August 2016

Drought and Dollar Spot

A Day in the Life of Heathlands
Superintendent Scott Brook

The sun comes up a good half hour later than it did just a few weeks ago. That doesn’t mean the day starts any later. By 5:15am, Osprey Valley Golf’s Superintendents Scott Brook (Heathlands) and Dave Hunter (Hoot and Toot) are wrapping up their morning meeting. Today’s focus: how to manage this busy Friday.

Scott offers the use of one of his crew to help out on short-staffed Hoot, but Dave demurs. For the time being. With three golf courses and three crews, help is just a radio call away.

This morning, one such radio call adds an item to the top of Scott’s task list. A golf cart sitting by the first tee of Heathlands needs to be towed back to the maintenance building. He heads there as the sun starts to peek over the horizon. After a brief pause at the seventeenth green to admire the sunrise - a beauty even by Osprey Valley standards - Scott continues to his destination.

What he finds is worse than expected. The cart’s front right tire is bent to an almost 45 degree angle, likely the result of a close encounter with the rock wall alongside the path between the clubhouse and the first hole. Evidently, someone was a little too eager to begin their round.

The cart can’t be towed without risking further damage, so Scott and head mechanic Jason Sharples muscle it out of the way of golfers and staff. They will come back later with a loader to retrieve it, adding one more job to both men’s busy day.

As he starts down the first fairway, Scott takes his time. He is on the lookout for early signs of dollar spot, a fungal disease that can create round, straw-coloured discolouration of patches of grass about the size of a silver dollar that have begun to make a limited appearance. 

To the untrained eye, these signs are barely noticeable, but Scott knows that one small instance can quickly become a cluster that will damage or scar the turf. He and Heathlands’ Assistant Superintendent Scott Littleton monitor known trouble areas and limit outbreaks with proven cultural practices, such as snaking the dew off of the fairways in the morning, maintaining turf fertility (low levels of nitrogen can encourage growth), and conservative water use. Spraying with fungicide is a last resort and is undertaken only when necessary.

The two Scotts meet up and Littleton updates Brook. “The spots on four haven’t really progressed,” he begins - a good sign. After a quick briefing, the two continue on their respective rounds.

“Fridays we try to nip this stuff in the bud. S-Rock [Littleton] will be going hard today to get a lot of this stuff done because this is his weekend on. He’s motivated,” Scott says, laughing. It is critical to stay on top of things. A long weekend with more golfers and less staff mean fewer opportunities to monitor conditions and fewer hands to act if an outbreak begins.

The Superintendents and Assistant Superintendents put in long hours, working alternate weekends. That means a schedule of twelve 10-12 hour days on and two days off putting in 10-12 hour days, Scott lets Littleton know that he is ready to come in if conditions have changed in the morning and an extra pair of hands are needed.

Another addition to the day’s work comes in the form of a small walking mower that has just undergone repairs. Given the nature of its work - setting a clean edge between the greens and collars around them, Scott wants to be the first to use it. He tests it out on the first green and examines the result, then calls the operator on the radio and has him come retrieve the mower.

With the morning’s disruptions out of the way, order is restored. Briefly. Beside the second green, Scott finds Littleton leaning over a stationary riding mower that is leaking hydraulic fluid. The problem is a minor one … for the machine, anyway.

“Unfortunately, hydraulic oil and grass don’t mix very well.” Scott explains. “It will leave a fair sized dead spot that S-Rock will end up cutting out and replacing from our nursery.”

Scott keeps his good nature despite the challenges crammed into the first hour. “It’s been a bang up day so far,” he laughs. “Well, it gives us something to do … but I think we could have found enough other things.”

Atop the elevated fourth green, Scott enjoys the vista overlooking a large part of Heathlands. Though he loves all three OVG courses, Scott readily admits a soft spot for his own. “We’re not a total links course, but we’re pretty close,” he says. “There are people who love this style of golf,” such as the group of three Toronto doctors, originally from the UK, who play Heathlands every Wednesday and some Saturdays.

