Tim Hiers was working in his office when he received the call, just another weekday afternoon before that first ring. Mike Huck was running around, his hands full again and again, and missed the call twice before he finally had a chance to pick up. Monroe Miller was busy, too, ever the welcoming planner and host, confirming details for another regional meeting near his home club in Madison, Wisconsin.

Their reactions, though, stretched across the width of the country and separated by the passage of a decade and a half, were remarkably similar.

“I was literally in shock,” Hiers says.

© COURTESY OF USGA (3)

“It was really a shock,” Huck says.

“I can remember thinking, ‘This can’t be right,’” Miller says. “It was the last thing I had ever thought would happen to me.”

After so many years in the industry — and so many years dedicated to the industry — they had each received the unexpected call, Hiers and Huck from Dr. Kimberly Erusha, Miller from Jim Snow, that they had won the USGA Green Section Award, three turfgrass legends in a group that now numbers 61 after longtime Rutgers University professor Dr. William Meyer was honored in February. There are plenty of awards distributed every year by the USGA, plenty more handed out in the turf and maintenance industry. But few if any carry the figurative heft of the Green Section Award.

“I was trying to explain it to my brothers,” says Huck, the 2019 winner, “and I said, ‘This is kind of like winning the U.S. Open of turf. I don’t know how else to describe it.’ And my brother Joe, when he was reading about it on the website, he said, ‘My God! Doctor, doctor, doctor, and then a guy like you, and then doctor, doctor, doctor, and another guy like you. This isn’t like winning the U.S. Open. This is like a lifetime achievement award.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, old guys typically get this thing, so I guess I’m qualified now.’”

“I wouldn’t call it validation,” says Hiers, the 2018 winner. “I just call it … I don’t even know what to call it. I was just grateful. Because a lot of people don’t really understand the depth of what the USGA means when you’ve grown up with it, working with the USGA all your life. It has meaning.

© COURTESY OF USGA (3)

“Does that make sense?”

The Green Section celebrates its centennial in this strangest of years and the organization is still young enough that the work conducted by Hiers, Huck, Miller and other Award winners can be traced back directly to Dr. Charles Piper and Dr. Russell Oakley, USDA scientists who were appointed its first chairman and executive committee member, respectively, in November 1920. Their aim then was the same one the traveling agronomists swear by today: “collecting and distributing among members of the Section information of value respecting the proper maintenance and upkeep of golf courses.”

The first printed publication, then called The Bulletin of the Green Section, followed in February 1921. Those traveling agronomists racked up road and air miles starting in 1950, Charlie Wilson setting the bar for everybody who followed, and first assisted in USGA championship prep about a decade later. Through wars and droughts, booms in both the economy and the industry, the quartet of interests — research, course consulting, education and outreach, and championship agronomy — have remained largely unchanged even while the Green Section has evolved almost constantly. The future, too, will be simultaneously different and exactly the same.

Does that make sense?

The Green Section published a dozen editions of its Bulletin back in 1921. Piper and Oakley were listed on the table of contents along with officials from prominent clubs across the country. Headlines started out relatively subdued: “Appeal for Co-operation” and “The Service Bureau” in the premier issue, “Spring Work at Inverness” and “Experience and Experiments” in the second. Some humor started to pop up later in the year with headlines like “Editorial Small Salad” in the spring and “A Wonderful Bunker” and “One Thing Leads to Another” in the summer. By the end of the year, sprinkled in among more serious topics, were headlines like “The Turfnut” and “Quacks.”

(“It seems incredible that a green committee should employ a man at a high fee to give expert advice on the care of greens without knowing something about him more than what he has told about himself and the extravagant claims he has made for his methods, yet such bargains are being made continually,” that last unsigned editorial opined. “All of which goes to prove that Barnum was right.”)

Every one of these stories is available in the most complete of print collections, but even Hiers, who has plans to shelve his trove of golf books and periodicals in a new office library at White Oak Conservation in Yulee, Florida, has a set that goes back to 1976. They are available more conveniently online at the Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center, which received a $1 million endowment from the USGA in 1997 to secure staffing.

© COURTESY OF USGA (3)

“I used to keep them, but the collection got so large,” says Huck, a former superintendent and a USGA Green Section agronomist from 1995 to 2001 who is now a go-to irrigation consultant out West. “I dumped them when I moved the last time, because everything’s available online.” Huck converted around the same time the USGA forwarded him old publications to review for release on CD-ROM. “Little did we ever think then that all this would be on the internet at the touch of anybody’s fingertips nowadays,” he adds. “As soon as I figured out I could have them all on eight discs instead of a whole row of the bookshelf, I decided that was the way to go.”

The Green Section Record is still published online — an early digital adopter, switching over back in 2010 — and it’s a prime source for much of the Green Section’s prodigious research, which has quite literally focused on everything under the sun.

“I always think about the series of projects that were done at Rutgers to develop best management practices for anthracnose on annual bluegrass putting greens,” says Dr. Cole Thompson, assistant director of Green Section research. “I realized the benefit of the program and how they tackle a series of practical projects to reduce anthracnose. Superintendents would say, ‘Well, that’s great, but maybe we don’t want to mow at that height,’ so Dr. (Bruce) Clarke and Dr. (James) Murphy and their graduate students didn’t stop there, they didn’t say, ‘OK, we’re sorry, this is the height that you have to mow at.’ They delved deeper and said, ‘Well, if you’re going to mow at this height, how do all the rest of these practices affect that disease on these putting surfaces?’

