Canadian golf superintendent marks 25 years in Buffalo, N.Y.
By Mike Jiggens
Scott Dodson isn’t the first Canadian superintendent to be working at a U.S.-based golf course, nor is he likely to be the last. But with 25 years under his belt at Buffalo, N.Y.’s Park Country Club, he is apt to be among the longest serving Canadians to be employed south of the border.
The 60-year-old veteran began his current career at the private course located in the Buffalo suburb of Williamsville in January of 1993 after having worked the previous 13 years at other golf courses in Canada. He says he has no plans to retire anytime soon, but admitted, “I’m on the back nine of my career.”
Dodson is currently overseeing a couple of major projects at the Park Club in which all 72 bunkers are being renovated and a number of trees are slated for removal.
Leaving Canada to specifically seek work in the United States wasn’t exactly his plan 25 years ago, but Dodson felt he had gone as far as he could as superintendent at the Summit Golf Club in Richmond Hill, Ont. and was looking for a change. In 1992, the course needed a new irrigation system, better drainage and other improvements, but it wasn’t ready at the time to fund those projects. He figured he’d explore opportunities elsewhere.
“At the time there was nothing in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). There were no superintendent jobs open.”
Dodson began at Summit in 1987 after five years with the City of Hamilton as superintendent at Chedoke Civic Golf Course and two years at the International Country Club of Niagara in Fort Erie, Ont. The ICC was then known as the Stevensville Golf Club and was the site of his first superintendent’s position after he graduated from the University of Guelph in 1979.
“That was an experience,” he said of his first superintendent’s job. “It was such a big property and there was me and four or five other people, so I was like the superintendent, the assistant, the mechanic, the night waterer…”
Seeking greener pastures in the late stages of his tenure with Summit, Dodson said he didn’t want to move far from the Toronto region even though there was a position available in Whistler, B.C. that he looked at and another that was referred to him in Japan.
The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) had an employment referral service that predated the Internet, allowing job seekers to explore available employment options. Dodson found a reference to the Park Club, but said he knew little about the golf course at that time. Remembering that the Mississaugua Golf & Country Club enjoyed a relationship with the Park Country Club through a history of international match play competitions, he contacted then Mississaugua superintendent Paul White to learn more about the private Buffalo club.
“Paul raved about how great the club was and that they were looking for a certified superintendent. I sent in a resume and was interviewed. They didn’t even let me get out of town. They offered me the job right then and there after one interview.”
Dodson realized his ex-wife Sandra – a U.S. citizen – could sponsor him if he lived and worked in the United States, but said his pursuit of the job or any want by her to return to U.S. soil had nothing to do with his spouse.
“I was just looking for a change at the time and I thought, ‘I can do this.’”
Although a move to Buffalo meant relocating to another country, Dodson said he still considered the area to be part of the general Toronto region where he preferred to work and live.
The job was offered to him in October of 1992, and he received his green card the following January. The process of obtaining the legal documentation to live and work in the United States was much easier then than it is today, he said.
One of the first things he did after beginning work in Buffalo was to look into becoming a dual citizen of both Canada and the United States, realizing the value it would have toward his employability.
“A lot of people ask me why I did it. I was definitely not about to give up my Canadian citizenship.”
Knowing that unforeseen circumstances can sometimes result in a superintendent falling into disfavour with his employer, Dodson said he wanted more of a safety net for himself and realized dual citizenship was the way. He could have remained solely a Canadian citizen, but understood if things didn’t work out for him at the Park Club and other opportunities in the area weren’t available that he could return to Canada yet would “be screwed” if he ever wanted to return to the United States to live and work.
Becoming a dual citizen was the most strategic approach, he said.
Both of Dodson’s children were born in Canada but were for the most part raised in the United States and eventually became dual citizens themselves. Both currently live and work south of the border, holding down careers far removed from the golf industry.
For other members of the Dodson family, however, golf and turfgrass are in their blood.
Dodson’s father Arthur worked as a superintendent for about 30 years upon his return to Canada after serving overseas in the Second World War. He was first hired to work at Mississaugua by Dodson’s great uncle, Charles (Bill) Bluett, who was superintendent there at the time. Arthur Dodson became assistant superintendent under Bluett in the late 1940s, eventually settling in as superintendent at Maple Downs Golf Course in Maple, Ont. in 1960. Dodson said he grew up at Maple Downs during his father’s long association there.
Dodson’s older brothers Paul and Bruce are, respectively, the superintendent at Calgary’s Silver Springs Golf & Country Club and the superintendent-owner at Heritage Hills Golf Club in Barrie, Ont. His nephew Matt Dodson (Paul’s son) is superintendent at Orchard Beach Golf & Country Club in Keswick, Ont. and his niece Katie Dodson (Paul’s daughter) is a turfgrass researcher at Olds College in Alberta after having previously worked for Jacklin Seed.
Having been employed at golf courses in both Canada and the United States, Dodson said there are similarities and contrasts in the normal day-to-day routine. Buffalo’s geographic location lends itself to the same general climate as that of the GTA and Golden Horseshoe area, and the same pest pressures exist on either side of the border. But he has access to certain chemistries and other products that are not available to Canadian superintendents.
Still, environmental laws in Ontario and New York State “aren’t too far apart.”
Dodson said New York and California are the most regulated states in the union and have some of the strictest environmental laws.
“When new pesticides get registered, California and New York are always at the end. I’ve seen products get registered in other states, and in New York we still don’t have it.”
