By JOHN REITMAN
Golf might be a game for a lifetime, but for some, the task of growing grass and providing firm, fast fairways and putting greens is a young man’s game.
For years, Don Lawrence was the man in front of the scenes when Red Hawk Run first opened, working first as its golf course superintendent and later as general manager.
“It’s a demanding lifestyle for someone 50 or older,” said Lawrence, who left the golf course in 2008.
It’s also a profession, that despite its many drawbacks, can get in one’s blood, and stepping away entirely can be difficult, added Lawrence, who now sells fertilizer to golf courses for Legacy Turf and Ornamental, a division of Legacy Farmers Cooperative. He also plays the role of de facto agronomic consultant to other superintendents throughout northwest Ohio. Although he’s in a different part of the business, former colleagues who are now his customers still consider him to be “a good dude.”
“I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I like new and fresh ideas, and he is an easy person to talk to,” said Dan Koops, superintendent at Findlay Country Club.
“If you ask Don a straightforward question, he’s going to give you a straightforward answer. Some people in sales will tell you what they think you want to hear. He’ll tell me what is in my best interests, but not only that, he’ll tell me what is in the best interests of the golf course. He’ll tell me what is going to make Findlay Country Club a better golf course, and that’s what I want to hear.”
People often are drawn to working on a golf course not necessarily for a love of the game, but because they enjoy being outdoors, making things grow and creating something of beauty. It’s akin to being an artist, only with nature as the canvas. It was that way for Lawrence, a former accountant in the oil business who launched a career in golf at Red Hawk Run months before it opened and with several holes yet to be finished.
A native of Jackson, Michigan, Lawrence attended Texas Tech University where he earned an accounting degree in 1986. He caught the golf bug in college, and after several years working in accounting and sales in Texas and Alaska, decided he wanted to work in the game he loved. He returned to Michigan in 1995 and enrolled in Michigan State University’s turfgrass science program. After graduating a year later and after brief stints at places like Oakland Hills near Detroit and Inverness in Toledo, Lawrence leaped at a chance to finish a course as unique as Red Hawk.
“It was a fantastic opportunity, and that’s why I jumped on it so quickly,” he said. “I was honored just be interviewed for the job.”
When the course debuted in 1999 with long, wispy grass along the edges and rolling terrain, it had a rustic appearance that was like a slice of Scotland in northwest Ohio. That unique curb appeal has attracted players from outside the area as well as from out of state ever since.
But the pressure of keeping a course in top shape throughout the playing season often comes at great personal cost. Knowing that your ability to put food on the table and keep a roof over your family’s head depends solely on growing grass at an eighth-of-an-inch and keeping it alive in 90-degree temperatures while golfers abuse it can be a tremendous source of stress.
The threat of hostile golfers willing to accept nothing short of perfection, hostile weather that can ruin years of hard work in a flash and any one of dozens of hostile grass-borne diseases that can take a course from green to brown overnight result in long days that begin before dawn and rapidly string together into six- and seven-day work weeks. It can be a toxic environment that means long stretches away from family. Any greenkeeper unwilling to say to his wife and children in March “see ya in November” and mean it, likely will soon be looking for employment elsewhere.
Because of those stresses, there comes a time when some artists realize they must step away from the easel, even if its to take up a career selling paint.
Legacy merged with the former Blanchard Valley Co-Op in March to form one of the state’s largest farming cooperatives. With outlets in Findlay, Arcadia, Arlington, Custar, Deshler, Fostoria, McClure, McComb, Mount Blanchard, Mount Cory and Pandora, Legacy also offers retail agricultural stores, fueling and scales for over-the-road truckers, and specialty product sales for golf courses and other applications.
But getting a foot in the door at local golf courses is never easy. Sales reps, especially new ones, often are viewed as interlopers who must pay their dues before earning a superintendent’s trust, because there is so much at stake.
As Koops strives to provide quality playing conditions for members at Findlay Country Club, salesmen who come calling on him must possess three qualities before he will do business with them.
“You have to make sure your inner circle includes guys who know what they’re doing, sell a quality product and understand what we’re trying to do out here,” he said. “But it’s not just the product, it’s the man behind it, too. It’s a tough business, and you have to surround yourself with guys you can trust. If you don’t have that relationship, it falls back on you.
“When a guy has been on the front lines, it gives him more credibility because he knows what he’s selling is going to work. It’s one less thing I have to worry about.”
There are times when being frank with a greenkeeper means you might not have the product he needs for a specific problem, and selling a “solution” to earn a customer’s trust might mean suggesting a competitor’s wares.
“When I was a superintendent, that’s what I wanted, someone who could sell me a solution, not a product,” Lawrence said.
Ideally, taking such a tack helps the superintendent develop enough trust that he’ll do business with you eventually.
“You hope,” Lawrence said.
Golf course greenkeepers also are a fraternal bunch. Although courses constantly compete for consumer dollars, superintendents charged with growing the grass on which golfers play often call on each other to discuss industry trends and topics like weed and disease management. Many often meet each December at the Ohio Turfgrass Foundation conference. Formed in 1960, OTF is a non-profit group that, through an association with Ohio State University, offers educational and professional development seminars and agronomic demonstrations for golf course superintendents, sports field managers and lawn care operators. Lawrence, who has been heavily involved in OTF since his days at Red Hawk, is the group’s president. And although he no longer works as a greenkeeper, he also is active in the northwest Ohio chapter of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.
“That just shows me that he’s not selfish, and that it’s not all about him,” Koops said. “It shows me that he’s looking out for the betterment of the golf industry as a whole.
“It also shows me that he cares about more than just his clients. He cares about everyone who works in this business on a daily basis.
Luke Young, superintendent at Bluffton Golf Club and Hidden Creek Golf Club, used to call Lawrence when the latter was GM at Red Hawk to discuss disease and weed issues. As a customer, Young knows he can trust Lawrence to give him the unedited truth about what’s happening on the two golf course’s owned by Young’s parents.
“Red Hawk had the same kind of grass we do, so I’d call asking if they were having the same problems we were, and what they were doing about it,” Young said. “He has that golf course knowledge that makes him a little edgier with what’s going on. It’s a nice benefit to have a sales rep who has more golf course knowledge than sales knowledge.
“When he changed product lines, I didn’t keep buying the same things. I bought what Don was selling. When I buy from him, I’m not just buying fertilizer; I’m buying Don Lawrence with it. And the thing about Don is he’s just a down-to-earth good dude.”
Although he loves being in the business of golf, Lawrence stopped short of saying he would ever work in the trenches as a superintendent or GM again.
“It would depend on the position,” he said. “It would be highly unlikely I would go back just because of the stress and the demands.”
Many of his customers hope he stays right where he is.
John Reitman is director of news, editorial and education for TurfNet.com, a news and information service for golf course superintendents based in Orlando, Florida. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.