BCC Turf School: A credit to the (golf) community

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By Elsa Bonstein, Golf Gab

If you think maintaining a golf course means cutting grass, laying sod and occasionally spraying for weeds, you are mistaken. Golf course maintenance is an art and a science. It requires not just hard work but knowledge  obtained through college-level courses, seminars, practical experience and networking with other superintendents.
Many golf courses today require a superintendent has at least a two-year degree from a certified agronomy school. Some ask their head superintendent have a bachelor’s degree or better.  
Our Brunswick Community College has a turf school that is a real boon to our local golf courses, providing interns and employees and a venue where current superintendents and their assistants can upgrade their knowledge and skills and interface with the latest in turf maintenance.   
Last week I visited the Turfgrass Management Technology School at BCC and spoke to Dean Bennett, the director, and to Jace Myers, one of their instructors. I also spent time with a few of their second-year Turf School students.    
“If an individual student enjoys the outdoors, likes to hunt and fish, turf school might be a good career choice for them,” Dean said. “They can combine all of that with a business aspect to learn a profession and a trade.”
“We build student success and take it to heart at BCC,” Jace said. “We get to know each student personally. The measure of our success is in job placement. We give them the tools, then try to be a matchmaker between students and jobs they will love.”  
“Classes in the turf school are small,” Dean explained, “and that allows us to focus on the individual student. We usually have between 30 and 40 students each year.”
After completing their academic requirements (language skills, math and science), students take technical courses in such areas as plant materials, plant propagation, pest management, soils and fertilizers, landscape design, turf management and irrigation among others.
“We have a very hands-on approach in our program,” Dean explained. “The students learn to operate and repair complex machines like green mowers. They learn to operate a Bobcat and a zero-turn mower. We teach them to grind reels. They get the basics here and then during their internships at local golf courses, they put that knowledge to use and become more proficient.”  
The building that houses the turf school is surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens. Nearby are several rough, uncultivated acres.   
“Our students design, build, install and maintain our gardens,” Dean explained. “Recently, we built a bocce court. Because the ground is a bit soggy here, they had to deal with drainage first. Then they did the design work, and finally, the court is being implemented. It is a lengthy endeavor but worth it because our students get practical knowledge on a project from start to finish.”
We envision college students as young men and women, fresh out of high school. Not so at BCC.
“Our students range in age from 18 to mature adults in their 50s and even 60s. Sometimes we get students who are CPAs or work in computers or public relations. We had one student who had a B.A. in biology and another who had a master’s degree in computer science. People reach a certain age and decide they want to do something different; they want to learn a new trade.”
According to Dean, the mix of older and younger students is good for everyone.
“Many of the older students mentor the younger ones,” he said. “They’ve had experience in the real world and have developed good study habits and the ability to see things through.”
Many of the turf school students must balance a job and a family with their class requirements and internships. To help in this, freshmen meet on Tuesday and Thursday, second-year students meet on Monday and Wednesday. A few classes take place on Friday. Having open days allows students with other commitments to cover all their bases.  
“Today, a two-year degree is a must for golf course superintendents,” Dean explained. “Troon, the largest golf management company in the world, requires all of their assistants to have a minimum of a two-year degree in turf management.” (Troon manages St. James Plantation in this area.)
Dean told me that landscaping businesses in the area often send their employees to turf school. Some students are there because they want to become landscapers or to find employment in that area.  
“Our landscaping students want to learn more about the technical aspects of their job or business. They want to get real credentials,” Dean said.
I observed a landscape design class. Students sat at large tables sketching designs on architectural paper. After the class I spoke with some of the students.
J.R. Garrett and Cory Barringer have both worked at Thistle Golf Club.
“It was great and I learned a lot while I was there from John Pridgen, their superintendent,” Garrett said.
Cory worked on the landscaping along the roadways at Thistle.
“They have lots of plantings along the roads and the entryway at the Thistle. It’s a big job keeping all of that trimmed and weeded and neat.”
Last summer, Corey Cheza interned at Masonboro Country Club near Wilmington, Tait Nichols was at St. James Plantation and Zack Maultsby was at Pinehurst No. 8.
“That was wild,” Zack said. “I even got to work at Pinehurst No. 1 and No. 2 while I was there. What a great opportunity.” (Pinehurst No. 2 will host both the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Open in 2014.)
“Our students have gotten internships at locations all over the country, even at Disney World,” Dean said. “As our former students grow in their careers and become superintendents, they mentor our new graduates and help them get jobs and internships. The networking is huge among golf course superintendents.”
Locally, the BCC turf school has graduates who are superintendents at The Founders and The Members Clubs at St. James, Sea Trail, Farmstead and The Lakes. Assistant superintendents from BCC are at The Players Club at St. James, Meadowlands, Thistle and Landfall.
In addition to golf courses and landscaping businesses, turf school graduates maintain parks, ball fields, grasslands and plantings around highways, industrial parks, office complexes and schools.
Turf management is big business today and Brunswick Community College is helping folks get an education, find a niche and a good job by providing technical knowledge and practical experience.  
“Some folks think that golf course superintendents mow grass and dig holes,” quipped Jace Myers. “It’s a whole lot more complicated than that.”  

Golf Gab groaner:
Famous golfers on golf
Sam Snead: These greens are so fast, I have to hold my putter over the ball and hit it with the shadow.
Jack Benny: Give me golf clubs, fresh air and a beautiful partner, and you can keep the clubs and fresh air.
Billy Graham: I never pray on a golf course. Actually, the Lord answers my prayers everywhere except on the course.
Lee Trevino: I’m not saying my golf game went bad, but if I grew tomatoes, they’d come up sliced.

Elsa Bonstein is a golf columnist for The Beacon. Reach her at elanbon@atmc.net. Follow her at facebook.com/elsa.bonstein.