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American super finds new home on Canadian course

May 31, 2012  By  Mike Jiggens

If Eric Kirkpatrick had been told 10 years ago that he’d one day become
the superintendent at a golf course in Dorchester, Ont., he would never
have believed it. In fact, he would never have believed he’d be working
in Canada, period.

The native of Toledo, Ohio had baseball on his mind a decade ago, and perhaps even a career in the sport if everything was to go according to plan. But an interesting journey awaited him the next several years which included studies at a few different schools, playing baseball in Tennessee, Illinois and Hawaii, elbow surgery, working the summers at a number of different golf courses in the United States, and, most importantly, meeting his future wife—a native of Waterloo, Ont.ericweb

At the end of this road, the 28-year-old finally found himself as the new superintendent at Dorchester’s Pine Knot Golf & Country Club in 2010 and added the title of general manager to his job description this spring.

“I’m very happy with where I’m at,” he said. “I have no plans of leaving anytime soon.”

So how did this would-be ballplayer from the United States wind up in the unique position of becoming an American superintendent at a Canadian golf course?

The story began after his high school graduation in Toledo. An aspiring pitcher, Kirkpatrick was offered some baseball scholarship opportunities, accepting one at a junior college in Illinois where he studied for two years. During the summer, he returned home to Toledo and found employment at a local golf course.

“I never really thought it would end up being my career. It was just a job to me back then.”

The first course he worked at was Highland Meadows, located just outside of Toledo, which has been the site of the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic on the LPGA Tour. Kirkpatrick said he was given a string trimmer with instructions to keep the course neat and tidy throughout the summer.

He returned to school in the fall, but ended up playing baseball the following summer in Tennessee to keep his game in shape. Unfortunately, he underwent elbow surgery on his pitching arm that year which required a full year away from the game.

“The year I had elbow surgery, I was looking for something to do since I couldn’t play baseball, so I was back to Toledo and got a job at the Inverness Club.”

Inverness has held several major PGA Tour championships over the years and was the site of both the NCAA Championships and the Senior U.S. Open the season Kirkpatrick was hired. Having spent only the fall of 2003 there, he missed working the Senior U.S. Open but was part of the grounds crew who worked the NCAA event.
“That’s when I started to get a little bit of an itch for wanting to do more in the golf course business,” he said. “You see a golf course go through the rigours it has to host an event like that, and you appreciate how much work goes into this. It’s not just the mowing but so much detail work that goes into it all, and all of a sudden it became a passion of mine.”

Although Kirkpatrick began to contemplate a possible career in the golf course profession at that time, once he recovered from his elbow surgery he returned to school to further his studies while continuing to play baseball at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich.

Wayne State didn’t offer a turfgrass management program, which he had hoped to pursue, so he settled for studying history, for which he earned his bachelor’s degree in 2006. It was at Wayne State where he met his wife Robyn, who played third base for the school’s varsity women’s softball team.

Robyn was one of several Canadian students enrolled at Wayne State—Kirkpatrick had nine Canadian teammates of his own—and the two met through training sessions which brought together athletes from sports sharing the same seasons. Robyn graduated in 2008.

Due to the complexities of their respective work and academic schedules, the couple began a long-distance relationship.

Upon finishing his undergraduate studies earlier in 2004, Kirkpatrick crossed paths with the former assistant superintendent from Highland Meadows who had since become superintendent at the public South Toledo Golf Club. A job offer was made, and Kirkpatrick joined the club’s grounds maintenance staff.

While there, Kirkpatrick learned of a two-year turfgrass management program available in Toledo at Owens Community College. The schooling allowed him to complete an internship at South Toledo where he honed his skills in such areas as pesticide application and fertility.

“Right away, they let me run crews and set up mowers and do all the things that you actually have to know how to do in this business, and not just mow grass and rake bunkers.”

Once he completed his studies at Owens, Kirkpatrick was offered an assistant superintendent’s position at the Stone Oak Country Club—the inaugural home of the LPGA’s Jamie Farr tournament—outside Toledo where he stayed for two years until 2009.

