere Club’s determination to retain its bentgrass greens is a smart business move or costly stubbornness. Owner and developer John Bakhaus grew up on bentgrass greens at Idle Hour Club in Lexington, KY. He loves their vertical growth and lack of grain and in a private club market that is over-saturated since the recession is banking on bentgrass being a differentiator.
The club had close to 400 members in the late ’90s but now that number stands at 135. Daily-fee play has been helping to pay the bills, but only a little. At least up until now. The 1987 Pete Dye course saw just 13,500 rounds in 2014 but is up 30 percent year-to-date. “And that was with a bad-weather February,” Thrall says. “We’ve been packed with Masters’ play (early April).”
“The word is getting out,” Bakhaus says. “You get a wonderful putting surface for 10 months of the year. The ball rolls straight up and for two months you play defense. And no one wants to play much golf in Columbia in July and August. They’re a special treat when they’re good…if you can live with the cost of keeping them healthy.”
That latter point is not lost on Thrall. For two and half years until the summer of 2011 he was a co-owner and operator of Hidden Valley Golf Club in Gaston south of Columbia. “I never worked so hard in my life, just to make sure my employees pay checks every second Friday,” he says. When a buyer paid enough for everyone to “get all of our money back” Thrall says “it was like making money.” “To be able to make good on $500,000 in personal guarantees was a major relief.”
So when he examines potential improvements and purchases at The Windermere Club today, he has a sharper take on the difference between a want and a need. “I know what it’s like to write those checks,” he says.
As a result, he is neither shocked nor moved to complain when he considers how his challenge today compares with the way things once were. Digging through old payroll and budget records he found that the club once had 16 people on the golf course maintenance staff. That number stands at six today including an equipment technician. Budget is half of what it was back then.
But like most of his kind, Thrall is more fueled by the challenge than frustrated. It takes him back to the first day he gave up his button down shirt in the pro shop at The Members Club at Wildewood and walked in the next day in shorts and boots at the maintenance facility. “I wasn’t making anything as an assistant pro,” he says. “And the only thing I liked about the job was teaching and you didn’t get to do much of that.”
By contrast he could see that maintaining the golf course offered a chance to “make progress.” “I don’t know if it’s an ego thing but it feels good to think you’re making something a little better,” he says. “Even if it’s replacing a sprinkler head. You stand back and, ok, that’s working now. Subtle little victories as small as that add up and in the end they mean something.”