Spencer Roberts tries to take Sundays off during the growing season. Extraordinary circumstances altered his schedule last summer, creating a series of memorable father-son moments.
With temperatures in Kansas City escalating and rainfall non-existent, Roberts toted his young son, Jack, and live-at-home course dog, Ellie, to The National Golf Club of Kansas City to monitor lake levels.
Three weeks. Four weeks. Five weeks. Roberts stared at the sky and asked: “When are you going to break?”
The club received less than an inch of rain from June 2 until July 18, a numbing six-week stretch plucked in the middle of a humbling year for Kansas City-area superintendents. The lower the lake levels, the tougher the irrigation decisions. Even as he observed the depletion of a once-plentiful resource, Roberts developed an appreciation for the impromptu work Sundays. Jack seemed to be relishing the strolls around the club’s 36 holes. “He enjoys seeing the dog run on the golf course and chase geese,” Roberts says. “He enjoys coming to work with dad.”
For all the angst 2018 provided in a Transition Zone environment such as Kansas City, the year provided the ultimate case study in life management and agronomics for Roberts, the director of golf course maintenance at The National Golf Club of Kansas City, a 36-hole facility in the city’s north suburbs.
Sticking to reliable plans, programs and products despite wicked weather swings, allowed Roberts and his nearly 35-person team to achieve a semblance of balance while offering a growing membership sturdy L93 bentgrass/Poa annua putting surfaces throughout the year. The year, in many ways, separated The National Golf Club of Kansas City from other facilities. The 18-year-old club, which features a pair of high-end private courses, The National and The Deuce at The National Golf Club, established membership and revenue highs in 2018, according to Roberts. The business success coincides with a year that featured the second coldest April on record, followed by the second warmest May on record, followed by extreme drought.
Keeping the greens, well, green represented a major triumph. The triumph becomes more meaningful when combined with human factors such as limiting the toll unforgiving conditions exert on the people in a turf manager’s life. In addition to Jack, Roberts’ family includes his wife, Courtney, and six-year-old daughter, Emma.
Maintaining normalcy away from the course during a year such as 2018 requires consistency at work. The National and The Deuce operate from a central maintenance facility, but each course possesses a distinct crew led by a pair of determined and talented assistant superintendents: Cesar Villanueva and Graham Edelman at The National and TJ Ridge and Andy Scott at The Deuce. Almost every conversation about a leader experiencing quality time away from a stressed landscape involves the backing of an empowered staff.
“You find time away by putting really good people around you,” Roberts says. “I have four great assistants who are great leaders of their teams. Having great people around me means that I was able to step away and be with the family during that time. Those four individuals made it easier for me during one of the toughest summers I have ever experienced to get away.”
As the weather deteriorated, Roberts never deviated from personnel decisions he made before the season. Every employee, including the four assistants, received scheduled time off.
“We stuck to that even though we had a lot going on to make sure they stayed fresh,” Roberts says. “I knew that it was going to be a year to make tough decisions, with our irrigation lake being low. I wanted to keep all of our guys fresh and make sure they could step away and stay positive. It’s not always easy. We didn’t want to bring any more stresses upon ourselves. We knew we were all stressed out. We didn’t want to bring any more stresses to the guys.”
Roberts displayed similar consistency and trust with The National’s agronomic programs. Stints at a trio of highly regarded private clubs, Shadow Glen Golf Club in Olathe, Kan., Omaha Country Club in Omaha, Neb., and Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark., introduced Roberts to the abiotic and biotic stresses eclectic weather places on championship-caliber greens. By the time Roberts arrived at The National in late 2015, he understood how to handle those stresses.
Plant health represents the pillar of The National’s agronomics. Every tactical decision revolves around keeping turf robust and making sure seasonal plans are established well before wild weather swings materialize. Roberts is flexible enough to make tweaks – The National mowed and rolled greens less in 2018 – but most of his confidence, even during a trying season, stems from positive signs plants showed entering the previous winter. “One thing that stuck out to me hanging out with Spencer – and he used this phrase with me quite a bit last year – he felt like 2018 was the year of overall plant health,” says Wes Kleffner, a Bayer area sales manager who works closely with Kansas City-area superintendents.
The spray program Roberts uses to handle Transition Zone stresses on greens includes a rotation of Bayer Stressgard products. Weekly applications begin in early May and extend into the September. Tartan, Interface, Chipco Signature and Mirage are among the staples of The National’s program. The National’s turf team treats 7 acres of greens between the two courses, with disease concerns ranging from Pythium to snow mold.
“It’s about having a strong preventative program and knowing we are ahead of issues,” Roberts says. “The Stressgard products, I believe, give us the ability to continue to create high-level golf conditions throughout the season.”Stressgard formulations provide external and internal benefits to plants facing temperature extremes, says Dr. Chenxi Zhang, a Bayer product development manager who focuses on developing solutions for Turf & Ornamental markets.
“By incorporating Stressgard products in a rotation, you have immediate color improvement on the outside,” Zhang adds. “Also, within the plant, you’re seeing the chlorophyll content being protected by Stressgard.”
When chlorophyll loss is reduced, the plant is able to better maintain photosynthesis and its production of carbohydrates. And that, in turn, helps maintain key physiological functions and allows plants to better withstand stresses, like temperature extremes.
Introduced in the late 1990s, the Stressgard family has expanded to include Tartan, Interface, Fiata, Mirage, Signature XTRA and Exteris Stressgard. Stressgard is a formulation paired with a variety of fungicides that offers protection against abiotic stresses such as high temperatures, low temperatures, aggressive mowing, golfer and cart wear, excessive sunlight, and reduced sunlight, Zhang says.
The National experienced many of the above stresses during 2018. Most of those stresses, though, remained hidden to members and guests who played more than a combined 35,000 rounds on the courses.
“We never saw large amounts of turf stress on the greens,” Roberts says. “We were very proactive, understanding we did not have a spring and then we went onto a lot of heat stress. Knowing we had a strong plant protectant program, we looked at the controllables. We raised the mowing height, we changed the frequency of mowing. If we had to skip a day of mowing and roll a day, or decrease how much we rolled and mowed, we did that. It was important to communicate to the memberships the conditions on the golf course and why we were backing off and what we were experiencing so they understood what was going on. They were all very supportive.”
Late in the season, Kleffner toured the course with Roberts. He left The National impressed with the turf quality and satisfied with the results he helped Roberts and his team achieve, despite enormous challenges.
“The people we deal with make such huge sacrifices throughout the growing season,” Kleffner says. “It’s a huge dedication to spend time away from their family and away from doing so many other things. They are just trying to get through the year. If there’s anything I can do to help these guys just sleep a little bit better at night, I’m all for it. Being in this industry, we have all been there at some point. You feel for everybody. You just want to do whatever you can do to help them get through it.”
Seeing his plan work – and seeing his family more often – revitalized Roberts. Jack turned three in January and more visits to the course to watch Ellie chase geese are likely in 2019. There’s also optimism the lakes will appear refreshing rather than exhausting.
“There are averages for a reason, but we have to be ready for whatever comes our way,” Roberts says. “It comes down to planning and making sure we have plans in place and we’re ready to communicate whatever weather we experience in 2019.”