All the while, from 2006 onward, he juggled his post-secondary education, his work on golf courses and his relationship with Robyn, adding up the kilometres on his vehicle from several back-and-forth trips between Toledo and Waterloo.

“The golf business probably saved our relationship,” he said. “It kept me so busy that we didn’t have time to think about how far away it was to travel and see each other.”

Robyn remained in school at Wayne State for a couple more years after Kirkpatrick graduated, returning to Waterloo in the summer to work as a gardener for the city and play softball in Guelph for a team which eventually won the national championship.

The couple married in 2009 at the Detroit Yacht Club on Belle Isle yet remained apart for the better part of a year until Kirkpatrick could secure his permanent residency to live in Canada. While waiting things out, he continued to work in Toledo at Stone Oak while she did the same in Waterloo.

“It got tough at times, but we made it through just fine.”

He said the plan they made together was always for him to move to Canada as opposed to Robyn living in the United States. Having moved around several times from state to state to play baseball, including a stint in Hawaii, he said it was more logical for him to make the move.

“I was comfortable being able to leave my home place and go somewhere else. When you leave home and get out of that comfort zone, a lot of people who have never left home before would never move to another country. I had lived in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, so moving to Canada wasn’t quite so scary.”

Kirkpatrick thought he had the chance to relocate to Canada in 2009 when he was offered the position of second assistant at Kitchener’s Deer Ridge Golf Club, but he had become tangled in red tape when it became clear the paperwork involved in getting the necessary work visa would not become final in time. He had come up to southern Ontario at the time to spread his resume around at area golf courses, knowing he would have to be employed for a year on a work visa before getting his permanent residency status.

In spite of the offer, Kirkpatrick didn’t give his notice at Stone Oak in the event the governmental paperwork couldn’t be finalized in time. It meant another year apart for him and Robyn.

In 2010, another round of blanketing the area with resumes was made. Pine Knot was the first to respond, but Kirkpatrick’s immigrancy paperwork had yet to be finalized.

The Dorchester golf course’s superintendent had announced his pending retirement, and the plan was for Kirkpatrick to become his assistant for a year and then take over as superintendent the following season.

He said it was a “nailbiting” time because the job offer was made in January even though the paperwork was not yet complete. He had let the owners at Pine Knot know of his situation while Robyn pressed her local MP to see what he could do to step things up.

“We’re guessing that they (the staff at the Waterloo Region MP’s constituency office) got so tired of hearing my name that, finally in February, which was only four months into the paperwork, I got a phone call to say my permanent residency had been approved, and I had to go to Buffalo to get my visa.”

He said he and Robyn had figured it would be relatively easy for him to settle in Canada at the time they began to plan their future together, but the red tape involved proved to be a major obstacle. He said he now plans to apply for dual citizenship status once he has fulfilled his prerequisite three-year permanent residency.

Kirkpatrick’s first official day at Pine Knot was March 1, 2010 with the understanding he’d be groomed for the superintendent’s position that season. On that day, however, his predecessor, Charlie Szturm, was indefinitely sidelined following hip replacement surgery, putting Kirkpatrick immediately into the role of superintendent.
Before landing the job at Pine Knot, Kirkpatrick said he had heard “whispers” through the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America that golf courses in Ontario had to become IPM-accredited with an IPM-accredited agent on staff. Before sending out his resume, he drove to Guelph, “on my own dime,” to get his Ontario pesticide applicator’s licence and take the test for his IPM accreditation.

“Before I applied anywhere here, I already had my pesticide licence and already had my IPM accreditation to be the IPM agent at a golf course. I think that’s what really gave me the upper hand.”

One of his first goals at Pine Knot was to enact the cultural practices needed to get the course’s greens to a standard where they would be fast and firm. He said a London-area newspaper had compared the greens in their former condition to Velcro.

Membership numbers at Pine Knot had begun a downward spiral as the course approached its 20th anniversary which it is celebrating this year. Aside from the greens, other areas needed addressing, including fresh coats of paint for on-course benches and the establishment of landscaping beds on the property.

Such touches, and especially the improvements made to the greens, have resulted in membership numbers picking up. Kirkpatrick said he was able to achieve the improvements with no change in his budget. He said the improvement to the greens would be his most noteworthy accomplishment so far.

