Nine holes at half the cost

If Superintendent John Sonner had known better, he might not have attempted what he set out to do 11 years ago. The Greenville Country Club (Greenville, Ohio) wanted to add nine holes to its existing nine, with a budget of less than $500,000. Sonner agreed to take on the project.

Conventional wisdom today says that you need at least $2 million to design and build a new 18-hole course. Back in 1987, when the club's board decided to add to its 1921-vintage original nine, they didn't have $1 million, but they did have John Sonner. Sonner set out on this odyssey with no background in golf-course design or maintenance. But he was armed with enthusiasm, ingenuity and a wealth of experience from other jobs.

The project began when a group of board members pitched in funds to construct the first three holes. At about the same time, the golf-course superintendent's position came open. As a member of the board, Sonner recalls, "I knew what the big problems were and what the members wanted and I also knew what the superintendent needed to do.

"I know a lot of superintendents reading this are going to say, 'Yeah, I've had greens chairmen who think they can be superintendents,'" Sonner jokes. But in his case, it has worked out well.

The Greenville C.C. board worked without an architect or general contractor. Instead, they staked out how they wanted the course to lie and began to craft the new holes. "The first three holes were farm ground and the rest was native forest, very rolling, with a lot of mature trees," he recalls. "Some of the areas are really beautiful back in there, with a lot of deer trails.

"I spent one winter with a dozer operator taking out trees. I'd stand there in the mud, shivering and shaking, and say, 'Take those three trees out and let me take a look at it again.'" Sonner discovered later that famed architect Pete Dye works the same way-hands-on and without specific plans.

Sonner didn't study golf-course design or architecture until after the course was complete. But as luck would have it, the year he became superintendent coincided with the first Ohio State University Turf Management short course. Since then, he's taken the advanced course and developed a relationship with several members of the faculty.

"John is an amazing guy to work with," says turf specialist Dr. Karl Danneberger, an Ohio State horticulture professor. "He's always shown ingenuity, a willingness to learn and been open to new ideas. As far as I know, there's no one else in Ohio who's done what John has at Greenville."

Although not formally trained in the art and science of golf courses, Sonner brought with him a varied background in engineering and mechanics acquired through education and experience. From a stint at Corning Glass Works, Sonner learned engineering and fluidics, which served him well when designing and maintaining the club's irrigation system. And as a life-long "gear-head" who owned his own service station and auto-parts business, he can fix nearly anything. This varied background has helped him face the challenges of expanding the country club with limited funds.

"We didn't have any budget to buy materials and we scraped everywhere we could to come up with enough soil to use on tees and greens," he recalls. The greens are constructed according to modified USGA specifications.

At one point during construction, Sonner needed a bridge, but had no money to buy steel. "We were looking at the spot and wondering, 'What can we do? Where can we get the steel?'" A used semi-trailer frame proved to be an inexpensive solution. "It's worked out great, structurally, and it looks good, too," he says.

Another location in the course also needed a bridge, but this one required a culvert. The solution this time came in the form of an empty storage tank. He had the 7-foot-diameter tank delivered to the bridge site and set about cutting the ends. The fuel-tank culvert now forms the foundation of a sloping bridge at one of the course's more picturesque locations (see photo, below). [Editor's note: Cutting a fuel-storage tank entails a risk of explosion from residual fuel vapors if not performed properly. Enlist the help of someone knowledgeable about this type of work before beginning such a project on your own.]

The new nine opened for play in 1989 but was actually completed, in Sonner's view, in the early '90s. Although it's officially "done," he still wants to make many cosmetic improvements.

Like many superintendents, Sonner gets inspiration from other courses. "When I go places, there's almost always something that registers on my mind, something that I'd like to do," he says.

Sonner's latest inspiration is a planned wall of railroad ties along a hard-to-maintain, erodable creek bank that fronts a par 3. He expects this "Pete Dye wall" to make the spot more visually appealing and more efficient to maintain.

Sonner operates with a crew of just six full-time employees, so efficiency and time-savings are central themes that run through his maintenance programs. "I was one of the first superintendents in the area to use Primo turf growth regulator," he says. "It controls leaf growth but doesn't affect [the rest of the grass plant], so the turf stays lush and alive but doesn't need to be mowed as often."

To alleviate the spring workload crunch, Sonner applies a pre-emergence herbicide in the fall. "This will be the third year I've put Dimension down in the fall, and I've had really good success with it." He uses Gallery and a three-way post-emergence mix to control broadleaf weeds.

Sonner also has devised a disease-control program that minimizes applications. "I mix a contact fungicide with the first application of Primo in early May," Sonner explains, "and then put down an application of Eagle [fungicide] about June 1. This has been getting me through until the middle of July, when another contact application goes down." Sonner typically makes a second Eagle application around August 1. "I feel fortunate to be a golf-course superintendent at a time when there have been many new turf-protection options on the market," Sonner says.

He's also pleased to see more grub-control options that offer application-timing flexibility. "I used to tear my hair out trying to control grubs," he says. "It was almost like you had to apply on the right day and hour for them to work." But new grub-control products, such as Merit and Mach 2, have solved that problem and freed Sonner to focus his creativity on the next project that will make the Greenville Country Club a better place to play.

Michael Minford is account manager for Rohm and Haas (Philidelphia).

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