“I had never managed the annual bluegrass greens or even done any research on them, so it’s not like that was a disease that was at the forefront of my mind, but just the process about how they went about identifying that problem and then sticking to it with a series of experiments to really get a set of practices that help superintendents will always make that project one that I think about.”

Green Section research has even saved whole courses, most notably The Old Collier Club in Naples, Florida, where Dr. Ronny Duncan developed a Platinum paspalum to work around brackish water sources. Without that research, without that new grass cultivar, Old Collier “would have been an 800-unit housing development,” says Hiers, who joined Old Collier in 2000 and eventually helped lead the effort to achieve the designation of first Audubon International Gold Signature Cooperative Sanctuary there. “It’s a direct result of research. It would not have existed had the research not been done. … There were actually award-winning case studies done on Old Collier from independent professors who came in. It won all kinds of awards. None of those would have happened had it not been for the USGA and for Audubon, which the USGA supported.”

Adam Moeller, a Green Section agronomist from 2008 to 2016 and now the organization’s director of education, points out research spurred by a recent course consulting project at Bowling Green Golf Club in New Jersey, part of his old territory when he was still on the road 100 or more days every year.

Fairways were trouble at Bowling Green, a public course with relatively shallow pockets. “They had some issues with a few fairways that were low and stayed wet,” Moeller says. “They just couldn’t get carts on those fairways without causing a lot of damage. So we talked about a site-specific fairway topdressing program just on those holes. We helped them figure out the best sand that would work for them, worked through the logistics of when to make the applications and at what work rates, and monitored the progress. And after a few years, it really paid off where they rarely had carts restricted to the paths on those holes. That was a big deal for them because their revenue stream drops dramatically when they had to have carts to stay on paths.

“They went with it, they liked the recommendation, they implemented it and they saw a big return on their investment.”

A core focus for so long, the research will continue, of course — especially after the recent merger between the Green Section and the USGA’s Research, Science and Innovation Group.

The merger is not the only recent change for the Green Section. In September 2019, the USGA announced the early retirement of dozens of employees, 11 of them from the Green Section. The move was tied to the USGA’s pension program, and while it was voluntary, it still drained hundreds of years of collective institutional knowledge. Managing director Dr. Kimberly Erusha was among those who left after nearly 30 years with the USGA. Researcher Dr. Mike Kenna, whom Thompson counted as his mentor, and agronomist Bob Vavrek also left after nearly three decades. Patrick O’Brien, the USGA’s longest-tenured staffer, retired after 40 years as an agronomist in the Southeast.

“I don’t know how to characterize this,” Hiers says. “It wasn’t just their research, and it wasn’t just their publications, and it wasn’t just their field visits. … It was their presence. They were there. You knew, if you really had an issue, you could pick up the phone. I mean, they’ve done so much, they’ve been so consistent. I’m a little concerned about their staff cutbacks. I don’t know how that’s going to bode for the future. They say the human brain is equivalent to a 1 billion-megabyte computer. And I just don’t know if a computer or a drone or a cell phone or infrared imaging or any of that can replace the human mind.”

Mike Huck worked as a Green Section agronomist for six years but won the organization’s top award for his irrigation work after leaving the USGA.
© COURTESY OF USGA / KOHJIRO KINNO

Publicly, the Green Section looks at the change as an opportunity to evolve.

“The mission remains the same,” Thompson says. “We’re a group of people that want to do everything we can to help golf be better and to help facilities that we work with be better. Personal job responsibilities change as people retire, people take on new roles, but we’re still moving in the same direction. That’s still the vision: to help golf courses provide the playing conditions that they want to provide with the resources that they have available. And everybody is still working toward that.”

There will be changes in coverage, too. Moeller mentions how there will be more stories geared for golfers — and not necessarily exclusively for superintendent and other turf pros — in the future, all in an effort to grow the game. Heck, the Green Section is finally on Twitter, more than a decade after Moeller first started pushing for the organization to appear on that particular social media network.

“We developed it with the idea that the superintendents see it and then they have it ready to share with the golfers on their course,” Moeller says. “It’s very basic. One of the articles that I wrote that was pretty well received was about how to make more birdies by controlling organic matter. It’s some of our most shared content — and some of the stuff from superintendents that we hear is just invaluable.”

Consider it an extension of those core four focuses: research, course consulting, education and outreach, and championship agronomy.

“It just seems like, in general, their goal was and is to make golf better in all the different ways that count,” says Miller, who received the Green Section Award in 2004 after 36 years as the superintendent at Blackhawk Country Club in Madison. “They educated superintendents, they educated golfers, they supported the science, they supported students. It was always a comforting thing.”

“You know, we, as humans, we have a habit of taking things for granted, right? Especially when we have it all the time,” Hiers says. “I would hate to think what golf would be today if it weren’t for the USGA and the Green Section. Now I’m not dissing GCSAA or the PGA of America, they’re all integral to the game, there’s. Any one of those would leave a huge vacuum if they weren’t there. But without the USGA … What’s that old song from Credence Clearwater Revival, you don’t miss the water till you don’t have any to drink, then it means something. So I’m just glad they’ve been around. I’m not saying they’re perfect. There are some things they do today that I don’t necessarily agree with, but that’s not gonna diminish what they’ve done in the past and what they’ve done for golf.

“And when you hang up, I’ll probably think of six more things about them I want to tell you.” GCI

Matt LaWell is Golf Course Industry’s managing editor.