Tours of duty

Tours of duty

Mike McCullough

“Lacing them up” is often referred to by sports talk hosts for those individuals who have participated in some type of athletic endeavor at a high level. But it is a literal term used when trying to follow Superintendent Kevin Breen around one of his bi-weekly walking tours of his golf course in the Sierra Mountains.

Last summer, I stopped by Lahontan GC in Truckee to visit Kevin and catch up on his latest activities. The guys at the shop said Breen was out on the course and that I could go join him. An assistant on the course drove me out to the 13th hole where I was dropped off near the middle of the fairway.

I immediately saw a slender man wearing a bucket hat walking from the tee up to the fairway with a soil probe in one hand and a radio in the other. After a few salutatory remarks, Kevin directed me to walk alongside him as we continued with our conversation.

Throughout the walk, I noticed Kevin would frequently pull out the two golf balls from his front pocket and roll them across the green or throw them down onto the fairway or approach. Very strange, I thought. I also noticed Kevin writing a few things down on a small tablet that he kept in his back pocket. These small and simple instruments made a lot more sense after we had walked the remaining five holes and I had a better understanding of what he was trying to do.

Breen, 42, really doesn’t know how or when these walking tours of duty got started but he does point to the fact that he just didn’t have time for anything else. “I needed to see the golf course but couldn’t afford to come back after work to play a few holes,” Breen says. “I really want to know what the golf course looks like, plays like and feels like from a player’s perspective.”

Breen starts the walks at 6 AM, when the crew head out to start their morning assignments. “The walks allow me to roughly be on the same work pace as the crew,” says Breen, a certified golf course superintendent. “I want to see everything the way a golfer would see it.” That is why the now infamous walking tours start by the practice area, which includes a practice putting green and large driving range tee. Breen then proceeds to the first tee and walks the rest of the golf course in order.

The walking inspections provide Breen with a sense of purpose. “You can miss a lot of things by being a 20/20 guy,” says Breen, referring to riding in a golf cart at 20 miles per hour, on the cart path 20 yards away from the fairways and greens. “All too often everything looks good from a distance, but in reality there can be trouble lurking just a few feet away.”

Kevin has two goals when he takes his twice-weekly course walks. One is quality control of the crew and the product he is providing on a daily basis. The other goal is to provide firm, green playing surfaces.

Quality control can take on a variety of meanings for Breen. One aspect might be visual quality control. Breen frequently looks at how many grass clippings are being thrown into the basket on a green for one of his visual quality control standards. “This gives me a good idea how much or how little the greens are growing.”

Helping out a crewmember who might be behind schedule is different way Breen performs quality control. “I’ll do whatever it takes the get the person caught up.” Whether it is using a rake to finish up a bunker or using a dew whip to clean up debris, Breen jumps and lends a helping hand.

Another way Breen checks on the crew is as simple as stop, watch and listen. “Sometimes I just stand in the fairway for three to five minutes, just watching a section man work around the green or a crewmember mow a fairway. Obviously it puts that person a little on edge, but it lets them know that I care about the quality of their work.”

It is not uncommon for Breen to run the battery of his radio dry during one of the walking tours. Breen is in constant communication with his staff members trying to make sure that quality control is an everyday occurrence and not just some loosely thrown around phrase. “I want to know for certain that I know everything about the course better than the end user,” he says.

One of worst things that can happen to a superintendent in Breen’s eyes is to have a golfer report some type of turf condition that you were not aware of. “What happened to the back of the blue tee box on No. 6?” is one such question Breen hopes he never hears. Personally seeing the tee box at least twice during the week is Breen’s way of not being surprised.

Providing firm surfaces that are green is by far the harder of the two goals Breen has for himself and the crew at Lahontan. “It’s nice to talk about firm conditions, but it’s quite another to try and provide them on a daily basis which is why walking the course is so valuable,” Breen adds.

The golf balls that Breen carries with him during the walk are not just for show and tell. “I like to throw balls down on fairways and approaches to see how high they bounce. When they don’t bounce very high, then I know things are not where they need to be. By using the soil probe, I can look into the profile to see if it’s too wet, too dry and whether or not there may be too much thatch.”

Breen also rolls the balls on the greens to see how fast and true the greens are rolling. Throwing the balls on the green also gives him an idea of how firm the putting surfaces are. Another tool Breen frequently uses on the walks is a Lang penetrometer. The device is simple and easy to use and gives immediate feedback as to the firmness of any surface. “I use it a lot to measure the firmness of the greens,” Breen says. “It’s a great tool to fend off comments regarding soft greens or even fairways.”

Breen saw a PGA Tour agronomist use one of these penetrometers at the Champions Tour Championship last year at Sonoma Golf Club, where one of Breen’s former assistant superintendents, Mat Dunmyer, is now the superintendent.

It’s no coincidence that Dunmyer is also a regular walker of his golf course. In fact, he walks it three times a week with the same ammunition as Breen, a radio and a soil probe. “I like to see the little things that wouldn’t be spotted when driving by in a cart. I enjoy walking because I get to see the other side of the fairway and rough and not just the same old cart path.”

Dunmyer, who is challenged by tight soils and less-than-ideal water quality, tries to provide a consistent product, much like Breen. “It’s a constant struggle to make daily adjustments for wet and dry areas,” says Dunmyer, “but by being out on the course so frequently I try to catch as many of them as I can before they get out of hand.”

Besides the tremendous health benefits of briskly walking several miles a couple of times a week can bring, the end user is the one who gets the best benefit of all. “Our standards are always higher than those of the end user,” says Breen. “We prefer to eliminate defensive or reactionary maintenance practices and focus on preventative procedures,” says the current President of the Sierra Nevada Chapter of the Golf Course Superintendents Association.

The small tablet Kevin keeps in his back pocket has been extremely helpful for making and reminding himself about impending management decisions. “It helps to jog my memory when writing out the afternoon duties for the crew or for determining when larger, more time-consuming cultural practices should be performed later down the line. I might move up a fertilization application based on things that I observe while walking on the course,” he says.

Breen and his staff go the extra mile in determining what types of products are needed by the soil and turf to provide the preferred firmer playing conditions. “We take monthly soil tests during the growing season to make sure we are giving the turf everything it needs” says Breen. Utilizing slow release organics products and plenty of iron and wetting agents are all standard operating procedures for Kevin and his crew.

Invariably, after Breen completes a walkabout of the course, an assistant or one or several crewmembers will come up and ask, “What did you think?” Breen is happy to answer that type of question because he knows the person asking the question is ready to jump in and tackle the next “Things-to-do” list. Walking has never been healthier, for the crew, the turf, the golfer and of course, the superintendent.

Mike McCullough is the director of turfgrass services for the Northern California Golf Association.

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