There are other differences between Ontario and New York that impact how a superintendent does his job. In New York, to maintain a licence to apply pesticides, a prescribed number of credit hours must be accumulated through the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
“You have to get so many points every three-year cycle or you have to rewrite your test. You have to keep up with that stuff.”
There is a concern within the industry in Western New York that the day will come when fees will be implemented for taking water. Dodson has had to maintain accurate records of his water consumption over the past five or six years.
“We have to submit an annual report and you have to have an actual electronic meter in your pump house. You can’t just go by what your pump station tells you. It has to be a metered flow.”
The demands of the superintendent are no different at the Park Club than at any other private club in either Canada or the United States, Dodson said, adding he appreciates the way the membership has treated him over the past 25 years.
“Here they have treated me very, very well compared to any other place I’ve been as a superintendent. I get treated incredibly well here. They actually regard me as a professional, not just a grass cutter.”
The Park Club has actually bucked the trend of many other golf courses – private and public like – that have struggled in recent years. It is the only club in Western New York with a waiting list for prospective members.
“Everyone wants to join here. They’ve done some great things in the clubhouse. We’ve got a great management team, right from the general manager down to the pro, myself, food and beverage… It’s a big operation.”
Designed by Harry Colt and Charles Hugh Alison, the Park Country Club was established in 1903, but has been situated at its current site for 90 years. Over time, bunkers have eroded and lost their shape and trees have grown to maturity to the point where many have created shade issues on some greens. Master plans were subsequently developed to address both concerns at a cost of $1.4 million with work having begun late last year.
“We have an actual plan we follow for those for replacement and refurbishment, and we’re executing that master plan right now.”
The bunker renovation project’s completion was expected for late July of this year. A wetter-than-anticipated spring delayed early season work.
The Park Club hired the services of Canadian architect Ian Andrew of Brantford, Ont. to oversee the work. The project includes new drainage for all bunkers, new grass facings, shaping and surrounds. The rough that had encircled the greens was stripped out and replaced by turf-type tall fescue. Heights of cut have since been tightened around the bunkers to a quarter-inch. Approaches and collars have also been shaved to a quarter-inch.
Prior to the renovation work, fairway bunkers featured 15 to 20 yards of rough between them and the fairway.
“The only shot that would go in them would be a really horrible shot,” Dodson said, adding there are now about 30 acres of fairway instead of about 22. “Now, all fairways go over and enter to the bunkers, and some of the leading edges of these fairways go right to the actual edge of the bunker. The lay of the land was already there. We didn’t have to change anything. It was designed that way. The land falls off into the fairway bunkers.”
Fairways are cut at a little less than a half-inch.
“It’s nice and firm. The ball bounces all over the place.”
Andrew and his former business partner Doug Carrick had consulted at the Park Club in the past, but it was Andrew who had done most of the drawings. When the club’s board of directors approved the bunker and tree projects, Dodson’s recommendation of an architect was sought, and Andrew was endorsed.
“He’s been here quite a bit throughout this project. Ian has made some compromises along the way, but some things he won’t compromise on and he explains why.”
Andrew led members on walkabouts throughout the golf course, explaining the reasoning behind his decision-making.
“He didn’t cram anything down the members’ throats,” Dodson said.
The course’s bunkers had eroded over time, leaving some with flashes and others with grass facings. All have since been rendered with grass facings to reflect the way they were in the beginning and to achieve consistency throughout the property.
The Park Club is situated on a flood plain and bunker drainage had been poor, leading to sand contamination during flood events. If spring flooding occurred, 12 to 14 bunkers would become contaminated. If flooded, the top inch or so of sand would be scraped off and replaced with new sand, before any initial spring raking took place.
Signature series bunker sand from Ohio has been used. Because of the amount of clay on the property, liners weren’t required for most of the bunker cavities. With significant amounts of loose material at the bottoms of a few bunkers, however, sod has been used as a liner with drains put in before being topped up with sand.
Included in the project was some tee work, with a number of forward and mid tees added, and the renovation of a few tee complexes.
Removing trees on a golf course is typically a touchy subject, and members are often divided about their fate. Dodson said there is still some “wrestling” being done on some trees’ pending removal.
“You can’t let emotion rule. You’ve got to use your head with that stuff as long as you’re not heavy handed about it. Sometimes it just takes a little bit of time.”
Dodson said he has a certain amount of leeway when it comes to trees – an asset many other superintendents don’t have.
“I know some guys need permission just to take a dead tree out. If it’s a sunlight issue, I can take it out.”
He said there are a number of ash trees on the property that are either dead or dying as a result of the destruction caused by the emerald ash borer, and they have been earmarked for removal.
During Dodson’s tenure at the Park Club, he has served on the board of the Western New York Golf Superintendents Association with stints as both president and treasurer.
Along with Grand Niagara Resort property manager John Taylor, who also serves as president of the Western Ontario Golf Superintendents Association (WOGSA), a friendly cross-border golf match play tournament between the two associations was founded in 2001. They also joined forces to initiate a popular superintendents and suppliers hockey tournament each winter that has grown over the years to involve teams from Ontario, New York and Michigan.
Dodson has maintained his membership in both the WOGSA and Ontario Golf Superintendents Association and regularly keeps in touch with many of their members.
Up until recently, Dodson lived in the Buffalo area but has since taken up residence across the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie. In spite of his new 25-minute commute to work everyday, he said Buffalo is an ideal place to raise a family.