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Teaching the Future

As I look back at the beginning of my career in the turfgrass management field, there was one thing in particular that solidified my future. The simple fact of choosing the right place to do my internship some twenty two years ago has laid the ground work for the success I have enjoyed today. Granted I already had a strong working background and technical training from Penn State University, but the final piece of the puzzle was my internship. I was extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to work for Armen Suny at Castle Pines Golf Club in Castle Rock, Colorado home of the PGA Tour event “The International”. While there, I quickly learned that thinking out side of the box often times led to more creative problem solutions and better learning opportunities. This out of the box or nontraditional thinking approaching this has stuck with me and it has allowed me to thrive for many years.

I have been at The Country Club at Castle Pines for the last fourteen years and have developed a thriving internship program since my arrival. This was one of the first objectives I set out to put in place at The Country Club. In the beginning it was tough to get started because I could not offer housing, but I got lucky with my first intern from Purdue University, Greg Shaffer (now Golf Course Superintendent at Elcona CC in Bristol Indiana). He fortunately had family friends that lived in the area who provided a place for him to stay while in Colorado. The following year I was able secure housing for future interns and have not looked back. Each year we would limit the number of interns to two or three, so that a more intimate learning environment would be provided for the students.

When students are looking for internship opportunities they need to look beyond the name recognition factor only and understand that the quality of the internship is equally important. Yes, the name of the Club is important and looks good on a resume, but if you are one of a large number of interns at a big name facility rarely are you more than a glorified operator. This type of internship is a disservice to both the student and Superintendent alike.

In situations where the number of interns is limited to no more than three, a more intensive teaching opportunity can be achieved. This one on one interaction allows for frequent involvement in; fertilizer and pesticide applications, daily course setup, equipment operation, special projects, crew management and budgetary involvement. As a result a well rounded experience will occur and go a long way in the future by allowing the interns to be exposed too many different situations and experiences. Another side benefit of a smaller intern experience is the ability to customize the specific learning items. At the start of each internship, we ask the students what they would like to learn most during their time with us and try to accommodate those requests as best we can.

It is our goal to expose the interns to everything and anything they will ever see while working in the Turfgrass management field. One thing is for sure, if an intern comes to us weak in math skills, they will leave us highly proficient in all forms of material calculations. I cannot tell you how many times we have heard from former interns who have returned to school only to excel in classes they have previously struggled in.
Our internship program is also vital to the long term success of the maintenance operation by creating a pipeline of highly qualified Crew Leaders and future Assistant Superintendent candidates. The former interns are already familiar with the operation and how things work, which helps make their transition into a position with significantly more responsibility more seamless. That’s not to say that there will not be issues along the way, but they are better equipped to deal with them when they occur. I am also proud of the fact that a large number of our interns have gone on to do well in the industry as both Assistant and Golf Course Superintendents.

The teaching process goes beyond the interns and filters down to the rest of the staff as well. I am a firm believer that the best way of learning is to actually get the hands on experience. It is for this reason that I love taking on many in house projects that provide numerous opportunities for learning. There have been several times that I felt we may have taken on a little more than we can handle, but it has always worked in the end. Over the years my staff has taken on projects such as green and tee construction, progressive fairway grass conversion, bunker construction and most recently HDPE irrigation installation.

There is only so much you can learn in a class room environment and I often find myself pushing my staff to do more than what is in our normal scope of work. The short term pain and anxiety that I might cause my staff to feel only adds to the overall learning experience. When fully engaged in a project these tasks often times seem overwhelming and the staff might not truly understand the long term benefits of what I am asking of them. At the completion of some of these monumental projects it is only then that hindsight occurs and a full understanding of what took place fully sinks in. These new found skill sets which have been developed will not only make me better but my entire staff as well. It is for this reason alone I feel lucky to have one of the best trained and highly qualified Golf Course Maintenance Staffs from top to bottom. Several years ago I had a fellow Golf Course Superintendent comment to me that my seasonal staff was better trained than some of his full time staff; I took that as a huge compliment.

Looking at the makeup of our golf course maintenance staff we are extremely fortunate to have a total of five people with degrees in Turfgrass Management. This is a significant statistic because we have a full time staff of ten people which increases to thirty two at the peak of our summer season. It is nice knowing that you can go to most anyone on your staff and the task at hand will be executed with great skill and efficiency.

The learning process can never end no matter what field you’re in and the second it does your peers and competitors will quickly pass you by. I try to set an example with my staff and operation by always looking for new and nontraditional methods. There have been things which I have done over the years which were highly successful, but that did not stop me from tinkering with them the next time around. You would be hard pressed to find something we have done in the exact same manner time after time. This whole thought process goes back to what was learned as an intern which was to think outside of the box. Don’t be afraid to try something different, something crazy and even something that falls outside the lines of Turf 101 you just might surprise yourself with the result.
For more information about the ongoing maintenance practices at The Country Club at Castle Pines be sure to visit their blog at www.cccpgcm.blogspot.com.

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