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Give thanks for our golf course superintendents

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By Elsa Bonstein, Golf Gab

Once in a while, I run into someone who thinks golf course superintendents are grass cutters and nothing more. They think these guys have a cushy job, sitting on a mower all day with none of the stress of corporate America.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Golf course superintendents are highly educated specialists who are in charge of multimillion-dollar businesses. It’s almost like owning a farm, except your product is complex, alive and on display year round as golfers play their favorite sport.
There are various kinds of grass (greens, fairways, tees, ornamentals) to maintain. Ponds and wetlands, rivers and creeks, bridges, grass bunkers, sand bunkers and waste bunkers all require expertise and energy. There are cart paths and bridges, trees, flowerbeds and natural areas, and much, much more. Most 18-hole courses have a dozen employees and a maintenance budget of at least $500,000.      
Like any other business people, our local superintendents have a professional association. Theirs is the Carolinas Golf Course Superintendents Association (CGCSA). Its annual meeting and trade show took place Nov. 12-14 at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center.  
The show includes seminars for continuing education, business meetings and exhibits with all the latest in golf course maintenance equipment. For fun, there is a sporting clay event and a golf tournament. Like any other business meetings, luncheons and dinners and cocktail hours allow plenty of time for networking.
Doug Lowe is the president of the CGCSA. I spoke with him at length just outside the huge exhibit hall.
“Everyone loves Myrtle Beach, and we draw superintendents from several surrounding states. Ours is the biggest trade show other than the national show put on by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America,” Doug said. “Their show is in San Diego this year, and some superintendents don’t want to travel that far, so they came here instead.”
“This is the largest turnout we’ve had in several years,” he said. “Our exhibits sold out early, we had 325 participants in the golf tournament. The golf course industry is rebounding and this is the proof.”
The exhibit hall was filled with displays of everything having to do with golf courses. Golf course architects, turf and golf management programs at colleges had booths as did companies that specialized in seed and turf, fertilizers, computer sensors that run irrigation systems, pumps, sprayers and a dizzying variety of mowers and other mobile equipment.
One of the largest displays was by Smith Turf & Irrigation. I spoke with Stephen E. Smith, president of STI.
A tall, charming man, Steve, is the fourth generation of Smiths to be part of company management.   
“My great-grandfather, E.J. Smith, founded the business in 1925, and it’s been going strong ever since,” he said.
Steve’s great-grandfather was not into turf management, until he went to the Minikahda Club in Minneapolis, Minn., with some representatives of Toro Manufacturing. Before then, golf courses were mowed by teams of horses pulling mowers. At Minikahda that day, he watched five mowers mounted on the front of a Toro tractor cutting the fairway.
E.J. saw this as the beginning of a whole new mechanization of golf course maintenance. Throughout the years, Smith Turf & Irrigation became one of the largest turf equipment companies in the world. Today, its equipment is sold and serviced in North and South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and Bermuda. Its corporate offices are in Charlotte.   
“Right now, our business is doing well,” Steve said. “We had four lean years, while the need for new equipment built up. Plus, many of our four-year leases rolled over in 2012. We sell everything from mowers to reel grinders. A large part of our business is irrigation systems. The weather in the past few years has stressed many of our golf courses and made the work of our superintendents more challenging than it normally is. We’re glad to help in any way we can.”
I asked Steve what his more important product was, and he sagely replied, “The goodwill of our customers. We sell and rent and service equipment for golf courses and the company is basically built to our customer’s specs. We help our superintendents in any way we can.”
I wandered through more displays and booths and found a company called Erosion Restoration. This was a timely topic with all the devastation from Hurricane Sandy and because the Carolinas are a hurricane-prone area.
Andre van den Berg is from South Africa and today is the managing director of Erosion Restoration. The company is based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. They have various commitments all over the United States, designing projects for erosion control and restoration.
“We’re hugely busy now, with all the storms that have occurred in the last few years,” Andre said. “We don’t just help to restore shorelines and lakefronts after a storm or flood or the passage of time. We also create methods that provide for natural drainage and water flow so that the banks of ponds, creeks and rivers are stabilized enough to withstand a bad storm or hurricane.”   
Rather than installing hardscapes like bulkheads or stone riprap, Erosion Restoration installs Eco-Tubes along the banks of rivers, lakes, ponds and other shorelines. This is a geotextile fabric tube that is filled with sand and soil, often dredged from the water of the lake or river. Water flows naturally through the tube below the surface of the soil so the grass, shrubs, plantings next to the water are undisturbed. These tubes are laid along the banks and then soil and sod are laid over it. Rainwater runs down into the soil, through the mesh tube and the sand it contains and into the creek or lake.   
Andre showed me before and after photos of their restoration projects and I was fascinated. The restored areas next to waterways appeared natural because the tubes can be circled around trees and assume the natural shape of land adjacent to water.
“Because the work is often done by boats that dredge soil and install the Eco-tubes, there is not a need to create additional damage by bringing in heavy equipment or truckloads of sand and soil,” Andre explained.
“Our engineers do site plans and obtain the necessary approvals for the work,” he said. “We work with FEMA, federal, state, county, city and other government agencies that have jurisdiction in a particular area.”
With all the water on golf courses, I expect this kind of engineering can be exceedingly useful in constructing new golf courses and restoring older facilities.
As usual, I learned a lot at the CGCSA trade show. There were nearly 150 exhibitors, and it was all fascinating.

Golf Gab groaner
Davey was playing a particularly tight golf course, where the fairways ran next to each other. On the fifth hole, Davey stood 100 yards from the green, lining up his shot. Suddenly, a ball hooked over from the eighth tee box and hit him square in the face.
As he lay on the ground with his cheek bleeding and a big shiner beginning to show on his right eye, the errant golfer ran up.  
“Idiot, your golf ball hit me in the face,” Davey yelled. “I’ll sue you for $5 million dollars!”
“I said fore,” the golfer apologized.
“I’ll take it,” Davey replied.  

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