September 2016

Calm Amid the Storm

A Day in the Life of Superintendent
of Hoot & Toot Dave Hunter

Even the busiest times of the year have occasional slow days, and this may be one of them for Dave Hunter, the Superintendent of Hoot and Toot. But for the Osprey Valley Turf Department, the plan for a day and what actually happens are not always the same thing.

Often, unforeseen events often mean sudden adjustments. “It can be a game changer, for sure,” Dave says. Yesterday was a prime example, when a big rain storm meant rescheduling the planned aeration of the Heathlands greens to this morning. Instead, the challenge became “trying to get our mow in” between bursts of heavy rainfall. After a busy weekend and a big tournament on Hoot on Friday, the courses needed a full mow, regardless of the rain and being short staffed. “It was a great mix. Everybody was soaked. Good times,” Dave says with a characteristic understated smile.

This morning began as most of them do, with an early alarm and a nudge from Dave’s long-time work companion, a yellow lab named Chloe. “As soon as I touch the button on the alarm, she’s ready to go,” he says. “Good old Chloe. Eleven years and going strong. She’s been here almost every day from the beginning.”

Chloe is a fixture in Osprey Valley, loved by everyone, even the regulars. “I have golfers coming up,” Dave says, “not even saying hi to me, they go right for the dog.”

Morning coffee with Head Mechanic Jason Sharples in the workshop

His first stop of the morning the north workshop for a 20 minute meeting with Toot Assistant Superintendent Aaron Hill to review the plan for the day. Next comes a repeat with Hoot Assistant Superintendent Peter Kemp at the main workshop before each branches off to whatever task begins the day.

With much of the staff lending a hand with the aeration work on Heathlands, there will be a little less activity on Hoot and Toot, but that is an exception. Unexpected rainstorms aside, the seasonal change in weather brings with it a new set of responsibilities. People not familiar with the job sometimes think “summer’s over, it’s getting easier now, but it’s quite the opposite. During the summer, you’re in a routine. The fall is one of the busier times of the season.” And there is a lot of season left. Last year, Osprey Valley Golf was open into December and with this year’s late arriving summer, anything is possible.

Aeration is a good example of a labour intensive fall task, part of the “fall push to keep the turf in good shape”. It involves removing small cores of soil and turf and refilling them with a sand top dressing. It encourages turf growth and health and keeps the playing surfaces in top shape.

The benefits are already self evident on the Hoot and Toot greens, aerated one and two weeks ago respectively, where Dave points out that you can already see “quite a difference in the knitting, in how the turf is growing back together.” While some visual evidence remains, there is no lingering impact on playability.

Toot greens looking healthy just two weeks after aerification.

The first adjustment that has to be made on Hoot today is not much of a surprise. The first glow of morning light reveals the pale shine of a seasonal frost in the long grass alongside the first fairway of Hoot. Dave tests it with his foot and it bounces back. Not bad.

Still, there is a flurry of radio activity as Dave and Pete touch base with the staff to confirm that everyone knows where they should and shouldn’t drive. Pete has the mowers hold off temporarily. Rough that could be damaged by walking or driving on it can’t be cut until a little later, but the duo preparing to remove dew from the fairways is given the go ahead to proceed, with the proviso to take care to stay strictly within the fairway.

Both Pete and Aaron will spend the better part of their mornings spreading fertilizer on the greens. Pete arrives at the Hoot #1 green to talk fertilizer with Dave. Greens are fertilized throughout the season, but usually with a soluble spray. This time of year, it is switched for one in granular form. It is a different composition and lasts a little longer, which is important as this will likely be the last application before the final dormant fertilizer, which will be stored in the plant and roots until the spring. That will probably happen in the first or second week of November, when reduced temperatures have reliably stabilized.

As Pete gets started with the application, Dave checks the tee sheet in the clubhouse to let both Assistants know when they can expect to see early golfers, something they have to factor into their timing. His next stop is across the property on the banks of the Credit River.

Checking morning tee times in the clubhouse

On the way, he stops to point out a section of a fairway on Toot that is recovering from an outbreak of dollar spot. Dollar spot is a fungal disease that Dave calls “one of our biggest challenges out here.” It is something the senior staff has been dealing with throughout the growing season, though it gets harder to spot in the fall.

Even a badly hit area, like the one Dave indicates on the Toot #18 fairway, would escape the notice of most golfers, but turf staff have a trained and experienced eyes for it and high standards that have kept all three courses in top condition throughout a busy season with demanding weather.

