Tuesday, 19 December 2017

2017, "Oh the places you'll go"

Every year I wonder if I will run out of things to write about or keep me interested and passionate about my job. While 2017 was one of the most challenging years of my turfgrass career, it was also one of the most rewarding.

2017 started off badly. One of the worst winters on record left us with half of our greens dead. This wasn't my first time with winter damage so I wasn't too worried. Stressing out wouldn't make the situation any better so I set out ensure that this bad situation would allow me to learn as much as possible about greenkeeping. As this is really the only course I've worked at, it's hard to get a broad experience so I relish the opportunity to learn from these kinds of things.

There are a few visitors that can attest that I was actually a bit excited that my greens were dead. What a great opportunity to get some more bentgrass into these greens!

Poa isn't supposed to be this colour.
Right from the start I decided to share my experience because I knew it wasn't my fault or a result of my negligence. Eventually reports started to trickle in that the damage was widespread across the region and it had nothing to do with my "rebel" maintenance practices. Even the big budget courses were hit hard.

It wasn't easy to share pictures of the dead greens but I prefer to be open and transparent instead of closed in. I wasn't prepared for all the private messages from other superintendents who thanked me for sharing the carnage as it took some of the pressure off of them knowing that others were dealing with the same issues. There's nothing worse than feeling alone in a bad situation. One of the best parts of twitter is that we can all work through challenging times together.

"I'm afraid that some times
you'll play lonely games too.
Games you can't win
'cause you'll play against you.
All Alone!
Whether you like it or not,
Alone will be something
you'll be quite a lot.
And when you're alone, there's a very good chance
you'll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.
There are some, down the road between hither and yon,
that can scare you so much you won't want to go on.
But on you will go
though the weather be foul.
On you will go
though your enemies prowl.
On you will go
though the Hakken-Kraks howl.
Onward up many
a frightening creek,
though your arms may get sore
and your sneakers may leak.
On and on you will hike,
And I know you'll hike far
and face up to your problems
whatever they are."
2017 marked the first time that I attended the Golf Industry Show and I was lucky enough to be invited as a seminar speaker as well as doing 3 other presentations! It was so inspiring to meet so many of the people I had interacted with on twitter over the years and to see just how big of a turf conference GIS really was. I was completely blown away by the people I met or who knew who I was.

I had the honor of having Niels Dokkuma from the Koninklijke Nederlandse Golf Federatie visit me to talk about my efforts to reduce my dependence on traditional pesticides. The Netherlands will have a complete ban on cosmetic pesticides on golf courses in the next few years so they are really doing a lot of research to figure out how they will survive. I really learned a lot from Niels and it was through one of his Canadian contacts that I learned about a way to speed the recovery of my putting green damage.

Don't forget to see your grass Doctor every now and then!

I've learned a lot about grass in the pub. Here I am learning about how good, and expensive Iceland beer is. Did you know beer was illegal here up until the 80's?
While "networking" at a pub during the Canadian Turf Show I learned about how some courses in Canada pre-germinated their bentgrass to speed recovery in the spring. This proved to be a great success and allowed us to open our greens much earlier than we would have if we didn't pre-germinate the seed indoors.

Next time, I'll poke more holes for the pre-germinated seed.

I was also offered the opportunity to learn about using growth potential during a recovery effort.

Shoveling snow so we could seed the greens. It was a shit spring
Unexpected to me was how knowing what the potential for growth would do for my sanity. It sure is nice to know that it isn't just me that is the reason the grass isn't growing. With a much cooler than normal spring the recovery was delayed but with the tools to measure GP I wasn't searching for answers. This understanding helped me communicate the issue to my membership.

Having half of my greens in recovery mode and the other half on regular maintenance mode also offered me the opportunity to learn about the differences between difference maintenance practices had on grass growth for a similar climate.

This learning opportunity continued when the time came to adjust the maintenance practices on the damaged greens from recovery mode to maintenance mode. For some crazy reason this was also the time that I was finally convinced to measure clipping yield on all of my greens and this opened up a crazy new world of manipulating growth on individual greens to try and find consistency.

It was at this same time that I had 1/3 of my staff leave due to affordability issues in the Harbour. This left us extremely short staffed during one of the hottest and driest summers of my career. In a 90 day stretch we had only 7 days where the daytime high didn't go over 30C! With our aging and hardly functioning irrigation system it was a challenge to keep the grass alive to say the least.

I was very sad to see the hard working and very talented Steve leave for greener pastures elsewhere
With no applicants to replace my departed staff member we were forced to adapt. It's during these times of hardship that I often find that I learn the most. This year I learned what was most important to the golfers and I learned that it's possible to maintain a 9 hole course with only 2 staff and minimal overtime.

At the beginning I said to myself that I will not carry the burden of our staffing issues. This could not end well and will surely result in my burnout (I was on the edge all summer) and bad things. I decided to work as little overtime as possible and to focus on the basics. I learned how to prioritize and how little we actually need to mow. The only overtime that was required was when there were irrigation breaks which unfortunately happened every few days.

The following table summarizes the amount of labor (not including me) that we use to maintain the golf course. Periods of unexpected staff loss are pretty easy to see but during these times I have been able to learn and in the end manage the course with less.

It's not just managing the course with less, it's re-allocating our precious resources to allow the remaining staff to do the work more efficiently.

