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Last Update :12/22/2009

TurfNet Article on Mid-Atlantic Superintendents and VGCSA members

Special from TurfNet

A boatload of experience

by John Reitman

They came from places like the University of Massachusetts, Penn State and the University of Maryland to oversee turf operations at some of the finest golf courses in and around Washington, D.C., such as Columbia Country Club, Washington Golf and Country Club and the U.S. Naval Academy golf course.

George Thompson, CGCS, remembers fondly those days in the 1960s and ’70s when he and other superintendents from that part of the Mid-Atlantic spent those rare and precious moments away from the golf course aboard a Chesapeake Bay fishing charter, trying to forget their worries.

He and a list of others that included Lee Dieter, CGCS, Sam Kessel, CGCS, Dave Fairbank and Mike McKenzie were fresh out of college. And they were among the first turf school graduates charged with overseeing conditions on some of the most renowned tracks in the D.C. area. And they, with their high-falutin college educations, were outcasts among the Washington area’s turfgrass establishment. Perhaps they were perceived as threats to those without a certificate who instead worked their way up from grass roots. Whatever, the reason, the establishment of the day was not warm to the idea of sharing information with these book-learned newcomers.

Although most of this new breed of superintendent did not know each other previous to relocating to the D.C. area, it became readily apparent that they would be dependent upon each other for their very survival. As a result they formed lifetime bonds and friendships that were fueled by a hunger to learn more about fishing as well as their chosen trade.

“We had a good relationship with each other, even though we were all from other areas,” said Thompson, who spent 19 years (1963-82) at Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Md., 18 of them as head superintendent. “The older people weren’t as willing to share information as our generation was. We were just not getting any information from the old-timers then. A lot of them had just come up through the ranks, or they were Scotchmen. They might have been mailmen in Scotland, but when they came over here they made them a greenkeeper.”

Indeed, those few hours each month were about coaxing rockfish onto a hook and maintenance tips from one another.

“The older people weren’t as willing to share information as our generation was. We were just not getting any information from the old-timers then. A lot of them had just come up through the ranks, or they were Scotchmen. They might have been mailmen in Scotland, but when they came over here they made them a greenkeeper.”
- George Thompson, CGCS

“Lee was the Godfather. He was the one who put this together,” said Thompson, who spent almost 20 years as superintendent at Columbia Country Club. “He had been fishing with some other friends for years.

“We became hardcore fishermen, but usually we talked turf. You can’t get away from it, right?”

Thompson was hired as assistant superintendent at Columbia shortly after graduating in 1963 from UMass, where he studied under Joseph Troll. Within 18 months he was promoted to superintendent, a job he held until moving on in 1982 to the Country Club of North Carolina. Now 71, Thompson teaches turf management courses at Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst, N.C., and serves as a turf consultant.

As Thompson recalls, leaning on fellow superintendents at that time could not be overestimated. In retrospect, his hiring at Columbia should have been an indicator of what he and others were in for at that time.

“I thought it was unusual with such limited experience that I was hired at Columbia,” Thompson said. “That area is the epicenter for bad grass. No one wanted to go there to start (their career).”

Such a realization was in stark contrast to growing conditions at UMass as well as Thompson’s native Berkshire County in western Massachusetts.

“It was easy to grow grass there,” he said. “Dr. Troll used to say that you could throw out a handful of Penncross (seed) and grow an acre in Berkshire County.”

As the years passed, and members of the group moved on to jobs in other parts of the country, the face of the group changed like the tide of the Chesapeake, with members coming and going. Names like Walter Montross, CGCS, Tom Haske, Jack McClenahan and others came in and out of the group. Although some of the faces changed, the purpose of those fishing excursions remained unchanged.

“These guys were the lions of the industry, and there was a lot of shared experience,” said Montross, who has spent nearly 20 years at Westwood Country Club in Vienna, Va. “If I had a problem, I could get on the phone and have six or seven guys on my doorstep to look at things.”

That’s why Thompson was so enthusiastic when the group assembled again this year to renew a tradition that for him at least ended some 27 years ago.

“I couldn’t wait to get back,” says Thompson, now 71.

Montross worked for McKenzie and Dieter at the U.S. Naval Academy golf course in Annapolis, Md., and Washington G&CC in Arlington, Va., before being named superintendent at Westwood in 1979. It wasn’t until then, when he was head superintendent, that he was invited to join the group.

“I knew all those guys, but it wasn’t until then that I was treated like an equal in the group,” Montross said.

“These guys were the lions of the industry, and there was a lot of shared experience. If I had a problem, I could get on the phone and have six or seven guys on my doorstep to look at things.”
- Walter Montross, CGCS

Several years later, by the mid-1980s, the group had disbanded – until now.

Montross and wife Linda invited members of the group to their recently completed dream house on the Chesapeake.

“A few couldn’t make it, but eight of them came and stayed at the house,” Montross said. “They brought photos from as far back as the ’60s. It was great to reminisce.”

At 56, Montross is the only member of the group who still works as a superintendent. As he looked at a photograph someone snapped of the group, he could not help but wonder about the amount of experience and turf knowledge the group possessed.

“There is 357 (cumulative) years of turf experience in that photo just with those eight people,” he said.

Thompson remembers the importance of sharing information in those days as well.

“We talked a lot about fungi, how to hold onto Poa as long as you could and Pythium,” he said. “Pythium was very destructive then because this was before there were any good products available for Pythium control. You’d go scout the golf course in the morning to see what fungi were active that day. There was always something. It wasn’t until the mid- to late1960s that there was anything for Pythium. We sympathized with each other. We all lost a lot of fairway grass back then.”

Few if any in that group have been able to find colleagues so willing to help as the members of this group. The only member of the fishing group still working as a superintendent, Montross relies on his online colleagues more than he can superintendents from down the road.

“Now, I have guys 2 miles down the road who I never talk to. They’re locked into their own little world, and they’re not interested in communicating,” Montross said. “Today, because of things like TurfNet, I have a guy in California answering a question faster than I can get an e-mail from a guy 2 miles away. One of the things we see now is that new guys just don’t participate. It’s a common pattern now, and it’s sad.”



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