The plan for this patch - and a few others like it - is some manual intervention, verticutting to stimulate growth and “get some recovery before the end of the season.” Verticutting works similarly to aerating, but involves multiple circular blades cutting grooves and removing thatch (dead matter) from the turf canopy.

Growth depends on weather and temperatures. “If we get a nice warm fall,” Dave explains, “she’ll still grow, but historically that last week of October or first week of November is the latest that the plants will be active.”

Detour completed, he continues to his original destination, away from the courses and down a narrow laneway to the Credit River where an intake pipe feeds the property’s irrigation ponds. The mechanism is fitted with a data logger that measures how much water is taken from the river. Dave connects a laptop and begins to download the data.

Downloading water intake readings

Tracking water use is important to ensure a harmonious relationship with Osprey Valley’s beautiful ecosystem and reporting to the Ministry of Environment is necessary for approval to continue using water from the river.

Monitoring water levels in the river was likewise critical during this past hot and dry summer when water had to be used very sparingly. Substantial labour-intensive hand watering was needed to balance proper care for the turf and vital water conservation.

While the information downloads, Dave takes a moment to enjoy the serenity of this beautiful spot that most people never get to see, while Chloe happily nibbles on some grass. A flock of geese fly overhead honking, but she barely looks up.

“Back in the day, she used to be the goose chaser,” Dave says. Lately, that job has been largely passed on to Aaron Hill’s sidekick Bauer, though Aaron credits Chloe with “teaching him everything he knows” about goose wrangling.

Coordinating tasks with Toot Assistant Superintendent Aaron Hill

Chloe’s contribution and seniority come with a few perks unique among the senior staff. “I give her weekends off,” Dave says. “She’s the only one who gets that.” Otherwise, she puts in a full day like everyone else, even if it sometimes means needing a little help climbing up into the truck at the end of the day.

The next stop is the pump house on Hoot. If water is the lifeblood of any golf course, it’s pump house is the heart and this one serves both Hoot and Toot. It had to be rebuilt after an unfortunate fire in 2013. During an early morning spring ice storm, a power surge caused an electrical malfunction and the entire building was lost. Rebuilding this critical building was, Dave says, “one of the biggest challenges we ever faced.”

He credits Steve Wilkinson from Pumps Plus in Stayer with helping to locate three new Flotronex pumps, which usually have to be custom built in the United States, and piece by piece, the pump house was put back together while Hoot and Toot had to make do with limited water provided by a diesel powered pump.

The new building is a big improvement. Resting on a concrete floor and lined with concrete board, it is much more fire resistant than the previous one. Access panels were built into the roof to facilitate installation and servicing of the pumps, each of which has to be moved by crane. There is one large pump that operates the waterfall alongside the Hoot #17 green and three slightly smaller ones, which supply the extensive network of pipes that serve both Hoot and Toot.

Once Dave has finished downloading information from the pump house data loggers, he returns to the main workshop to log the measurements and complete some health & safety paperwork while Chloe takes a quick nap. Later, he will head back outside, while Chloe spends the afternoon shift assisting Head Mechanic Jason Sharples inside. For Chloe, the workshop has the added advantage of being where the biscuits can be found.

Chloe enjoying the perks of the afternoon shift in the workshop

For a quiet morning that is just beginning, a great deal has already been been accomplished, and teamwork is a central theme of the day. “None of this would be doable without the key guys,” Dave says, including not just Heathlands Superintendent Scott Brook and Director of Horticulture Mike Hunter, but also the three Assistants, Aaron, Pete and Heathlands’ Scott Littleton and several full time employees. “Each one is unique,” he continues. “They all have their personalities, but they work well together. They do a damn good job. It’s a fine bunch of people we have here.”

That and the teamwork that stems from it are perhaps the most impressive qualities of the invaluable Osprey Valley Golf Turf Department. “Nobody is out for themselves,” Dave points out, “they are out for Osprey Valley.” Each Assistant knows the entire property and have proven themselves able to step in for each other or either Superintendent if needed.

He pauses to listen as Aaron and Pete check in with each other by radio to compare notes on their progress fertilizing the greens. 

Dave smiles: “That’s a great example right there of what we were just talking about. You’ve got Aaron checking with Pete to see roughly where they’re at. They’re working hand in hand on opposite sides of the property. I love it. You can’t ask for much better.”