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As the new leader at the helm of the South Carolina Golf Association, Jeffrey Connell quipped about needing “a crayon” to write his first president’s message. One of the first golf course superintendents elected to the highest office of a regional golf association — normally the province of influential members of prominent private clubs — he was playing a card he’s used before: That of the simple, down-home Kentucky boy, just doing the best he can to get by.

That card is a joker.

While he did grow up in Kentucky and loves to fish, hunt and cook out with the best of them, Connell, from 36-hole Fort Jackson Country Club in Columbia, is far sharper than the nub of any crayon. You need to be to ascend to the presidency of an organization like the SCGA, with more than 270 member clubs and in excess of 64,000 individual members. A quick scan of recent past presidents will tell you that.

Trial attorneys, real estate developers, movers and shakers in state government, they’re all there. So is Steve Fuller (2016-17), who in 1985 earned a Super Bowl ring with the Chicago Bears as backup quarterback to Jim McMahon. In rooms full of decision makers, confidence alone will only get you so far. You need the chops to back it up.

Connell, 51, has them in spades and that is why his election is being hailed as a major milestone for golf course superintendents, not just in South Carolina but across the Carolinas and maybe even beyond.

There may be a border between South and North Carolina, but for much of the golf world, in practical terms, the two are one. You can drive from Kiawah’s Ocean Course on the South Carolina coast to Pinehurst No. 2 in the North Carolina sandhills in less than four hours. So, whether it’s golfers, golf professionals, club managers or golf course superintendents, cross-border cross-pollination is common and constant.

Jeffrey Connell works closely with South Carolina Golf Association executive director Biff Lathrop to promote golf in the state.
© trent bouts

Thus, Joel Ratcliff, CGCS, doesn’t acknowledge borders when he says of Connell’s election: “Man, this is a huge deal for golf course superintendents. And it’s been a long time coming.”

A retired superintendent now working part-time in sales for Coastal Floratine, Ratcliff, in the prime of his career, was such an advocate on behalf of the superintendent profession he was almost an agitator. At Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, North Carolina, home of what is now the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship, and then at World Tour Golf Links in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Ratcliff was part of a vocal cadre that forced the Carolinas Golf Course Superintendents Association to think big starting in the late 1990s.

That push led the association to hire a fulltime executive director, buy its own headquarters building, move its annual Conference and Trade Show to the convention center in Myrtle Beach — where it grew into the largest regional event for superintendents in the nation — and contract with a lobbyist. All of which served the association and simultaneously pushed the golf course superintendent forward.

So, while Ratcliff doesn’t explicitly say, “I told you so!” he and many others regard Connell’s rise in a non-agronomic golf organization as proof of the case they were laying out all those years ago.

“It shows that people outside of golf course maintenance recognize that the skills and the perspective that a golf course superintendent brings can be very valuable to all of golf,” he says. “This sets a new bar.”

Ratcliff was Carolinas GCSA president in 2000. When Connell took over that role in 2010, his first president’s message then — not written in crayon — was straight out of the Ratcliff school.

“For years our profession was viewed largely as blue collar but there has been progress,” Connell wrote in January of that year. “Now is the time to complete that step out of the shadows and formalize our true skills as managers, decision makers, buyers and negotiators. … Often we manage the largest budgets, tackle complex environmental issues, direct a wide cross-section of employees, grapple with fickle weather and the complexities of club politics. Now is the time to step forward and put those skills to their best use for our facility and our industry.”

Mike Fabrizio, CGCS, served with Connell on the board of the Carolinas GCSA back in the early 2000s and remembers being struck by an apparent split personality. “He came across as a good ol’ boy, but he was also very professional and very assertive in his ideas and thoughts,” Fabrizio says. “He’s very confident, speaks well. But then you know he spends half his life out in the northwest chasing ducks and stuff!”

Mike Casto, the soon-to-be-retired director of golf at Fort Jackson and a Carolinas PGA Section past president, expects Connell to do well in his new role. “Jeff will bring a lot to the table. He’s been heavily invested in the game in a number of areas for a long time,” Casto says. “He’s very pro-golf and pro-growing the game — and he’s got some political skills.”

Man of many ideas

One anecdote from Connell’s career serves to illustrate how his personality is not split so much as complementary, allowing him to pass comfortably between camo in the woods and a jacket and tie at the board table. He’s adept at using his hands and his head in tandem.

In 2000, he spent $15 on a used fish tank that ended up costing his members $2.3 million.

Connell set the aquarium in the pro shop, lining one half with a slab from a push-up green out on the golf course. On the other side, he laid a profile of gravel, sand and greens mix that would come with a renovation that members voted down three times over the previous decade. He put the same grass on top of the two sides and watered it regularly.

Soon enough, the surface on the push-up soil was struggling. Moss took hold and algae appeared on the glass. By comparison, the side with good drainage was thriving. “We had an explanatory note there, but we probably didn’t need it,” Connell recalls. “The members could see what was going on as clear as day. From a turf standpoint, they didn’t need any more convincing.”

The new TifEagle that went down as part of the renovation spurred another flash of inspiration that speaks to Connell’s intellect. As many of his colleagues were finding with the new ultradwarf Bermudagrasses, they could generate impressive green speeds but that magnified the impact of grain.

