In order to become a Head Greenkeeper, or Golf Course Superintendent (same job, just different titles) in this day in age, attending a college that specifically offers a degree in turfgrass management, the plant sciences or agronomy is a definite requirement. Not too many organizations are going to hire a person based on experience alone so attending an institute of higher learning is surely a must if your goal is to become Head Greenkeeper.
Becoming a Head Greenkeeper was definitely my intent, and due to the community college in my area not offering any degree remotely related to managing grass in a golf course setting, left me with few options. Traveling out of state was simply a necessity, and to stay somewhat local, I had three different schools to choose from, Penn State, Rutgers and the University of Maryland. All three of these institutes of higher learning offered two or four year degrees in turfgrass management, but being that I slacked tough for the majority of my adulthood pretty much negated my chances of acquiring a bachelor’s. Most people my age doing this golf course maintenance gig were already Assistant Greenkeepers or Head Greenkeepers, and here I was this old jerk greenkeeper occasionally weedeating a goddamn pond edge.
Time was of the essence and the financial ramifications associated with attending school was also a serious consideration. Being that time and spending exorbitant amounts of cash played into this critical decision, attending Penn State was quickly eliminated from the list. As much as I liked those Nittany Lions, Happy Valley was just too far from my spot, and the idea of moving three and a half hours away seemed way too daunting.
Jim Kelly and my good old friend, Mark Berry both graduated from The University of Maryland’s turfgrass management program, so I did consider rolling to College Park. Their main campus was a little over an hour away from where I was living, but the tuition was mad high. It would’ve been a financial stretch to become a Terrapin so I began focusing my attention on those Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers offered a certificate program which consisted of two, highly intense, ten week semesters done over a period of two years. Honestly, I was a bit leary of the certificate deal, but people in the business assured me that a high number of successful greenkeepers had graduated from this particular program. The price was right, and the ability to quickly obtain a certificate deemed reputable by the industry seemed legit, so I got my shit together, applied, and was barely accepted into the Rutgers Professional Golf Turf Management School for the fall session of Y2K.
If you thought I was anxious pedaling my ass through the gated entrance of The College Town Golf Club two years prior, you should’ve seen me during orientation. I was a nervous wreck. It had been nearly ten years since being in a school setting, and if I fucked this up, I knew menial labor was in play for the rest of my sorry existence. The undesirable thought of making ten bucks an hour, living in some crappy apartment complex, while ripping around in some late model piece of shit American car that was breaking down on the regs, while getting hollered at by my white trash wife, Mandy Sue, because life was full on sucking was a world I did not want to delve into. And sorry if this seems superficial, but I used this highly possible outcome as motivation.
And along with not wanting to succumb to white trash life (I should copyright this phrase and make stickers and t-shirts), when I applied to Rutgers, I wasn’t accepted right away, and was placed on the waiting list. I remember pleading with the administrators in the admissions office , making these outlandish promises of finishing in the top ten of the class, while incessantly proclaiming I had the vigor to be an outstanding student, even though my high school transcripts told a different story entirely.
After hearing my heartfelt spiel, the administrator took pity on me, and placed my name first on the waiting list. And despite my reservations about remaining on, what I considered, a sketchy list, this kind woman basically assured me that being first was pretty much a guarantee into the program. Thankfully, one of the more promising candidates bailed, and I was in.
So there I was, a moron fid in his late twenties, sitting in a room with forty nine other dudes, nearly shitting my khakis over the fear of ending up in the goddamn poorhouse. But perhaps even more harrowing than the horror of going white trash life, was the empty promise I made about being an outstanding student, despite not earning a legitimate, “A” since the sixth fucking grade. I had my work cut out for me, and it certainly did not take long before my fears of succeeding became a grim reality.
I learned early on that the Rutgers Professional Golf Turf Management School had a reputation to uphold. All effort was put forth by our instructors to provide us with the pertinent information required to become successful workers in the field of growing grass. The schedule was rigorous, Monday through Friday, from nine to three, leaving nary a minute to rip a white knight (Marlboro light) or grub down a lunch. You had to adjust to the lifestyle, and if you didn’t the program would literally crush you.
Two specific classes that first semester, Turfgrass Disease Pathology and Introduction to Integrated Pest Management, I recall quite vividly. They were both taught by the same instructor whose teachings initiated the foundation of our becoming promising young greenkeepers. The instructor was smallish in stature, athletically lean in build, and wore his long hair pulled back into a ponytail.