“I now have firm greens that are consistent. They’re all smooth and all fast.”

Members have told him they are seeing breaks in the greens they had never previously noticed. The handful of scratch golfers at Pine Knot have said the golf course has become much more challenging as a result of the improved greens.

Kirkpatrick said his goal was to dethatch the greens to rid them of their puffiness, allow them to dry out a little and roll them to boost more favourable green speeds.

“We’ve been able to accomplish that in three years. I thought it would be about five years before I got them right where I wanted them.”

Kirkpatrick’s good relationship with Pine Knot’s owners, his fair treatment of his staff and his organizational skills resulted in him being offered the general manager’s position this spring in addition to his superintendent’s duties.
The club’s original general manager stepped down last year, and the season finished without one solid voice to serve as the “beacon” for everyone, Kirkpatrick said.

He said he figured he could be the superintendent in the morning and then wear the general manager’s hat in the afternoon, but the unseasonably warm weather experienced in February and March threw a wrench into his proposed timetable. Pine Knot saw 600 paid rounds played in February, marking the first time in the course’s history that golf had been played that month. In March, there were close to 3,000 rounds played.

“It was an extremely busy spring. Trying to do this juggling act (superintendent and general manager), it ended up being that instead of doing the grounds from 6 a.m. to noon, I was doing both, back and forth, answering phone calls while out on the golf course.”

Kirkpatrick estimates about 60 per cent of his time is devoted to the superintendent’s position while the remaining 40 per cent is earmarked for administrative work. He credits being able to get below 50 per cent on the general manager’s side to having good and capable department managers who have relieved him of several responsibilities.

“Part of the goal when I first took over was putting that key staff in play to where I don’t have to worry about the quality of food and stuff.”

Pine Knot has a new, experienced food and beverage manager and a new executive chef to ensure its restaurant functions smoothly. It also has a capable director of golf as well as an operations manager who oversees a multitude of weddings booked for the premises.

“Without that staff in play, if I was trying to do all that stuff at the same time as trying to keep a golf course in pristine condition, there’s no way. Something would have to suffer.”

Taking on an additional role, however, was something Kirkpatrick felt required a safety net. There had never been an assistant to the superintendent previously at Pine Knot, but he figured the time had arrived to bring one on board. Bryan Hunter was hired this year to assume the role after having previously worked at Sarnia, Ont.’s Sawmill Creek and brings with him plenty of experience from some larger clubs.

“Now I have the ability to take a day off and not have to worry about every little thing that’s happening out here.”
The Kirkpatricks literally live on the golf course, in a house located adjacent to the turf maintenance building. This allows him to be close at hand in the event of an unanticipated issue which requires his attention. Kirkpatrick said that living so close to the course allowed him to go out on his own time to find something to do in moments when he might be bored in the house, but he and Robyn welcomed their first child, Parker, in March, and now most of his off time is spent at home.

During his first year at Pine Knot, Kirkpatrick commuted to work daily from Waterloo until Szturm moved out of the official superintendent’s residence. Upon moving into the house, Robyn put her gardening experience to work, becoming head gardener at the course and maintaining its acre-and-a-half of gardens. An assistant gardener worked with her last season but has taken on the lead role with Robyn off on maternity leave. Robyn has occasionally taken Parker with her out onto the golf course for some fresh air as club members adore the young family.

Kirkpatrick said he has come to greatly appreciate the Canadian hospitality shown to him and his family by Pine Knot’s members the past few years.

“It’s been a very easy transition because of how nice everybody’s been.”

One of the first things Kirkpatrick did after starting work at Pine Knot was join the Greater London Association of Golf Superintendents (GLAGS). He didn’t know any of his fellow superintendents at other courses in the area and figured the networking opportunities presented by GLAGS would be to his benefit. Although he knew other superintendents in Ohio, he said it wasn’t practical to discuss issues with them if they were able to deal with matters using products registered in the United States yet which weren’t available in Canada.

