John Pennypacker wouldn’t change anything about his 40+ years as an agricultural and turf professional. He served as superintendent at Cedar Point Club in Suffolk, Va., Greenbrier Country Club in Chesapeake, Va. – where he hosted four LPGA tournaments – and Willow Oaks Country Club in Richmond, Va., hosting several states opens. Today, he is a top-selling regional turf account manager at Southern States Cooperative in Richmond. We caught up with John to discuss his career and his predictions for the future of the golf industry.
How did your career in horticulture begin?
I was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, and as a teenager, I worked for a plant nursery called Black Diamond Garden Center – it still exists! The owner, Jerry Sullivan, started his own lawn care business, and I worked for him in the summertime as an applicator. I attended Southwestern Michigan College, where I played golf for two years. I really wanted to be a professional golfer, but that didn’t work out, so I got an A.S. degree in Horticulture Management. Then, I transferred to Eastern Kentucky University and pursued a B.S. degree in Horticulture with an emphasis in turfgrass management. After I graduated, I moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and became assistant golf course superintendent at Forsyth Country Club. I left the golf industry after 26 years and went to the Southern States to sell fertilizer, chemicals, and grass seed to golf course superintendents, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
What have you enjoyed most about your career?
The golf course industry is a lot of art and a lot of science. I love the creativeness of it – getting to watch your hard work transform 100 acres of land into a beautiful golf course. It may sound cliché, but being outdoors all day is the best. Each day is different. You get to work with your hands and meet so many interesting people along the way.
Which accomplishments are you most proud of?
I really enjoyed my time hosting tournaments at Willow Oaks. It’s a privately owned course that often hosts the State Open of Virginia, so we had to fine-tune the golf course to prepare. The players are the best amateurs in the state, and they come from all over, so we had to enhance the playability of the course and make the greens go faster and further than usual. I’d also count my time at Greenbrier – the golf course was opened in 1986 and we hosted the first LPGA in 1989, so it was a very quick turnaround to get the course ready. It was quite a feat.
How has the golf course industry changed?
It’s a unique operation – being a golf course superintendent is not for the faint of heart. It really takes a keen eye; you must have a good sense of design and spatial relationships. It’s difficult and tiresome work, and there aren’t many people today who are able or willing to put in the effort needed to be successful. But a positive change is that chemicals today are much more progressive – we’re minimizing the number of herbicides and fungicides going into the environment. There are products available that allow superintendents to pinpoint exactly what they need to do instead of having to look at a broad spectrum of solutions.
What are your predictions for the future of the industry?
As I said before, I think the biggest challenge is the lack of a labor force. Many superintendents have crews of five; most of them only have three. I think it’s because many high school and college students are not interested in pursuing a career where you have to get up at 5 a.m. and go home after dark, plus work on weekends. As a result, many colleges and universities no longer teach turf management or horticulture. But there are some students who get experience in the field and say, “Hey, this is what I want to do now.” We must get more young people interested in the field through education and mentorship.
Another challenge is the cost and availability of equipment and fertilizers due to national shortages – unfortunately, I don’t foresee this changing anytime soon. My advice is to be patient and actively communicate with your members about what’s going on.
Why did you decide to join Southern States Cooperative?
As a turf account manager, I can treat the golf courses like grandchildren. I can nurture them and give them attention as I’m doing my job, but at the end of the day, they go back to their parents [laughs]. I can go home and not have to worry about them 24-7. I’m also fortunate that I’m still connected with my friends who are superintendents, and I’m able to help them with some of their challenges by recommending products based on my own experience.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I love spending time with my family – my wife, Anne, and our daughters, Carrie and Carlee. I’ve always enjoyed golf, but these days, I’d rather be in a stream fly fishing than on a golf course.
Kyra Molinaro is an award-winning writer and editor based in Richmond, Virginia. She manages donor communications in the Advancement Office at the University of Richmond.