When this particular instructor was introduced to us during orientation I remember thinking to myself, “who’s the hippy”? Well, this hippy was, Rich Buckley, and once you got to know him, you quickly realized he wasn’t much of a hippy at all. In fact, Buckley was more prone to punch you in the face than hook you up with a free hug. Despite his size, and a look that seemed more suited for a headshop than a college classroom, the dude was hardcore, and his persona reflected the vigor of his instruction.
At the start of every Buckley class, we were given a quiz worth ten points based on the content taught from the previous lecture. For example our first quiz in Disease Pathology was taken at the beginning of the second lecture. That first quiz was really basic, and everyone including myself pretty much aced it. It was during his second lecture where things started getting a bit sketchy.
Buckley was schooling us on the symptoms and signs of turfgrass disease. The symptoms are the actual visible disruptions one can see with the naked eye. For example, just say you’re strolling along on a putting surface, and you notice these off colored patches of turf about the size of dinner plates. These irregular shaped circles are the visual symptoms of turfgrass disease.
However, it’s what’s happening within these circles that are actually causing the turf to look like hell. For the most part, they’re not noticeable to the naked eye, and these microscopic fucks are what they call in plant pathology life, signs.
The varying types of turfgrass disease signs such as, mycelium, fruiting bodies, basidiomycetes, fucking ectotrophic hyphae, and acervulus structures with lunate conidia overwhelmed a jerk like myself equipped with only a high school diploma. I remember leaving class that day with a bad feeling, and from the beleaguered looks on the faces of my classmates, it was only slightly comforting to assume I probably wasn’t alone.
I was in uncharted territory, being that I never studied extremely hard for any test I took in my entire life. But I studied my ass off prior to taking that “Symptoms and Signs” quiz. Studied like I had never studied before. And when I sat my ass down while waiting anxiously for, Buckley to pass out the quiz, I honestly felt prepared.
Here is the actual quiz he placed on my desk.
Turf Disease – Quiz 2 – Intro to fungi
- When you see clamp connections on hyphae, what does it mean? (1)
- Illustrate four ways fungi in the Ascomycota produce ascospores. (4)
- Illustrate five ways conidia are produced by the Ascomycota. (5)
Unfortunately, it was bomb city. I scored an unacceptable forty percent on that piece which basically killed any shred of confidence I might have been feeling about my aptitude as a student. Doubt began to creep into my psyche, similar to the way it happened when I was an entry level greenkeeper at The College Town Golf Club. Again I questioned whether I had the fortitude to pull this school thing off. Understanding the complexities of turfgrass disease symptoms and signs obviously wasn’t clicking, and bailing on turf school to enter the ranks of white trash life seemed like a viable alternative.
Thankfully, I wasn’t the sole jerk who failed miserably on this quiz. With the exception of a few nerds, most everyone blew it, leaving myself and the majority of my classmates no other choice but to work harder.
Buckley was setting the standard, and I dare not say his classes became any easier after that God awful quiz. But as the lectures progressed during Turfgrass Disease Pathology, Buckley started tying together the correlating symptoms and signs to a specific disease, and the information became way less harrowing to comprehend. He was pushing us, knowing that once we were in the field this knowledge, coupled with the intensity of his classroom would prepare us for any difficult situation we might encounter as turfgrass managers.
Buckley’s classes were by far the toughest, but equally as entertaining. He had a way of mixing in humorous bits to keep us engaged, and I recall this one particular lecture that I found to be utterly hilarious but sparked quite the controversy.
This controversial episode happened to go down during an Introduction to Integrated Pest Management class. Buckley was lecturing us about insect behavior, specifically that insects survive using instinct. To help us better understand this concept, he used dogs as an example, and this is when things got dicey.
“You think a dog loves you?” Buckley innocently asked us.
A plethora of. “Yeahs” and head nods filled the classroom as we answered back with a collective, “yes” that dogs are in fact, loving.
“Well, it doesn’t”, Buckley retorted matter of factly which sent a tremor of surprise throughout the air.
“That dog is fooling you”, he continued, “Dogs don’t feel love or have the ability to give love. It’s a learned behaviour so you fill its bowl with food and water in order to survive.”
People did not like this answer. Not even a little bit, and their displeasure was shown with numerous retorts as individual students began expressing their experiences of dog love. Each and every time an example was laid out to him, Buckley would confidently shake his head in disagreement, chalking it up as pure instinct.
