Brendan McNulty, a Virginia Tech graduate student and resident of Atlanta, Ga., was one of 15 students from universities across the country selected to participate in the USGA Green Section’s annual internship program. Started 13 years ago to provide a broader view of the golf course industry, the program has given 187 students the opportunity to learn about golf course maintenance through the perspective of USGA Green Section agronomists.
McNulty, whose thesis work at Virginia Tech involves the control and eradication of Poa annua in creeping bentgrass using an experimental herbicide, spent five days in August touring 11 Pennsylvania golf courses with Keith Happ, a USGA senior agronomist. McNulty chatted with USGA staff writer David Shefter about that experience.
When you were selected to take part in the internship, what did you expect to get out of the experience?
McNulty: For me, it was to see more about golf course management philosophy and how different managers deal with different problems throughout the season. My thesis work deals with the control of Poa annua, and in Pennsylvania it was interesting to see all those different guys actually managing it. It basically opened up my eyes to new experiences and to see things that I hadn’t had the opportunity to see.
Your Masters program is in turfgrass weed science. How often do you get funny looks when you tell people that is your emphasis of study?
McNulty: I get all kinds of different reactions when I say that to people.
What is your intended career path after you complete your studies?
McNulty: I would really like to be a golf course superintendent. I’ve been playing golf since I was a little kid. I played for my high school and I would have really liked to play in college as well, but I just didn’t get the opportunity to do so. The golf course is the one place I know that I could be every day of my life and enjoy every minute of it. I figured if I can’t play golf [for a living], I might as well manage the golf course.
How did you end up picking the eradication of Poa annua as your thesis?
McNulty: When I came to start working for Dr. [Shawn] Askew [at Virginia Tech], he had been working with this new herbicide called methiozolin. I was involved with golf courses, while most of his other students were involved with other sports and athletics. So he basically turned to me since this herbicide is going to be looking for registration on golf course putting greens – it just kind of fit. I didn’t get stuck with it, but it’s something I really enjoy.
What is Dr. Askew’s title at Virginia Tech?
McNulty: He’s an extension specialist. He doesn’t teach any classes. Most of his work is doing research as well as extending his research to the public in certain areas. He’s involved with herbicide development.
The internship included visits to 11 golf courses in five days. That seems like a crazy schedule.
McNulty: It was quite busy. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. If I had my choice, I would have liked to visit more courses or extend the internship a little longer. It was definitely a busy week … but I expected and was ready for it. It wasn’t a problem at all because I was having such a great time.
What was your busiest day?
McNulty: The most [courses] we visited in a day was four. It was just about [from dawn until dusk].
Was each visit the same or did you focus on different aspects of golf course management at each site?
McNulty: We did see a bunch of different things. When I went for the interview for the internship, they basically ask you what you want to see. I told them I wanted to see some superintendents who were managing Poa annua or having trouble with the eradication of it. So definitely the presence of Poa annua on the putting greens was by far the No. 1 thing we were there to see and Keith wanted to show me.
You also saw another interesting item related to Poa annua?
McNulty: We saw the presence of bluegrass weevils. I guess this has been a pretty bad season with how hot we’ve been. It messed up the timing of the insecticide application, so a lot of superintendents were reporting little or no activity from their applications and large outbreaks of the pests.
How badly can these weevils affect putting greens?
McNulty: I had personally never seen these guys before. I had only read about them in textbooks. It was a great learning experience for me. In the springtime, they crawl out from the underbrush wooded areas, usually around putting greens. And they will crawl and lay their eggs in the crown of the [Poa annua] plant. When that egg hatches, the larva will eat its way out of the plant and destroy the crown. It turns the plant into a yellowish color and then you can basically pull the plant right out of the ground with no resistance. It’s dead basically. It’s definitely something that could be confused with other problems such as a disease. It can be difficult to ID, but if you get down and dirty, you cut out and open a part of the green, you can find different life stages [of the weevil] within an inch of each other.
What kind of eradication methods did the superintendents tell you about as it relates to these weevils?
McNulty: They were applying two different insecticides. One was for the adults and one was for the larval stage. They were having a lot of problems with the timing of it. With insecticides, you have to get the product down at the right time or else it’s not going to work properly. With the hot weather that we had this year, a lot of the outbreaks occurred earlier than what most [superintendents] were expecting. Once you are behind that gun, it’s hard to catch back up again. I think that’s mainly the issue we were seeing. Most of the insecticides are used in the spring before they come into the greens and obviously while they are there nesting. And they actually go back into the wooded, underbrush areas in the wintertime.
One of the big topics this summer, especially on the Eastern Seaboard, has been the heat and how the extreme temperatures have affected putting greens. What kinds of things did you learn about maintenance practices when the mercury soars?
McNulty: One of the main points that comes to mind was actually our last visit. It was near Pittsburgh and they were getting ready for a [big tournament]. It was the superintendent’s s ninth day on the job. He was basically put in charge of getting this golf course back in playing order for this tournament. It was phenomenal. They were doing everything they could to get a playable surface for that tournament. I don’t know how it actually turned out, but they were working really, really hard.
It sounds like you saw and covered a lot in such a short period of time.
McNulty: We did see a lot. I really enjoyed my time and getting to meet all the superintendents and getting to know Keith. You can learn so much in the classroom, but you can learn a lot more when you get out and actually see the things that you read about in textbooks.
What was the biggest thing you learned?
McNulty: I would say the biggest thing I learned was there was a large difference in the annual budgets allotted to these 11 golf courses. It’s not exactly how much you have to spend, but it’s what you know and how well you execute is what determines your success in this industry. That was by far the eye-opener and jaw-dropper for me during that week.
What’s something that surprised you during the week or one thing that sticks in your mind of how superintendents take care of their courses?
McNulty: I would say prepare for the worst and expect the worst. Because you never know what can happen. That heat [this summer] I think surprised a lot of superintendents. You have to be prepared for those bad years because they are going to happen.
How much education do you have left before you can start working in the field?
McNulty: I have one year left in my master’s program. Hopefully, I will be done this spring. I am starting to look for jobs basically as we speak. I am starting to get my résumé and everything out there.
How will this experience help prepare you for getting a job?
McNulty: A tremendous amount. Just getting to meet those 11 superintendents alone, I have kept in contact with them since the internship. Just those networking opportunities and everything else is phenomenal.
There were 14 other interns taking part in the program this summer. Have you had a chance to chat with them about their experiences?
McNulty: I have not. I have the e-mail from the other gentleman who was selected for the Mid-Atlantic Region. I believe he is currently at the University of Maryland. I need to shoot him an e-mail because he did his [internship] the week after mine.
How did you get interested in agronomy? Was anyone in your family involved with the business?
McNulty: My dad is in the home mortgage and banking industry and my mom is a teacher. My dad got me into the game of golf at a really early age and that’s what propelled me on to where I am now.
Were you into biology and nature in high school?
McNulty: In high school and basically through my freshman year at Virginia Tech, I wanted to be an engineer. I quickly found out that it wasn’t the right decision for me. I didn’t want to be stuck inside of an office all day or behind a computer screen for the rest of my career. The whole time I thought about what I would be happy doing. I get to be outside all day. I get to be on a golf course. And those things are huge to me. No two days are the same, which I really enjoy.
What’s your ultimate career goal?
McNulty: Probably my No. 1 goal as far as where I would like to work would be to work abroad like in Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. I’ve grown up all over the United States (Denver, Orange County, Calif.; Lexington, Ky.; and Atlanta) and I enjoy it. But I would like to see what else is out there. I haven’t had a very extensive outside-the-United-States travel résumé. So I kind of would like to broaden that out a little and see the world.