Merion Open will showcase contributions of Penn State's turfgrass center

In sod they trust: At Penn State's Joseph E. Valentine Turfgrass Research Center, old grasses are grown and improved and new ones developed. It's named after a longtime Merion superintendent . ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
In sod they trust: At Penn State's Joseph E. Valentine Turfgrass Research Center, old grasses are grown and improved and new ones developed. It's named after a longtime Merion superintendent . ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Posted: January 28, 2013

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - A snow-covered field in Centre County, especially one so near to fetid cow barns and massive Beaver Stadium, seems an odd place to honor the longtime superintendent of a golf course 150 miles away.

But here, amid small fir trees on a remote corner of Penn State's vast campus, stands a small fieldstone memorial to the namesake of the surrounding Joseph E. Valentine Turfgrass Research Center.

That rock, rising above the mid-January whiteness like an Alpine peak, was dug from the ground at Merion Golf Club's historic 11th hole. A plaque recognizes the role played by Valentine, an Italian immigrant who spent more than half a century at Merion, in transforming Penn State into the greenkeepers' Harvard.

It was in 1928 that Valentine set in motion events that would revolutionize golf-course management. The next year, thanks to his intervention, Penn State's agricultural sciences department initiated a turfgrass curriculum.

More than 80 years later, that program is the largest and most successful of its kind. The bulk of those caring for the nation's best courses are graduates of Penn State's two- and four-year programs. In addition, a large percentage of the fairways and greens they so carefully tend are grasses bred in the windswept fields near Valentine's memorial.

Valentine is long gone. but this June, the 2013 U.S. Open is coming to Merion. In addition to providing a worthy test of golf, it also should serve as a showcase for the contributions Valentine, Merion, and Penn State have made to 21st-century golf-course maintenance. Consider:

Valentine, who was called the dean of golf superintendents, mentored generations of his peers. He and son Richie spent decades caring for the legendary Ardmore course. A grass Valentine discovered near its 17th tee - Merion bluegrass - became, with the aid of Penn State agronomists, a worldwide staple.

The course's current superintendent, Matt Shaffer, is a graduate of Penn State's program that, like a greenhouse for humans, produces annual crops of 150.

So, too, is Darin Bevard, the sponsoring U.S. Golf Association's lead agronomist for the event.

The Open golfers will have spent much of their careers playing on courses where superintendents were and are Penn State alumni, elite layouts such as Congressional, Medinah, Baltusrol, Muirfield Village, and Augusta National.

And most of the Merion acreage they will tread this summer - like the fairways, tees, and greens at countless courses around the world - will be covered with grasses developed and nurtured by the program Valentine's suggestion created.

"We have an axiom here that says the sun never sets on Penn State grass or Penn State [turf-management] alums," said John Kaminski, the two-year program's director. "We're all over the world."

'Hard place to grow grass'

Good turf is, literally, the underpinning of a successful golf course. Without healthy grasses on which golfers can anticipate fair lies and true rolls, handsome clubhouses and landscaped terrains mean little.

But those grasses are constantly under siege - from pests, from too little or too much rain, from heat and cold, from wear and tear. Varieties that do well in Florida might be subpar in California. Arizona courses require drought-resistant grasses, while it's important Minnesota varieties can withstand frigid temperatures.

There are few places, Shaffer said, where maintaining healthy grass is as challenging as Philadelphia - and the geographical belt that stretches west from there across the U.S.

"Philadelphia is a really hard place to grow grass," Shaffer said. "It's a transition zone. It's too cold for warm-season grass and too warm for cold-season grass. You try to strike a balance at all times, but in the end you're trying to grow something that doesn't want to grow here."

That's why Penn State's program has become such a valuable resource for the state's superintendents.

In mid-campus greenhouses and at the research-center fields, old grasses are grown and improved, new ones developed. Students are taught to identify them, to test them for diseases, to treat them with various pesticides and chemicals, and to expose them to different conditions.

Greenkeepers such as Shaffer communicate frequently with the faculty, especially when trouble sprouts.

"We reach out to them a lot," he said, "for soil sampling or testing of materials. We bounce around ideas on turf or disease problems. And I get a vast majority of my men from Penn State."

Unlike many more modern courses, which prefer a single variety of grass, Merion uses what Shaffer called "a hodgepodge" - several strains of bent grasses along with various bluegrasses in its roughs. But changes are mandated frequently.

