The peak Arizona golf season begins in nine days and Desert Mountain will host the Champions Tour season finale five days later.
Director of agronomy Shawn Emerson prepares for the blitz by studying metrics. There’s more data to analyze than when he became the massive club’s director of agronomy in 1997 – and there’s as much or more evidence his department is doing the right things.
On this late October day, Desert Mountain’s greens are running within two inches of each other on the stimpmeter. The accomplishment is no small feat. Desert Mountain features six courses with 108 bentgrass greens, and although the courses were designed by the same firm, Nicklaus Design, numerous microclimates exist within the 8,000-acre community nestled high in the Sonoran Desert.
The repeatable readings are neither by accident nor fluke. Getting six golf courses to play as one represents a daily agronomic mission.
“All of the designs are unique, but turf-wise I have always said we want you to putt on one green like you would all 108,” Emerson says. “We try to be as consistent as we can be. I tell people I don’t manage six golf courses, I try to repeat myself six times.”
Emerson has plenty of help. He oversees 190 employees and manages a $15 million budget. Each course has its own superintendent.
Help in making Desert Mountain a metrics marvel is needed because managing upscale private golf courses in Scottsdale isn’t for the meek. Emerson considers Scottsdale the “SEC” of golf markets, a reference to the popular college football conference, where neighboring schools make significant investments to plow ahead of competitors. “I have the best around me,” he says.
Emerson adds the competition, at least among turfgrass managers, is congenial and superintendents understand they all benefit by raising Scottsdale’s profile as a residential and tourist golf spot. A formal study on the relationship between golf and Arizona’s economy hasn’t been conducted since a 2004 report released by Arizona State University professor Dr. Troy G. Schmitz. The report estimated the overall economic impact of the industry in the state at $3.4 billion. Desert Mountain has made major contributions to the total, and Emerson was involved in a major transaction that closed on Dec. 30, 2010. The deal resulted in Desert Mountain members purchasing the club’s six courses, related facilities and 500 acres of developable land for $73.5 million.
The turf-centric side of Emerson will always exist, especially considering his father, Bill, worked as a superintendent. But CEO-like qualities help produce consistent playing conditions as efficiently as possible. Successful CEOs seek help outside their own operations to achieve goals, and Emerson is no different.
The list of outsiders assisting Emerson is extensive. Experience, spreadsheets and member reactions have taught him suppliers are a key part of this group. Industry partners have saved Desert Mountain “hundreds of thousands, maybe millions” of dollars. He bemoans the fact more superintendents aren’t actively engaged with suppliers.
“I think it’s vital and I think superintendents need to do more,” Emerson says. “Sometimes we are just preaching to our own choir, and we need to get to know our industry partners better. We have to be more open with them about our issues and challenges because they have programs that can help us. Sometimes as superintendents we are only leaning on each other, and we should actually be leaning on vendors more.”
Suppliers are encouraged to conduct trials and demonstrations on Desert Mountain’s turf, and it’s not uncommon to invite neighboring superintendents to view the results of a product or trial. Daconil Action and Heritage Action, a pair of Syngenta fungicides with acibenzolar-S-methyl as an active ingredient, are among the products tested at Desert Mountain. Emerson says it’s important for Desert Mountain’s agronomists and superintendents, along with everybody else in the industry, to see how products react on golf courses before they are released. His partnership with Syngenta involves multiple layers, and he’s established relationships with territory manager Kimberly Gard, western technical manager Dr. Dean Mosdell and senior technical manager Dr. Lane Tredway.
Emerson has been an “immense” help not only to Syngenta, but to superintendents throughout Arizona, Mosdell says. The company leans on Emerson’s feedback and results of trials at Desert Mountain are carefully noted. “Shawn is extremely innovative and one of the best at growing grass in the Arizona climate,” Mosdell says. “My role is to feed him the latest technology that we have coming along and we collaborate on how to use it if it fits into his agronomic program.”
The ability to make time for others despite leading arguably the nation’s largest single-site agronomic operation is one of Emerson’s many endearing qualities. He views the opportunity to test new technologies with potential to help superintendents as a privilege rather than a time-consuming burden.
“We get to see products on our nurseries and practice greens before they even have names,” he says. “Companies are asking us what our opinions are, and Syngenta is one of the companies that really cooperates with us. It used to be that companies would take agriculture products and try to fit them to the golf market. Now companies are making and developing products for golf.”
A long tenure at Desert Mountain – he was hired as the Renegade Course superintendent in 1992 – means Emerson has seen products go from nameless curiosities to proven solutions. One of those products, Trimmit, a Class B plant growth regulator (PGR), is among the reasons Desert Mountain members are putting on greens that “don’t have a drop of Poa on them,” according to Emerson. Primo is also part of Desert Mountain’s PGR rotation.
PGRs, which were once used on what Emerson calls a “whim,” are a staple of Desert Mountain’s agronomic program and their benefits extend beyond creating Poa-free surfaces. The increased usage stemmed from a realization in the early 2000s that PGRs could increase the consistency of two important aspects of Desert Mountain: the greens and maintenance budget. TruFirm and moisture meter readings and clipping yields are examined to determine how each green should be treated.
The chemistries available in today’s market make it financially beneficial to emphasize preventative approaches vs. curative methods, Emerson says. Disease pressure is lower in the Southwest than other regions, but Daconil Action and Heritage Action are part of the spray program. Conversations with North Carolina State entomologist Dr. Rick Brandenburg and properly using Acelepryn helped decrease the number of insecticide applications over the six courses in half, according to Emerson.
“We were trying to find ways to lower costs 10 to 15 years ago and we found out it would help us to take a holistic approach rather than attacking something from one side,” Emerson says. “The healthier the plant was, the less money we would have to spend. That helps me with the accounting department. Budgeting became a process of consistency and we stopped having large variances from year to year. I would tell my superintendents, ‘We can manage the process.’”
Managing, tweaking and cultivating relationships are helping Emerson avoid complacency, a concept capable of producing variances in green speeds or in the conditioning levels among the six courses. The Cochise course hosts the Charles Schwab Cup Championship, the final event on the Champions Tour schedule. But Emerson is steadfast when explaining how the courses are treated. All six were designed to be memorable and they must be maintained accordingly. That’s why consistent green readings still excite an agronomic veteran such as Emerson.
“Everybody talks about course rankings and things like that,” he says. “The differential for us – and we are different because of our size – is that we have six quality courses that are all at a very high level. They were all designed by Jack Nicklaus and they are all Nicklaus Signature courses. If they were on their own, they would be six quality clubs.”
Establishing consistent conditions in a desert environment isn’t easy, says Mosdell, who has spent 17 years working with West Coast superintendents for Syngenta. Water is scarce, expectations are high and maintaining a course is a 365-day endeavor. Desert Mountain and other Scottsdale-area clubs receive heavy play from golfers from northern climates accustomed to seeing green courses void of diseases and weeds. “The demands on golf courses have increased so much,” Mosdell says. “Our technology has to keep pace.”
Emerson doesn’t envision demands decreasing. He remains a proponent of finding innovative ways to provide the healthy, verdant turf members want. The philosophy meshes with how Desert Mountain wants its employees to approach their jobs. If there’s a way to do something better, it must be examined.
“We want to be known as one of the finest facilities and a difference-maker that’s leading the industry in all aspects,” Emerson says. “We don’t want to be standing put. We want to be evolving by using better products and better strategies and listening to others instead of just sitting back and watching. It’s easier for me to change than it is for our membership to change.”
Guy Cipriano is GCI’s assistant editor.