In 2012 I lost my long time assistant and my remaining staff had health issues. This allowed me to convince the Board here to get new equipment as most of my time was spent maintaining our old inefficient equipment. The new equipment we got in 2013 allowed us to easily get the job done with 40% less labor. Aside from being more efficient with our work, we were able to improve conditioning on the course as the modern machinery was picked specifically for our course's specific needs instead of just cost and availability like we had done in the past.

In 2016 and 2017 we again had issues finding what I thought was enough staff and this forced me to figure out how to keep the course going with less effort. In the end I learned that I spend too much time keeping our aging irrigation system running and that our horrible fairways costs us a huge amount of time and money to simply mow. I presented my board a proposal to replace our irrigation system and re-grade our fairways for almost no additional costs as we could pay for these projects with the efficiency savings found. I hope that we can start these projects in the coming years.

In the end, the golfers had no clue that it was so difficult to maintain the course which is both good and bad. It's good that it wasn't noticeable to the average golfer but bad that the decision makers also didn't notice and even asked that I do it again next year. I wasn't too pleased with that request and definitely took the opportunity to explain the situation.

This summer was very dry and resulted in the largest evacuation due to wildfire in our Province's history. Again, I reached out on twitter to see if any of the displaced greenkeepers needed a place to stay and work. That next week I had a greenkeeper stop by and offer me his services. I asked his super if he was any good and he came with a glowing reference. That was good enough for me so I sent Scott out to change pins with literally no training and he did a fantastic job. I was able to employ Scott for a few weeks while he was forced to be away from his home and this helped us out immensely. How cool is the turf industry!?

I continued to learn a ton of stuff about clipping yield, grass growth, fertilizer inputs and was opened up to a whole new world that might allow me to cease core aerification forever!

I love that there is so much room for improvement in our industry and hope that I never figure it all out because that sounds boring!

I quit twitter for a day and was overwhelmed with the outpouring of support. This summer was amazing but also incredibly hard for me. The stress of a challenging summer, loss of staff, remnants of critical incident stress from my involvement with SAR, and twitter trolls were talking their toll and for a while I thought that closing everyone out was the best solution. This, of course, wasn't the best idea and I am happy I came back because it is the interaction with all the amazing turf managers on twitter that keeps me going most days when the going gets tough. I have always been outspoken when it comes to mental health and it's never good to suffer alone. If you are having a tough time reach out and talk about it.

"I'm sorry to say so
but, sadly, it's true
that Bang-ups
and Hang-ups
can happen to you.
You can get all hung up
in a prickle-ly perch.
And your gang will fly on.
You'll be left in a Lurch.
You'll come down from the Lurch
with an unpleasant bump.
And the chances are, then,
that you'll be in a Slump.
And when you're in a Slump,
you're not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself
is not easily done."
I continued to try new things and refine the things that I was already doing. I continued to find success and also failed a lot too. I might be one of the luckier greenkeepers because failure is always a potential expected outcome and that's ok. This allows me to try new things, maximize learning and minimize stress. I suppose this is probably true for most greenkeepers and perhaps it is more a state of mind rather than fact of life. Maybe our fear of failure is our biggest hurdle as greenkeepers. I don't know but I do know that the most interesting and times of my career have come during the times of failure.

"You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You're on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go"

Last winter I wasn't able to take my wife with me to the GIS in Orlando so I promised her that maybe next year I would take her to Europe on a turfgrass talk. If almost by magic that week I received a message from the Irish Golf Course Superintendent Association asking me if I would be interested in talking at their conference in November. I almost instantly said yes and was luckily able to keep my promise to my wife as I took her along with me for the trip!
Geyser in Iceland. It blows every 10 minutes so the timing was tough. Thanks Baddi for the pic!

My wife and I on our first trip together in 10 years. Trim Castle in the background

I finally got to meet Dr. John Dempsey and he's as funny in person as he is on Twitter! Possibly the highest qualified greenkeeper in the world at the oldest course in Ireland!
This trip was an amazing opportunity for me to see a part of the world that I would otherwise never have to chance to see. It really is amazing what the internet can do! When I announced that I was going to Ireland I was contacted by the greenkeepers in Iceland asking if I could stop by on my way home from Ireland. It didn't' take long for me to say yes to that! Here's a pro tip, if anyone from the Iceland greenkeepers asks you to come visit, don't say no! WOW.

Bjarni Hannesson and I at the Keilir Golf Club in Iceland.

During my trip to Ireland and Iceland I continued to learn so much about our profession. I really find it fascinating how greenkeepers manage their unique challenges all over the world and hope to be able to have the opportunity to travel and talk with other greenkeepers for years to come! I also really appreciate knowing about growth potential as I travel the world because it really helps me get a good understanding of the challenges that everyone faces. The growth potential is a great way to highlight the challenges that greenkeepers face due to the climate.

I met many people who I had interacted with on twitter and met a lot more people who I can now call friends! The warmth and acceptance showed to me every time I travel is amazing. What a special industry we are a part of!
I never thought my speaking career would last more than 1 season but this Winter I was asked to speak at 8 conferences but unfortunately could only say yes to 5 as I have work and family commitments that come first. I am honored to have the opportunity to travel around and meet so many talented greenkeepers and for the year of 2017, the people were the best part

be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea,
You're off the Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So...get on your way!"
Here's to another year of meeting new and old friends and to constant improvement and expansion of my understanding of what we do as greenkeepers.


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