January 27, 2016 – William Smith was a math major when he entered the University of Georgia, which would yield no clue that he would become one of the state’s best golf course superintendents.
He was familiar with the world of golf when he graduated high school in Manchester, because his father — a railroad worker — enjoyed the game and was good at it.
After his first quarter at UGA, however, Smith read that the university was launching a school in agricultural management. He immediately changed his major to agronomy with a goal of becoming a golf course superintendent. Winning scholarships to help him through, he emerged with a Bachelor of Science degree in agronomy and turf management and launched a career that includes the 26-year stint he continues to build at the Country Club of Columbus.
When he graduated, it was at another Columbus golf course that he got his start. Don Branch, when he stepped away from his post as superintendent at Green Island Country Club to manage founder Gunby Jordan’s properties, hired Smith as Green Island’s superintendent.
“I consider him my mentor in this business,” said Smith, who maintains close
ties with Branch to this day, likening his retired former boss to a “member of the family.”
At Green Island, Smith had the experience of working through five PGA Tour tournaments (The Southern Open) before moving on to Tallahassee, where his course hosted seven PGA Tour events (The Tallahassee Open).
His tenure at CCC has also involved preparation for prestigious events, including the annual Southeastern Amateur, the 2004 Georgia Amateur and other Georgia State Golf Association amateur contests.
In 2006, Smith was named Superintendent of the Year by the Georgia Golf Course Superintendents Association.
In November 2015, Smith’s achievements were again recognized when the Georgia Golf Course Superintendent’s Association of America honored him by placing him at the pinnacle of his profession with admission to its Hall of Fame.
The event was held at the prestigious East Lake Club in Atlanta, home of the PGA Tour Championship every year and the home course of golf legend Bobby Jones. He was presented the award by PGA golfer Jerry Pate, who twice won the Southern Open at Green Island while Smith was there. Pate now owns a successful turfgrass business.
“That was really a nice event,” said Smith. “My family was there. Don Branch and his wife were there and a group of (CCC) members came up and supported me. They didn’t have to attend. That made it very special.”
Since 1989, Smith’s labor of love has been at The Country Club of Columbus, where he spent the first 11 years maintaining a treasured Donald Ross-designed course that was beginning to show its almost 100-year-old experience. In 2002, he worked with architect Drew Rogers on a total restoration project that closed the course for a full year.
Smith said a golf superintendent’s work involves special challenges, chief among them coping with the weather, pestilence and budgets.
“Most challenging is getting programs instituted in advance of problems,” he said. “You have to prevent the incursion of weeds and insects months ahead to prevent damage to the course. If you wait for it to occur, it’s pretty hard to go out and cure it.
“You have to keep chemical use low, using only safe products, and that means you have to stay on top of it before it develops. Some spring diseases, for example, have to be prevented through applications in the fall.”
In addition to managing a work crew — treating them as people and not numbers — Smith said he’s always being challenged by “Mother Nature.”
“For example, in one 10-day period recently, we had 16 inches of rain, which is tough to deal with,” he said.
Each day, Smith said he maps out a plan of work for the next day, but that plan often goes out the window by the next morning as the crew copes with weather challenges.
“There’s no such thing as ‘normal weather’ on a golf course in Columbus, Ga.,” he said. “It’s probably the biggest factor we face in course maintenance.”
Smith said he works with a golf committee of members to whom he submits a budget, and with whom he works to handle challenges that arise outside of that budget.
“For example, our 12th green is a two-tiered green, but the upper tier was too small. We worked on that and more than tripled the size of that top tier. That was not a budgeted item and the golfers funded it as a special project through donations.”
The most challenging, yet the most “fun” project, however, remains that 2002 renovation of the entire course, a project that saw every blade of grass stripped, the number of trees reduced, greens and bunkers rebuilt and new grasses planted — all to restore it to the original Donald Ross design, said Smith.
“It was a fun year, and we’re still reaping the benefits of those improvements,” he said.
Looking back on the career he has shared with his wife Debbie, and two now-grown children, Jamie and Will, Smith reflected on what he expected when he set out to become a golf course superintendent,
“This is what I wanted to do,” he said, looking out over the trees and grasses of his course.