This brutal assessment that dogs are unable to show or feel love was not going over well, and a select group of my classmates were riled up pretty tough. The controversy reached its climax as one of the students from the south, who was nearly in tears stood up and declared in his thick southern drawl,
“FUCK YOU, BUCKLEY! MY DOG LOVES ME!”, and with that, Buckley calmly moved the discussion forward showing no signs of being rattled by our classmate’s crass remark.
Despite pissing off a good majority of the classroom that day, personally, I loved all the commotion. And to this day, whenever I notice a random dog licking some person’s face, I realize it’s not love that dog is showing, it’s hunger.
I never thought in my entire life that I would ever say something like this, but I really liked school. Growing up, I was never a good student. Hell, I wasn’t even average. School to me was skating by with mostly C’s, a couple of D’s and some F’s sprinkled in for good measure. Most subjects didn’t interest me therefore I barely tried, but upon arrival at The Rutgers Professional Golf Turf Management School my entire attitude changed not only towards education, but life itself.
Learning became important, and not only was I getting schooled on the intricacies of managing turf in a golf course setting, but more importantly, I developed a deep understanding of things I was capable of achieving. Paying attention in class, asking questions, completing assignments on time, while sacrificing sleep to prepare for tests, became the norm. I manufactured a work ethic which birthed a well of self confidence, propelling me towards success. It was fascinating, because I honestly thought hell raising was my modus operandi.
After finishing a hell week of finals, I headed back to Delaware, and anxiously awaited for my grades to arrive. For the first time in my scholastic life, I was genuinely pumped to receive a report card. And man, did my boy, Tom Petty nail it. The waiting was definitely the hardest part and after sweating it out for perhaps the longest two weeks of my life, an envelope from Rutgers finally arrived at my parent’s house.
I rushed over there with the quickness, and was greeted by my parents who were perhaps as nervous as me. More so than anyone, they knew my penchant for fucking off in school, and lest we forget, the hell I put them through during my teens and early twenties. Not only did they invest financially into this greenkeeping escapade of mine, but I suppose their emotional investment was much greater. This was basically their second son’s last chance to accomplish something remotely successful in life.
Upon entering my parent’s house, I took a seat at the kitchen table while we exchanged the usual pleasantries. Sensing my anxiety, the coveted envelope was finally handed over to me, and after tearing it open I began to pour over the first report card I had received since high school. These were my grades from that first ten week session.
Botany and Physiology of Turfgrass & Ornamentals: C
Computer Applications: A
Effective Speaking: B
Golf Course Construction I: B
Irrigation Principles I: B
Landscape Management: B+
Landscape Plants: B
Management of Golf Course Employees & Business Communication: B+
Principles of Integrated Pest Control I: B
Soil Science: B+
Turfgrass Disease: B+
Turfgrass Disease Laboratory: A
Turfgrass Maintenance I: A
Turfgrass Identification & Development: B
Weed Identification: A
A sense of accomplishment overwhelmed me emotionally as tears of joy welled into my eyes. My biggest success up to that point was probably making close to a grand selling weed at some random Grateful Dead show in Bonner Springs, Kansas so please forgive me for getting a bit weepy. Assuming my tears stemmed from disappointment, my parent’s questioned what was wrong? I simply handed them the report card, unable to control the emotional joy.
It truly was a landmark moment for the three of us. We had been through a shitload together, so it was a bona fide relief that I actually achieved something positive. And I’ll never forget something my mother said that day.
“Joe, I always wondered about you”.
“What do you mean, mom?” I questioned.
“Now please don’t take this the wrong way.” she began
“I won’t.” I promised.
“Well, I always had a gut feeling you were smart, but you have to forgive me for thinking this, but sometimes I wondered if you were just plain dumb”.
The room erupted with laughter, and who could blame my mom, for thinking I was a dumbass. I did some pretty moronic shit, like sling weed at a Dead show in Bonner Springs, Kanas, so how could I be pissed at her for making such a statement.
Leaving didn’t come easy that day, because I just couldn’t stop basking in my parent's adoration of my newfound intelligence. When I finally got up to roll out, I hugged both my mom and dad so hard, and thanked them profusely for all their help, while never giving up on me. It was a crowning moment, but I understood all I had been through was simply a small taste of the overall greenkeeping experience. I still had a lot to do, and even more to learn.