Geeked on Golf

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Growing Grass – An Interview with Superintendent Brian Palmer

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“I’ve had enough of winter already. Looking forward to growing grass again.”

This text message, sent to me by Shoreacres Superintendent Brian Palmer, sums up what I love and respect about Supers.  It is rare indeed to find a profession that consistently produces such passionate and dedicated individuals.  Brian epitomizes that professional commitment.

The season just ended, and Brian is already itching to get back to it, because he thinks his golf course can get better.  After recently having the privilege of playing Shoreacres, I find it hard to imagine what is left to improve.  The transformation during Brian’s tenure of Seth Raynor’s gem on the North Shore is astounding.  He has taken a charming old course and put it into the conversation for the best in Chicago, and the country.

I have been the beneficiary of Brian’s generosity in two ways:  First, he has been helping me with fall projects at Canal Shores.  And second, he agreed to let me pick his brain in an interview.  Enjoy the following insights into the man and his work, as well as a few photos of the beautiful green that he keeps.


THE INTERVIEW

How did you get introduced to golf?

I was introduced to the game at a very young age, but didn’t start playing until I was 10 or 11.  My dad was a Superintendent and I used to love going to work with him.  The course always seems so big when you are 6 or 7.  My Grandfather shot his age until he was in early 80’s and he taught me how to play.

When did you know that the game had a hold on you?

I’m not quite sure when, maybe towards the end of high school?  I do remember drawing more golf holes than note taking in my notebooks in high school.  Around that time I think I started asking my father about doing this for a career and what might be the necessary steps to start a successful career.

How did you get into the business?

Working for my father, then he sent me to work for a younger Superintendent in Central New York, where I’m from.

Where were you before Shoreacres, and what were some of your key takeaways from those experiences?

I bounced around New York and Connecticut for internships and my first job out of college.  Then I went to work at Merion and was there for about seven years.

It’s a difficult business.  A golf course has many working parts and most of them are out of our control.  Over time I learned to: be a problem solver, do a lot with nothing, do whatever is necessary to get it done, to be able to go with the flow and be flexible, accept the fact that the course is rarely “perfect” in your eyes, and the importance of teamwork.  It’s also important to remember that it’s not your course.  You might spend the majority of your time looking after the course and treat it like it’s yours; but it’s the members’ course and not yours.

I have had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with some of the best Superintendents from around the world, and when I was younger I thought that these guys must know everything.  Was I wrong.  It blew me away that they are constantly seeking new advice and input from everyone around them.  It’s important to continue your education day in and day out.

What are the keys to managing change for a Superintendent during a big project?

Managing large projects is fun – it’s important to be out there as much as possible and keep your head on a swivel.

What do you love most about practicing your craft?

That every day is totally different.  It’s everything that you encounter that day; the sunrise, the sunset, the camaraderie with the staff, the quirks and intricacies of the property, the weather, the adversity and the beauty.

What are the top courses on your list to play next?

That’s a tough one.  I like heathland courses: Morfontaine, Walton Heath, Swinley Forest, and I need to play National.  I would like to see more Raynors too.

When you are not working or playing golf, how do you spend your time?

My fiancé and I like to travel both domestically and internationally, find a good hike, a good beer and a good meal.  I spend a lot of time at the course and my world revolves around the course and the game.  So when I am not at the course I try to separate myself from it all.


MORE ON SHOREACRES

What do you know about the architectural history of Shoreacres?

The very beginning of the club’s history is a little blurry because the original clubhouse burned down in 1982 and we lost some of the historical documentation.  At some point Seth Raynor was commissioned to design and build the course.  The club was founded in 1916, construction started in ’18 or ’19, the course opened in ’21 and all 18 holes opened in ’22.  Very little was done to the course over time, meaning there was no rerouting or any drastic changes.

On most Golden Age courses surfaces shrink, trees grow, shots are lost, vistas are lost and aesthetics diminish.  At a certain point, it becomes necessary to bring it back to the way it used to be or go in a different direction.  It all depends on what the club is seeking.

(click on images to enlarge)

 

What were the key objectives of the project?

To restore the putting surfaces to their original sizes and restore the “infinity” edge that many Raynor and Macdonald greens possess.  We also wanted to get balls running into bunkers both off of the fairway and green.

Were there any surprises along the way?

No, not really.  Like most courses of this age, there was usually a lot of sand in the bunkers.  So we had to tweak the bottoms of the bunkers a little to get the water to drain because we have about 4-5 inches of sand in the bottom of the bunkers now.  My predecessor did a good job maintaining the integrity of the courses design.

How has the response been to the work thus far?

Everyone seems to be very pleased with the results, and there is definitely a significant increase in bunker shots per round.

 

What comes next?

There is always tweaking and we have a little tee work to be done.  There is never a shortage of work on a golf course.  There is a bunch of work to do in and around our ravines as we continue to introduce native plants, eradicate invasives and attempt to stabilize ravine areas.


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Copyright 2015 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf

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