John Piccolo: Reflecting on 40-plus years of change and challenge as a golf course superintendent
By Mike Jiggens
For almost 50 years, the name Piccolo has been associated with the
superintendent’s position at the St. Catharines Golf & Country
Club. For 42 of those years, it was John Piccolo who was responsible
for maintaining the private course in Ontario’s Niagara region.
Following his retirement in 2005, the baton was passed onto his son
Dennis, who is currently serving as superintendent.
Although the job title has remained the same over the years, the job description has changed dramatically since the early 1960s as newer, more sophisticated equipment has impacted the profession, and managing people has essentially displaced the management of turf as a superintendent’s primary role.
John and Dennis had time to sit down with Turf & Recreation in December and talk about the profession, how it’s changed over the past several decades, and recall how a teenager from Italy came to Canada on his own, mastered a new language, learned by the seat of his pants the art of greenkeeping and found time to start a family—from whom one member would carry on the family name into a new millennium as a second-generation superintendent at the same golf course.
Born Onorino Piccolo, John—a name given to him by his first co-workers upon arriving in Canada in 1956 at the age of 17—landed a job at the Burlington Golf & Country Club. The position was arranged by his older brother Vince who had come to Canada four years earlier and had since become a foreman at Burlington.
Vince, who passed away in the early 1990s, worked with his younger brother for one season before taking over as superintendent at the Brantford Golf & Country Club.
John’s tenure at Burlington was shorter-lived than his brother’s. Laid off in November following his inaugural season, and getting $15 a week in unemployment insurance payments, he was offered a new position at Glendale Golf & Country Club in Hamilton, working for the son of his former boss who had taken over as Glendale’s new superintendent.
“I was speaking pretty good English within a year,” John recalled.
Starting at Glendale in mid-January of 1957, John spent his first winter repairing equipment at the golf course and performing various other off-season maintenance tasks. His youth landed him greater responsibility because his co-workers had already reached retirement age from their former factory jobs and were working part-time at the golf course.
“They had no pensions. They got part-time jobs wherever they could. By the time they got to 65 or 70 years old, they’d be working at golf courses, cutting greens.”
John had become Glendale’s unofficial assistant superintendent.
At the time, fairways at Glendale (and at most other courses) were mowed at 11/4 inches. A scythe was used to cut the areas surrounding trees and around greens. The herbicide 2,4-D was introduced to the marketplace that year and had a tremendous impact in the control of plantain and dandelions on fairways. Prior to its use, golfers liked to play “tip up” golf by rolling their ball atop a fairway weed, essentially using it as a tee, John said.
Greens in the late 1950s were often cut at 5/16ths or 3/8ths of an inch and occasionally 7/16ths in the summer.
“You can imagine how slow they were, and thatchy,” John said. “There was no equipment to remove thatch.”
Aerification was done seldomly. John said he used to do a little “spiking” while at Burlington, and greens topdressing was done once in a while with a mix that was one part soil, one part peat and one part sand.
In Italy, both John and Vince became certified carpenters before leaving for Canada, and put their specialized skills to work at the golf course.
“They were impressed with the carpentry work we were able to do,” John said, adding his skill set came in handy during the winter months.
He eventually moved on to Copetown, Ont.’s new Windsor Park Golf Course which he helped build. Designed by Robbie Robinson, John laid out the greens, tees and other aspects of the course, and construction began in November of 1962. Golfers in the area were anxious to have a local course of their own, and nine holes opened for play in June of 1963, even though the sodded greens hadn’t yet fully taken.
The intent was to bulldoze the greens at Windsor Park—which was renamed Flamborough Hills Golf &â€ˆCountry Club in 1985— and rebuild them at a later date.
John said neither he nor Vince had any formal training in turfgrass management which forced them to learn from the people for whom they worked and to benefit from networking opportunities through such industry organizations as the Western Ontario Golf Superintendents Association. Ultimately, John would become president of WOGSA and serve in that capacity for nearly 30 years.
In 1962, as construction was getting ready to begin at Windsor Park, John learned the superintendent’s position at the St. Catharines Golf &â€ˆCountry Club had become available. He applied for the job, but heard nothing afterward. About a year later, the club was eager to hire someone to install and maintain the ice at the club’s brand new curling rink.
A representative from St. Catharines sought out John in Copetown to formally offer him the job, but was unable to find him. Consequently, Vince was tracked down in Brantford and was asked to deliver a message to his brother, asking him to be interviewed in St. Catharines.
The timing proved right for John. His wife Lorraine was pregnant with their first child and winter was arriving.
“There was no money at Windsor Park, and they were worried about the winter and how they were going to pay me.”
When John arrived in St. Catharines for his formal interview, the club manager knew nothing about him being offered the job. John had been sought out in Copetown by the greens chairman who neglected to inform the club manager about the arrangement.
Back in Copetown, John was called on a Sunday evening with the official news that he had been awarded the job.
“‘We want you to start tomorrow morning,’ they said. ‘You got the job.’”
John told his new employer he’d have to wait until Tuesday because he had to get 15 people started on the golf course at Windsor Park first thing Monday morning.
His first priority once beginning in St. Catharines was to install the ice in the newly-constructed curling rink.
“In those days, there were no such thing as icemakers,” he said. Fortunately, he had learned to make ice while at Glendale which also had a curling rink. “You learned from each in those days.”
WOGSAâ€ˆmeetings at that time were also held during the winter months which allowed superintendents caring for curling rinks to share information about icemaking.