A golfer since the age of ten, Scott regards Heathlands - as many people do - as one of Hall of Fame architect Doug Carrick’s finest works. The real character of the course, he says, is found in and around its greens, with their levels and swells and high-edged bunkers. “There’s an attitude to them and it’s not always a friendly one.”

The intimidating approach to the fourth green is a great example, especially on a windy day, and there are many such days given the open terrain of the course. Though it has a smaller footprint than either Hoot or Toot, Heathlands has its own maintenance challenges. The wind combined with the swells and hilltops means the course can dry out quickly and unevenly, especially in this season’s unusual weather.

Summer came late this year, but arrived with a vengeance. The hot and dry weather has given the season a perpetual late summer feel, says Scott. “Everything’s kind of weird right now. We’re even seeing the geese flock to places they don’t normally go until September.”

Osprey Valley has been more fortunate than many through the dry spell. Water is more abundant up on the escarpment and adjacent to the Credit River than it may be elsewhere. Still, irrigation ponds reached their late season levels by the end of June and the Superintendents have had to be conservation-minded when it comes to water use.

In Scott’s case, the fact that Heathlands is a Scottish-style links course, and not typically expected to be as lush as some others, is helpful. “It should be hard,” he says enthusiastically. “It should have some burned out edges. We like to see some brown out here.” Likewise, the hearty bentgrass allows for some leeway in dry conditions “because it will go dormant, but eventually it turns into another D word.” Brown is fine, dead is not.

Hand watering isolated dry spots is one way of limiting water use while not overwatering other areas, though it is labour intensive. “We’ve got guys pulling hoses daily to keep things alive so that we don’t have to run the sprinklers all the time.” The targeted watering approach focuses on elevated and exposed areas as well as underneath large trees where big roots compete with turf for whatever moisture is available.

Other steps can be taken. Venting is a less invasive form of aeration that helps water penetrate the soil when hard, dry greens begin to repel water. Scott had planned to vent the greens on the previous Monday, but ironically, the task had to be postponed by a long overdue thunderstorm.

Unfortunately, the storm was a silver lining that came with a cloud. The sudden, large volume of rain following the long dry spell led to washed out bunkers on all three courses. After three straight days of hard physical work to return the bunkers to the high conditions Osprey Valley is known for, the dry heat returned and on Thursday, many of the staff were sent home early for a much needed break.

“There’s always something that will interrupt the routine,” Scott says. He is no stranger to hard work and early mornings, a tribute to a childhood spent on a small family farm in Manitoba.

Like many young golfers, Scott turned his interest in the game into a summer job at his local course, which led him to enroll in the turf management program at Olds College in Alberta. Upon graduation, he had to choose between job offers. One was from Osprey Valley Golf. 

The deciding factor between jobs was that he’d never been to Ontario: “I figured ‘what the heck?’ There are 54 holes, there will be something for me to do.” He arrived in Osprey Valley in April of 2001 as a seasonal labourer on Hoot. “I pretty much lived in those bunkers for a few months” preparing the course for its opening day around Canada Day in 2001.

Still, Manitoba remains home for Scott and family is important. He gets back to see them every winter and each summer his parents come out and visit for a couple of weeks to “do some golfing” and, even better, his mom Claudette, “a great cook … fills my freezer for me.”

How does a seasonal labourer become Superintendent? Scott laughs, “I don’t know. Lucky I guess.” Modesty can safely be added to his list of virtues. We know there was a lot more to it. Calling Scott a fixture at Osprey Valley Golf would be a vast understatement. He and the Hunter brothers, Dave (Superintendent of Hoot and Toot) and Mike (Director of Horticulture), are all mainstays from those early days and form the nucleus of a team that has come to be known as one of the best in the business.

The three often go snowmobiling in the winter and both Dave and Mike have been out to the farm to spend time with Scott and his family. The three Assistant Superintendents share their dedication and pride and are very much a part of the circle of friends.

The men are united by their passion for Osprey Valley and by very close friendships. Asked if Scott is like a brother, Dave is quick to reply, “No, he IS a brother.”