COURSE CARE
Hiers' Innovation Builds a Strong Foundation for the Future January 30, 2018 | Naples, Fla. By Lisa D. Mickey


 

Ask his former assistant superintendents why Tim Hiers is worthy of the golf industry’s highest honor in turf management and their heartfelt superlatives begin to flow.

“We call him the sod father,” said Billy Davidson, who worked with Hiers for five years before becoming the superintendent at the Country Club of Naples (Fla.).

“Tim’s reputation in the industry is impeccable,” added Todd Draffen, who worked with Hiers before becoming the director of agronomy at The Old Collier Golf Club in Naples. “He’s regarded as one of the nation’s best superintendents.”

In fact, Hiers is the recipient of the United States Golf Association’s 2018 Green Section Award. Hiers, who is now the director of agronomy at The Club at Mediterra in Naples, will be presented with the award in Miami at the USGA Annual Meeting on Feb. 3.

“The Green Section Award highlights those individuals who set themselves apart through their work with turfgrass management,” said Dr. Kimberly Erusha, managing director of the USGA’s Green Section, of the award that has been given annually since 1961.

“Tim has an enthusiastic passion for the golf industry and people look to him for his leadership,” added Erusha. “He is not only a visionary leader, he’s articulate as an educator and an effective mentor. When you put all of these attributes together, Tim Hiers is at the forefront of golf course management within our industry.”

A golf course superintendent since 1976, Hiers’ understanding of sustainable course management practices began more than 30 years ago. He assisted Collier’s Reserve Country Club in becoming the nation’s first Audubon International Cooperative Signature Sanctuary Golf Course.

He also successfully guided The Old Collier Golf Club’s efforts in 2000 that pioneered the use of newer-variety paspalum grass on the entire golf course, while using the area’s available brackish water as the sole source of irrigation. New seashore paspalum cultivars are one product of the USGA Turfgrass and Environmental Research program. Hiers’ efforts at Old Collier led to the course being designated the first Audubon International Gold Signature Cooperative Sanctuary.

“Tim took a giant leap of faith with this new grass and that’s how Old Collier was able to be developed, because this grass species could withstand the salt water,” noted Davidson, who worked with Hiers on the project.

“He had to figure out how to utilize paspalum grass and make it a fine-quality playing surface at a club where the expectations are high,” Davidson added. “That’s just an example of Tim’s willingness to extend his skill set into an environmental area to be able to solve problems and create quality golf.”

When asked about his innovative approach to course management, Hiers said his own “paradigm shift” came three decades ago when he was encouraged by Audubon International founder Ron Dodson to look at his golf course with practical eyes and to make decisions based on common sense and science.

“Today’s golf courses are not only environmentally responsible, they are productive,” said Hiers. “Golf courses filter and purify water, clean the air and provide some of the greatest areas of wildlife activity.”

It was Dodson who also challenged Hiers in the late 1980s to rethink killing aquatic littoral (lake shoreline) plants. Hiers was chemically spraying pickerel weed and arrowhead vines before learning that the plants provided habitat for juvenile fish that eventually became part of the food chain for larger fish and birds.

Dodson taught him another lesson in 1988, as Hiers planned to cut down a dead tree on his course. Now, he leaves dead trees as “snags” for cavity-dwelling birds. If a tree poses a hazard and must be removed, he now stacks the sawed tree into a pyramid in the woods where multiple species reside.

“As opposed to being environmental activists, golf course superintendents are actually active environmentalists,” said Hiers. “We’re managing the whole watershed, not just the golf course. And we’re using science-based management established through the experiences of superintendents, assistants and researchers all over the world. We’re getting better at what we do.”

To showcase that, Hiers has invited thousands of local schoolchildren, as well as scientists from state, local and federal agencies, to tour his courses over the years. He also has encouraged his professional staff to lead discussions about their efforts to link courses with the environment.

“One thing Tim has always done well is to assemble good people around him,” said Matt Taylor, director of golf course operations at Royal Poinciana Golf Club in Naples, who went to work for Hiers in 1993.

“He has helped so many of us who have gone on to our own careers,” said Taylor, one of five head superintendents in Naples who got their starts with Hiers. “Now, we’re impacting others based on how Tim impacted us. I think the industry is better because Tim did such a good job mentoring.”

Hiers regularly offered his assistants solid advice that they now pass down to their own staffs.

“Tim really opened my eyes when he said, ‘You need to have an owner’s mentality. If you owned the golf course, how are you going to manage it?’” said Draffen, who still hosts an annual visit of scientists that Hiers started while he was at Old Collier.

Hiers’ legacy of support, caring and upholding quality has encouraged his protégés to continue thoughtful work wherever they go.

“From him I learned that what we do goes above and beyond just mowing grass and taking care of our little plot of land,” said Davidson. “Yes, we’re taking care of golf courses, but we’re also taking care of nature in a time when green spaces are shrinking.”

“We have to think beyond just grass blades and mowers,” Davidson added. “Now, we’re adding wildlife preservation, pollinator gardens and many things that can enhance the game of golf, while taking care of the environment.”

As Hiers is honored as one of the nation’s best in his field, those he guided acknowledge their good fortune to have learned from an innovator.

“Tim was the guy I wanted to model my career after,” said Davidson. “Like Tim, now we all have to think a little bit differently and go the extra mile.”

Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.