Herb Stevens often looks up on a golf course to help the people whose careers depend on the condition of the ground.
Stevens is a professional meteorologist with varied career and golf experiences. When The Weather Channel launched in 1982, he made the second on-camera appearance, following Bruce Edwards’ inaugural 30-minute segment.
Stevens, coincidentally, left the upstart network because of weather. “I couldn’t stand the heat of Atlanta,” he says. “I was a Yankee out of my element.”
The Rhode Island native relocated to Albany, N.Y., to become the chief meteorologist for a local television station. He started doing ski reports and developed a large enough following to launch a syndicated service as the “Skiing Weatherman.”
His current professional pursuit involves assisting golf course superintendents. Stevens launched Grass Roots Weather in the mid-2000s and he provides personalized short- and long-term forecasts to superintendents and managers at close to 100 courses. His client list, which can be found at www.grassrootswx.com, spans a triangle-shaped region from Maine to Charlotte to Chicago and includes numerous high-profile clubs.
A superintendent steered Stevens toward using his meteorological background to create Grass Roots Weather. A former PGA caddie who worked for World Golf Hall of Famer Larry Nelson from 1975 to 1980, Stevens played famed Winged Foot Golf Club with a friend in 2003. Stevens mentioned to his friend how his home club, Potowomut Golf Club in East Greenwich, R.I., was struggling with anthracnose. “It wiped out a couple of greens and it was really a bad situation,” Stevens say. “I believe we had four superintendents in a span of a year. That might be in the ‘Guinness Book of World Records.’ There were management issues and there were turf issues.”
The friend described how Winged Foot’s then-superintendent Eric Greytok belonged to a lineage of ultra-successful private club turf managers groomed by Paul R. Lathsaw. Later in the year, the Potowomut superintendent job reopened and Stevens used his Winged Foot connection to provide his home club with a list of qualified candidates. Potowomut hired rising Oakmont Country Club assistant superintendent Brent Palich and Stevens became the club’s green chairman. The pair worked together for 18 months until Palich received the head turf job at Sand Ridge Club, a private facility closer to his northeast Ohio home.
Palich taught Stevens about the intricacies of turfgrass management; Stevens provided Palich with customized weather information to make targeted agronomic decisions. In his closing act at Potowomut, Palich nudged Stevens to offer a forecasting service for superintendents and clubs.
“The day he left Rhode Island in 2005, he said, ‘Mr. Stevens, why don’t you do for other guys what you do for me, because you saved me a hell of a lot of money with your forecasts?’” Stevens says. “It’s like a bank of lights at Gillette Stadium went off. ‘Wow. That’s a great idea. And it would dovetail in with the ski season very nicely.’ So it was Brent Palich and his idea that was the genesis of the business I still do to this day. Working with as many golf courses as I do, I have become acutely aware of challenges superintendents face. It’s an education I cherish.”
When I look at a prospective client, I say, ‘Look, I can give you a forecast for two or three weeks down the road that you can’t get from your app.’ I can say that with a great deal of confidence. That’s the one thing they don’t realize – how bad those apps are.”
From caddying on the PGA Tour as a high schooler for Accuform rake creator Ben Kern to helping save superintendents’ jobs, Stevens, a Penn State graduate, represents one of the few self-employed people in the industry who has blended his academic training with a lifelong recreational passion. He still plays golf three times per week and carries his phone to the course to honor a commitment of providing accessibility to clients. And yes, he can’t help but look skyward when playing. “I love the game,” he says. “The search for perfection never stops with me. I’ll never obtain it, but I love the search.”
How fortunate have you been to blend your golf and meteorological passions?
It’s more than that. I have been skiing since I have been a toddler. I have been abundantly blessed to combine not just one hobby, but two hobbies with my chosen profession – and I’m self-employed. There are very few people that I know anywhere who are as fortunate as I am in that regard. Self-employed is the way to go.
But you have to be really good at what you do to be self-employed?
You have a point. If I don’t do my job, my client list will shrink.
What were your early days like and how did you become a meteorologist?
The meteorology part stems from one incident. This is not unusual among people I know in my profession. But in 1960, when I was 7 years old, I lived in Rhode Island where I live now, and we lived very close to the shores of Narragansett Bay. We faced the eye of Hurricane Donna, which was a formidable storm, not only here in New England, but throughout the entire length of the East Coast. It was a heck of a storm. My parents took my sister and myself in the eye of the storm because it passed over our house. It was a pretty dramatic event. Even at the tender age of 7 it left an impression. That got me started, and I became a weather nerd. I made up my mind from the age of 10 years old that I wanted to become a meteorologist. I have met probably 400 or 500 meteorologists through the years. I don’t know of one who didn’t know by the time they were 10 or 11 years old that was what they wanted to do.
What was it like growing up in Rhode Island? Not a lot of people understand it’s a great golf state.
I started caddying at Warwick Country Club on Narragansett Bay. It’s a beautiful piece of property. Donald Ross had his hand in some of the early architecture there. Donald Ross has left a lot of fingerprints in the state. He would spend his summers in Little Compton, Rhode Island. He would spend his winters in Pinehurst and then come up here for the summertime. All of the old clubs in Rhode Island are at least in part Donald Ross courses and a place like Wannamoisett hasn’t changed that much from what he originally laid out. We had a good selection of golf courses, and for a young golf mind I got to experience them either playing or caddying. I really enjoyed my youth here. It really didn’t last that long. I caddied when I was 11, 12, 13, 14 on a local basis at the same club. Then I started caddying in women’s amateur tournaments in southern New England. There were people like Jane Blalock and Pat Bradley in those tournaments. It was high-level golf. I went from there to the PGA Tour and never looked back.