"It's a constant evolution," Kaminski said. "If you look at the mid-Atlantic area, Kentucky bluegrasses, like Merion bluegrass, were extremely popular, even on fairways. But then various diseases caused so many problems that people said, 'We have to switch,' and they went to perennial ryegrass.

"Throughout the late '80s and '90s perennial rye was the most desirable species. Then gray leaf spot came in and in a couple of years really did lot of damage. It was too much trouble and cost to maintain it, so they switched to creeping bent grass. Now that's probably the most dominant and desirable variety, at least here in the mid-Atlantic. But it has its own problems."

All of which is what led Valentine, accompanied by Reading Country Club superintendent James Bolton and a Philadelphia-area lawn-mower manufacturer, to walk unannounced into Penn State president Ralph Hetzel's office in 1928.

The previous summer had been a nightmare for Pennsylvania course superintendents. Hot, humid weather spawned numerous grass diseases, and an infestation of Japanese beetles caused additional havoc.

Valentine urged Hetzel to start a turfgrass program that would provide greenkeepers with the kind of scientific aid and advice the state's farmers regularly received from the university. Within a year, the Penn State turfgrass management program was born.

"As more people started to play the game and the equipment got better, there was a need for the playing fields to get better," said Shaffer, 60, who's been at Merion for 11 years. "But there weren't any trained professionals to do that. That's what prompted Mr. Valentine, who was a real visionary, to go up to Penn State."

Constant care

Caring for a course was far less complex then. Most courses, built on former farmland, had very few trees - the concept of trees on golf courses, said Shaffer, didn't explode until the 1960s.

Staffs were small, even at clubs such as Merion. While there will be 65 course-maintenance workers at June's Open, Valentine had only 15.

In the pre-World War II era, those workers cut fairways and greens with cumbersome 16-foot-wide mowers and did so perhaps only five times a week in season. They irrigated with hoses. The few pesticides and fungicides they used were effective but, as was later discovered, dangerous to humans.

And greens, so pampered and coddled in 2013, were given far less attention.

"Greens back then were really slow," Shaffer said. "For championships now, it's not unheard of to get readings of 13-plus on Stimpmeters [devices that measure a green's speed]. In those days, my guess is the greens were rolling about 6 or 7. Eight would have been a real screamer. It was more like croquet."

Now, at most of the best courses, in-season mowing takes place twice a day. Precise mowers trim greens to below a tenth of an inch.

(Merion's Open greens, predicted Kaminski, who has visited there often in recent months, "will be some of the fastest anyone has ever seen.")

Fairways, too, increasingly are manicured. Merion, for example, is believed to be the first course to smooth them with custom-built rollers, meaning even well-struck Open drives could trickle off the slick surfaces and into the roughs.

"The fairways figure to be so fast at this Open that they could be Stimpmetered," Kaminski said. "They're probably at the speed of what most greens were 25 years ago."

Ironically, the more care that's put into maintaining turfgrass, the more likely there will be problems that require help from Penn State.

"All of that management and intensity impacts the overall health of the grass," Kaminski said. "The expectations, the desire for faster greens, perfect turf keep getting more intense. You have to really know what you're doing."

Penn State's turfgrass program tends to attract students such as Shaffer, who grew up on a farm in Martinsburg, 60 miles southwest of here. Like him, the majority are rural youngsters who have worked at golf courses where Penn State graduates are superintendents.

"I loved field work and hated milking cows," Shaffer said. "A guidance counselor told me about Penn State's program."

The curriculum is heavy on sciences but, because maintenance is now a complex business, it also includes courses in communications, computer science, and business.

In part because maintenance costs keep rising so rapidly - especially now that clubs must struggle to be environmentally conscious - many golf courses have shut down or been converted into public facilities.

That has diminished the demand, even for PSU graduates.

"For every one job there are 150 applicants," Shaffer said, "and I've heard of 400 for a job."

While Penn State's reputation has grown, several schools that started turfgrass programs in the '90s, when new courses were springing up like dandelions, are facing difficult times.

"A lot were run by maybe one faculty member," Kaminski said. "Now they're struggling and most of them are probably going to go under."

At Merion, most of the major Open preparations are done. Now, aside from sand-trap tweaking, Shaffer just has to maintain it all and hope for good weather.

"The best weather would be moderate temperatures, moderate moisture, and then, maybe three weeks out, no rain," he said. "I'd like a bona fide drought, one so bad that the earth cracks open. That would mean the course will be hard and fast and tough to play."


See where alumni of the Penn State Golf Course Turfgrass Program are working around the nation these days at plantscience.psu.edu


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @philafitz

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