Pine Knot, a 145-acre piece of property, had formerly served as a tobacco farm. One of its owners, Gary Nethercott, owner of Nethercott Excavating, had purchased the land 20 years ago and hired architect John F. Robinson to design a championship golf course that would play to about 7,100 yards. But during the construction process, the provincial government denied development of 35 acres of protected land known as the Dorchester Swamp. No trees could be removed in the area which lines the current 12th and 13th holes, limiting the length of the course to 6,411 yards from the back tees.

Because of its sandy soil, which made the land ideal for growing tobacco, drainage has never been a concern. The excessively wet spring of 2011 resulted in the closure of the golf course for only one day in May.

“We drain better than almost any other golf course I’ve seen so far. We have no sub-drainage underneath us. It’s all natural drainage. It just goes right through the soil profile.”

Pine Knot’s drainage properties had the opposite effect in late May of this year when dry conditions turned the out-of-play areas brown within a week. The recent installation of a new Rain Bird irrigation system, delivering water to the course’s greens, tees and fairways, has proved to be a plus.

“It’s been a lifesaver for us this year,” Kirkpatrick said.

The outdated system which previously irrigated the course wasn’t particularly efficient, he said, adding the pump was 20 years, and components often wouldn’t work properly.

Kirkpatrick said his relationship with Pine Knot’s owners has been especially positive and one which gives him a unique advantage over many of his peers. In addition to Nethercott, the ownership includes George Johnston and Franz Bronnenhuber, co-owners of a London-area construction company. It was Nethercott’s company which had originally graded the land and built the greens and tees.

This year, his company excavated an area near the clubhouse which has been built to an outdoor pavilion to accommodate weddings and other functions. The structure was built by Johnston and Bronnerhuber’s company, and gives the club the ability to hold both weddings and large tournaments at the same time.

“That’s a huge advantage we have over a lot of people,” Kirkpatrick said, of having such a large piece of infrastructure being constructed in-house. “I’m very fortunate to be in that situation.”

Because of his connections with Pine Knot’s owners, Kirkpatrick said he has access to such equipment as excavators and dozers at all times.

Pine Knot’s owners have told Kirkpatrick they are starting to see the golf course as they originally envisioned it 20 years ago, and have entertained several of his ideas. The general manager’s position was offered to Kirkpatrick in large part because the club’s owners were afraid of losing him once the course began to reverse its fortunes. The superintendent being promoted to general manager has become more of a trend in recent years.

“A lot of that is because we’re on the course constantly and we see things from different angles that others don’t. We have an eye for detail.”

Pine Knot, a one-time private club, became semi-private over the years as more and more tournaments were booked for the site.  A popular tournament venue, it became increasingly more difficult to please members when they had to surrender their course for the growing number of tournaments. The club plans to cap its limited membership at about 120 to maintain a balance between keeping them satisfied and reaping the healthy revenue from tournament events. Membership currently stands at about 70, an increase of about 25 people over the past few years.

Between his responsibilities as superintendent-general manager and the father of a newborn son, Kirkpatrick has little time available anymore for baseball, although he remains a lifelong Detroit Tigers fan. While living temporarily in Waterloo before relocating to Dorchester, he was offered a tryout with the Intercounty Baseball League’s Kitchener Panthers, but the need to travel with the team did not mesh with his responsibilities at Pine Knot, and the opportunity was lost. While in Waterloo, he did manage to find the time to teach 10 and 11-year-olds the finer points of the game in an indoor setting during the winter months.

He said he enjoys teaching, whether it is baseball skills to young children or golf course management skills to his staff, adding it’s important to let them feel good about what they do on the golf course and the contributions they make to the club.

Although he’s made Canada his new home, Kirkpatrick said Toledo is only a couple of hours away and there’s been no drastic adjustment to the climate.

“This is more what we call Cleveland-type weather, with much more snow in the wintertime. In Toledo, we’ll get a few ice storms, but the heavy torrential downpours of snow and whatnot generally miss us on the west side.”
Kirkpatrick said, however, that his first winter in Canada in 2010 was a bit of a rude awakening when 100 centimetres of snow fell in only a couple of days.

“I think my wife thought I was going to pack my bags and move back to Ohio after that happened.”

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