With the help of equipment technician Bobby Simpson, Connell invented, manufactured and patented a brush that attached to the front of mowers and teased the leaf blade upright for a closer cut. With the help of his mother, Marilyn Thompson, and her husband, “Papa” Ed, he grew the brush business to a point that it was bought by a national equipment brand.

Around the same time, frustrated with the constant turnover of migrant workers, he bought several rental houses near the golf course. With the promise of work and affordable housing, he was able to retain many of the best workers from season to season, greatly increasing his team’s efficiency.

“He’s sharp. But a lot of people are sharp,” says Chuck Green, who hired Connell at Florence Country Club, in Florence, South Carolina, when he landed in the Carolinas in the early 1990s. “But not many of them work as hard as Jeff does at putting it to good use.” Green, now general manager and superintendent at Quixote Club in Sumter, a new course serving a national membership, was Carolinas GCSA president in 1996 and helped instill the service ethic in his young assistant.

At Green’s urging, Connell joined the Midlands Turfgrass Association and was elected to the board a few years later. He has served on one industry association board or another ever since. Service is in his family, along with smarts.

His late father, Robert Connell, earned a Bronze Star with the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Forrestal during the Vietnam War. His grandfather, F.H. “Dusty” Connell, was a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve, and worked with NASA helping design, build and operate the Mississippi Test Facility, which would eventually test the Saturn rocket that sent the first Americans to the moon.

Jeffrey Connell with Fort Jackson Country Club director of golf Mike Casto in 2010.
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Friend of junior golf

There was also golf in his genes. His maternal grandfather, Dr. Howard Beaver, a Captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in World War II, won the club championship at The Country Club of Indianapolis in 1965. He’d lost in the final in the early 1950s to a good friend by the name of Pete Dye.

Connell himself is a double-digit handicapper but his oldest son, Cheney, made the cut in the South Carolina Junior Championship. Like many parents of kids in the state’s junior golf program, Connell and his wife, Michelle, put in thousands of miles traveling to and from tournaments across the state. He says what that experience did for his son, and what he saw it do for hundreds and hundreds of other families, made him an even more passionate supporter of the junior game.

Indeed, Golf Digest once ranked the South Carolina junior program — churning out the likes of Lucas Glover, Dustin Johnson and Kevin Kisner — as the nation’s best. But Connell maintains the bigger impact is through “countless others that have learned a game they can enjoy for the rest of their lives, whether they are winning tournaments or not.”

That is why one priority of his two-year term is to ensure that capacity satisfies demand when it comes to junior tournaments, clinics and camps. Within minutes of being elected president, Connell turned to Justin Fleming, who runs the junior programs, and told him, “We’ll get you the staff you need, we’ll get you the money you need, just keep adding tournaments until people stop signing up.”

For the record, the Connells’ two other boys, Aiden Cooper and Grayson, are happy enough hitting balls into the fields on a property the family owns north of Columbia. They are happier still fishing and four-wheeling.

Superintendent at the top

While there is a precedent of a superintendent president at the SCGA, it was so long ago that many initially believed Connell was the first. Still, it is a rarity, perhaps even unique in the modern era. “To date, we do not know of any other state or regional golf association that has ever had a superintendent serve as their president,” SCGA executive director Biff Lathrop says.

Dillard Traynham, who built Paris Mountain Country Club in Greenville, led the SCGA in 1959. But it was likely Traynham’s playing skills that helped his profile most of all. In an era when amateur golf shared the spotlight with the professional game, he was a two-time South Carolina Amateur champion. His son, Kyle, is the long-serving superintendent at Willow Creek Golf and Country Club in Duncan, South Carolina.

Outside that, the nearest thing to Connell’s ascension was Randy Allen’s term on the Carolinas Golf Association executive committee a decade ago. Allen, CGCS, was another drum beater on behalf of superintendents. President of the Carolinas GCSA in 1989, he was an instigator of the association’s Superintendent Image Campaign. That project raised money to support greater outreach, understanding and appreciation of the role of superintendents. It continues to this day.

“I am really happy for Jeff, but I’ll tell you, this is a big feather in the cap for golf course superintendents,” says Allen, who now works with Modern Turf. “He’s well-spoken, confident, the total package. He will be very good for superintendents as a spokesman.”

Connell studied landscape architecture at the University of Kentucky and horticulture at Eastern Kentucky University — without using a crayon once. As his colleagues have testified, he is smart, and smarter than he might sometimes have you believe. That is only slightly different than the situation for most golf course superintendents, who he says are smarter than many golfers might think.

He spoke to that point in the first message he ended up writing as SCGA president: “Yes, it takes a team to have a successful golf operation and every department definitely plays a role,” he wrote. “But without a dedicated golf course superintendent you have no chance. People much smarter than me will tell you that the superintendent is responsible for the facility’s most valuable asset — the golf course — and also, in most cases, is responsible for the facility’s biggest budget.

“The skills, education and training it takes to manage all that have elevated today’s superintendent to a point where we are business managers as much as grass growers, maybe even more so. I am a direct beneficiary of all the work that has gone into advancing the superintendent profession over many years. I am grateful to all those colleagues before me who laid that groundwork.”

Trent Bouts is a Greer, South Carolina-based writer and regular Golf Course Industry contributor.