Why did you leave caddying?
At the end of the 1980 season, I was 27 and still wanted to obtain my goal of becoming a television meteorologist. Television is not unlike professional sports. There aren’t a lot of 27-year-old rookies floating around, so I thought I better get with it. Larry and I went our separate ways. He won three majors and I carved out a television career. It worked out well for the both of us. I started in Providence in 1981. A friend I worked with at AccuWeather called me up and said there’s a network starting that was strictly weather. I thought, ‘Now, I’m 28 and I need some reps if I want to accelerate my career.’ And The Weather Channel was going to give me reps. I would get five or six half-hour segments a day. I applied to work at The Weather Channel and became one of the original on-camera meteorologists.
It’s a vicious circle and a lot of that was enhanced last year by that warm water. It cost a lot of hard-working, talented superintendents their jobs because there were people in positions of power that don’t have a scientific bone in their body saying, ‘You have a degree. You can grow grass.’”
How does the ski industry compare to the golf industry?
They both have similar challenges regarding the expense of the sports and the difficulty of the sports. Both sports have had issues with retention of participants. They have been able to get people to come into the door, but too many of them go out the back door. Skiing, to its credit through the advent of shaped skis about 20 years ago, has made learning the sport a lot easier than it was more than 20 years ago when skis didn’t have the parabolic side cut that make it so much easier to turn a ski. But the competition in skiing came from snowboarding as that developed. At least in snowboarding people were on the snow and spending money.
What’s the No. 1 thing a superintendent doesn’t understand about weather?
This is going to sound self-serving, but this is a fact. They don’t understand how bad the point-and-click forecasts are. All point-and-click services come from one spot. It was a computer model developed by the National Weather Service. It has some inherent flaws in the underlying physics that make it very difficult for that model to perform well. When I look at a prospective client, I say, ‘Look, I can give you a forecast for two or three weeks down the road that you can’t get from your app.’ I can say that with a great deal of confidence. That’s the one thing they don’t realize – how bad those apps are. And they all come from the same place. It doesn’t matter what site you go to. When you plug in your zip code and get those pretty little icons, you’re basically on a road that has a cliff at the end.
What other weather misconceptions exist among superintendents?
When they live by a body of water, whether it’s a Great Lake or the Atlantic Ocean, sometimes they don’t fully understand the influences that body of water will have not only on a daily basis, but on a seasonal or even an annual basis. We saw a great example of that last year. The sea surface temperatures from Cape Hatteras all the way up to the Maritime were considerably warmer than normal. The whole Atlantic wasn’t like that, it was just a large pool of anomalous warm water tucked in against the North American continent. It manifested itself in so many different ways. Warmer air holds more water vapor and water vapor is an enemy of the superintendent in the summertime. Certainly, you want rain. You want to limit the amount of time that you irrigate. But to wake up every morning and there’s dew on the grass or there’s fog and the fog burns off and the moisture that’s available helps pop up a storm … the turf gets wet again at the end of the day and it stays wet overnight. The fog then forms again. It’s a vicious circle and a lot of that was enhanced last year by that warm water. It cost a lot of hard-working, talented superintendents their jobs because there were people in positions of power that don’t have a scientific bone in their body saying, ‘You have a degree. You can grow grass.’ Well, that water was so warm and those feedback mechanisms were so persistent last year that there were places that you couldn’t grow grass. You couldn’t keep it alive.
A big part of caddying, especially at the elite levels, is giving somebody information. How important is meteorological information to the work of a golf course superintendent?
I would imagine if they didn’t have any weather information trying to do their job would be like trying to win the lottery. The feedback I have received through the years is that the strength of what I do is to provide the superintendent with the ability to put together a strategy in times of stress. The strength of what I do forecasting-wise is to look two or three weeks down the road. With the longer-range forecasts, I’m just passing along what I have known through the years. I don’t want to wander into an area that’s not my expertise. But it helps them when they are dealing with a green chairman and they want to explain, ‘Sir, we have some very stressful weather coming in the form of heat and humidity. I recommend that we raise the height of cut. I also recommend that we don’t do any topdressing at this time because of the heat stresses.’ Strategic decisions like that can be made based on an effective longer-range forecast. As far as fungicides, people put out products that need dry intervals. I get phone calls, emails and texts all the time saying, ‘I want to put this product out tomorrow. Do I have a three- or four-hour dry interval on the backside before any showers or thunderstorms?’ That’s a sort of question I answer all the time. There are a whole array of questions that I am challenged to answer. I love the challenge. I love my job.
What can a superintendent who wants to improve their understanding of weather do to learn more about it?
I recommend they go online and, in the rudimentary sense, find what I used to do as a young man, which is a cloud chart. You can probably find videos looking at cloud types and what sort of weather they foretell. The clouds tell you a lot. They tell you what’s happening before you feel it at the surface and they give you some great hints on what to expect later that day and the next day.
You have worked with some of the best superintendents in the country. What commonalities do they share?
They are tireless workers. The golf course comes first even before family, it seems to me, in times of stress. Somehow golf course superintendents have managed to weed out the jerks in their ranks. There are people that are difficult to deal with in all walks of life. Let’s not kid ourselves. The superintendents I have worked with and met – and there are hundreds of hundreds of them now after all these years – are great people. They are fun to be around. They are humble because they know at any turn in the road Mother Nature can hand them their rear end on a platter no matter what precautions they take. I’m now 66 years old. I don’t have many friends left who ski that are my age. I ski with superintendents, because the ski season here in the Northeast dovetails in with the golf season very nicely. They are just so much fun to be around.Guy Cipriano is GCI’s editor.