Ardmore, Pa. – As Matt Shaffer stood on the fescue-covered “green” roof of the Merion Golf Club maintenance facility, he was asked if he ever monitored the comings and goings of his staff from that vantage point.
“Nah, I’m not a spy,” said Shaffer with a laugh. “I like to think I’m a pretty good teacher, though.”
Shaffer has directed the golf course operations on the East Course at Merion – site of the 2013 U.S. Open in June – for the past 11 years. In that time, nearly a dozen of his assistants have gone on to lead course operations at some of the country’s most renowned clubs, such as Somerset Hills Country Club in Bernardsville, N.J., and Shoreacres in Lake Bluff, Ill.
Shaffer’s educational outreach also includes bringing a new perspective to the membership at Merion, which increasingly appreciates and understands the need for more environmentally aware practices on its two 18-hole courses.
“They didn’t come that way,” said Shaffer with a wry smile. “We had to work to make them that way. At first, when members bring a friend out to the course and it’s not completely green, they are embarrassed. But we have a large group of international members – from Scotland, England and Ireland – and they appreciate and understand the more natural conditions. They talk to others and help to change the dynamic. They say to their friends, ‘OK, you’re finally getting it.’”
Merion’s East Course is a historic palette on which to create new awareness, and Shaffer knows that he is fortunate to have resources that might not be available to many courses. The most visible manifestation is Merion’s maintenance facility, which opened in 2010, earned a Green Building Award from Associated Builders and Contractors, and netted Shaffer the 2012 Environmental Leaders in Golf Award for private clubs from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.
Shaffer, whose office had been in the clubhouse several hundred yards away, and his staff are based in a facility that still gleams more than 2½ years after opening, with spacious offices, work areas, and on-site housing for a dozen college interns. The daily 6:30 a.m. staff meeting is held in an area that doubles as a break room, and features whiteboard technology that the staff uses in combination with Google Earth maps to zero in on areas of the course that need attention.
A countdown clock hangs nearby – late last week, it displayed 55 days to the U.S. Open. The East Course’s full-time maintenance staff of 45 (the West Course, a mile away, has its own staff of 12) will quadruple that week, with the addition of some 130 volunteers from around the country.
The sustainable daily operations in the maintenance facility include such practices as radiant heat produced by recycled oil, and a water-recycling station where the water used to wash equipment is sent through a series of cleansing baffles, which are augmented by the weekly addition of microbes.
Shaffer and Dave McDonald, Merion's assistant superintendent, firmly believe that “more is less” with regard to inputs on the golf course, and their practices have helped to earn the club a designation as a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.
The Merion staff has been working to lessen the incidence of dollar spot, a common fungus on golf courses, through more frequent mowing and rolling of the fairways. These practices reduce the amount of dew and thatch buildup, which has in turn decreased the likelihood of disease and the need for chemical applications.
“Courses typically apply chemicals about once a month,” said McDonald, who came to Merion six years ago from Atlantic City (N.J.) Country Club. “We have gone up to 200 days without spraying. For a course with a limited budget, reducing even one application can result in a savings of $3,000 to $5,000.”
Merion’s integrated pest management practices include frequent monitoring of the turf and the soil led by staff agronomist Dave Petfield. The maintenance area has a testing station with a microscope to examine turf, and the entire staff is continuously building on its knowledge and capabilities in this regard. Soil is sent out to a test center regularly for analysis.
“Every course has a different economic threshold,” said McDonald. “Some might do their spraying by the calendar or out of habit. But through our soil testing and other practices, we can often avoid putting down a fungicide or a herbicide.”
Merion’s irrigation techniques have also grown more sophisticated.
“We have 1,500 [sprinkler] heads, but it’s not only having more heads, but being more targeted,” said McDonald. “We change the heads to produce different throws, different arcs and different volumes based on the need. It provides for much more precise placement of water.”
The watering efficiency carries over to Merion’s distinctive fescue bunker faces. Rather than watering from a sprinkler head, which is less effective, the staff employs a system of tubing under the bunker faces to irrigate at the root level.
Another way in which such meticulous oversight benefits the course is the staff’s monitoring of the blades and reels on mowing equipment.
“We check the reels after every three greens we mow,” said McDonald. “Sharper blades lead to better roll, and better cutting also leaves fewer wounds in the turf and less opportunity for disease to occur. We’re improving the playability and the health of the turf at the same time.”
Visitors to Merion will not find pristine greensward everywhere; the 65 acres of rough is made up of several grasses and weeds, which is how Shaffer and his staff – and the members – like it.
“When you require rough to be ‘monostand,’ which is what we call a uniform, lush green rough,” said McDonald, “the cost is enormous in terms of chemicals to maintain it, and in man-hours to strip out patches. We would rather fertilize what is there [than spend thousands to eradicate weeds].”
USGA Executive Director Mike Davis, who sets up the U.S. Open courses, also favors the variable rough conditions, in which a player’s predicament can vary widely depending on the bounce.
Shaffer began using slow-release, organic fertilizers soon after they became available, and such products have become the industry standard. Homeowners can find similar fertilizers at their local garden store, McDonald said.
“The slow-release aspect means that more of the fertilizer is absorbed and less will leak into the soil and the aquifer,” said McDonald. “It’s all part of Audubon best practices: too much water, chemicals and fertilizer push the wildlife off the course.”
As Shaffer walked up to the maintenance facility’s fescue-topped roof, which blends seamlessly into the hillside to the left of the 18th hole, he identified an immature red hawk perched on one of the roof’s bluebird-nesting boxes. The hawk surveyed the visitors before slowly vacating its post for the nearby quarry, which comes into play on the East Course’s final three holes.
“This is a real raptor course,” said Shaffer, a native of Martinsburg, Pa., in the central part of the state. “There are lots of mice and moles in the high grass around here. That’s why you see the hawks.”
It’s not only what you see, but many things that you don’t, that make Merion a sanctuary for wildlife.
“Superintendents have become very well educated,” said Shaffer, 53. “Most of us are outdoorsmen; we hunt, fish, backpack and play golf. We take a lot more precautions when applying chemicals. It’s just the right thing to do – to leave things better than you found them.”
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.