Originally, John thought he had been hired to merely look after the ice as an off-season stint between golf seasons at Windsor Park. When told he was also to be the course superintendent, he had to break the news to his former employer that he wasn’t coming back.
John stayed at the St. Catharines Golf & Country Club until his retirement in 2005.
“This course was quite a mess when I came here,” he said. “We remodeled the whole golf course here from day one. We started making changes, rebuilding one tee at a time, some of the greens, slowly putting in trees. We stopped cutting everything with one tractor. We got some rough machines to cut the rough with—not just once a week but more often—we started to make a golf course out of it to what it is today. It was done with no money at the time because they had built a new clubhouse and new curling rink and were in debt deeply, and we were scraping trying to get trees for nothing.”
John said small seedlings were dug out of the bush and replanted on the golf course.
“That’s how we got the trees out there. There was no money to buy anything.”
Once the mortgage on the clubhouse was paid, the club found itself in a healthier financial picture.
Putting in the ice at the curling rink and maintaining it throughout the winter months continued to be a key responsibility for John during the off-season, but he was able to pass the task on to another individual almost two decades ago when the club hired a trained icemaker. John remained his superior.
In 2004, a new maintenance building was constructed at the golf club, allowing John to enjoy a spacious office for the first time in his career, even if it was only for his final season. He said he had been trying for several years to get the club to build a new maintenance facility, citing the old building made it virtually impossible to get any quality work done. Much of the equipment had to be parked outside because there wasn’t sufficient space inside for storage.
The new maintenance building was constructed at a cost of about $600,000, tripling the square footage of its predecessor.
“They have nice facilities now for years to come.”
One aspect of the industry John enjoyed immensely was his involvement with WOGSA. Although the organization was founded a decade before he was born, John considers himself its unofficial historian.
John served as WOGSA’s secretary-treasurer from 1965 to 1970 and then became president for almost 30 years, “off and on.”
“If Iâ€ˆwasn’t the president, I w
as on the sidelines running it anyway because whoever came along as president stayed on for one year and then quit.”
John joined the organization in 1957 when Bill Robinson of the Port Colborne Golf Club was president. The cost to join WOGSA at the time was 50 cents. His first meeting was on a Sunday afternoon at Dundas Valley Golf Club.
“We had a little gathering at the shop with sandwiches and had a chit-chat.”
In those days, no golf was played on Sundays and everything was closed. Greens were cut Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and no other staff were present at the course on Sundays.
WOGSA grew significantly during John’s tenure as president. From about 100 members in the early years of his presidency, between 25 and 35 would regularly attend the monthly meetings. Today, the organization boasts about 200 members.
“It’s always been a hands-on organization.”
John credits WOGSA for much of what he was able to learn and apply to the job over the years.
“We learned from each other because none of us was at the age to have gone to school, and we couldn’t afford to take time off to go to school.”
Instructors from the University of Guelph would share their expertise at trade shows and other gatherings, but the content of their presentations often flew over the heads of the older generation superintendents, John said.
Whenever new chemicals were introduced to the market, John said he would confer with other superintendents who had used them to learn how they worked and if two could be used in tandem with one another.
“I’d always cut the rate in half and do it twice before I’d burn something.”
He said his self-imposed half-rate policy always worked well. It wasn’t until the 1970s arrived that a licence was required to spray.
As valuable as the WOGSA meetings were to him, John said he believes it is just as important for younger, university or college-educated superintendents to attend them today.
“Those who don’t attend the meetings close themselves off to what is going on at other courses. They’re making a huge mistake because you cannot solve any problems on your own.”
For “as long as I can remember,” John has never missed attending a WOGSA meeting, even through five years of retirement.
“It was very helpful for me at the beginning and all the way through my professional time, and it’s something I’ll try never to miss.”
Because of his contributions to the organization, John was awarded the title of honourary president for life.
Another honourary accolade was bestowed upon him after he retired as superintendent of the St. Catharines Golf & Country Club. The club awarded him an honourary lifetime membership.
He was also given the truck he had driven the previous three years and $5,000 towards a trip back to Italy with his wife.
It was his first time back in Italy since 1972, but he said he has no real desire to return.
“My life is here, not over there.”
John’s father had come to Canada in 1927 to seek work because jobs were harder to come by in Italy at the time. Although he returned home in 1932, he had some advice for his son.
“‘Get the hell out of Italy and go to Canada,’ he told me.”
Reflecting on his career as a superintendent, he said he is especially proud of his contribution toward rebuilding St. Catharines. He began there at a time when the course was in the midst of significant growth, saying anyone who remembered the property from the early 1960s would never recognize it today.
Originally a nine-hole course, it expanded to 18 holes in 1947, but then underwent a major transformation when the new provincial Highway 406 was built, which cut through much of the existing course, forcing the construction of nine new holes. Money obtained from the provincial government for the intrusion of the highway onto the existing golf course property helped fund construction of the curling rink and remodeling of the clubhouse, but little was left over for the course itself.
John’s career spanned a transitional period of time which saw many of the original golf course superintendents evolve from farmers who were experienced in cutting hay to today’s university-educated professionals. As new technology and science came into being as well as the need to become more of a people manager, he said he experienced a greater challenge in his career as the years passed.
Today, in his retirement, John plays plenty of golf and tends to a large garden at his home. He and his wife have four children and seven grandchildren.
In addition to Dennis, two other members of the Piccolo family chose careers as golf course superintendents. John’s nephews Rick and Mark Piccolo (Vince’s sons) are, respectively, superintendents at the Paris Grand Country Club and the Galt Golf & Country Club.