A Day in the Life of Heathlands
Assistant Superintendent, Scott Littleton
Opening Day on Heathlands starts like most days will this year: with a staff briefing to go over the morning plan.
These early season days are more chaotic, with the new seasonal staff arriving weekly. Orientation for the latest group was held on the previous Monday and payroll is due this coming Monday, which means time-consuming paperwork due before the weekend.
Oh, and there are three golf courses to run.
“It’s one of the toughest parts of our job,” says Scott Littleton, Assistant Superintendent of Heathlands. “We hire 30-40 people every spring -” He stops to review the list of interviews Assistant Superintendent of Toot, Aaron Hill, has scheduled for the afternoon.
“Do you want me to take a couple of those?” Scott offers. Aaron looks a little relieved. “That would be great. Thank you.”
The close working relationship between Scott, Aaron and Hoot’s Assistant Super, Peter Kemp keeps these pre-meeting sessions to a controlled chaos. Everything that needs to get done happens with a few words and a couple of nods.
Many newcomers have never worked on a golf course, “which is good,” says Scott. “They don’t have any bad habits. There is a lot of going over things, then going over things again, then going over things again.” Repetition helps people catch on and “if that happens, we’re successful.”
Success is also determined by how everyone gets along. “We can be in the trenches through the thick and thin and at the end of the day still joke around and want to hang out with each other.” The uniting factor is the collective decision to measure personal success by the success of Osprey Valley Golf as a whole.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t some competitiveness, but it is good natured and constructive. “If Aaron jokes with me that his greens are faster, it’s all fun and games, but I have no problem asking, ‘Hey, what did you do?’ and he has no problem telling me.”
Scott knows there are high expectations on Opening Day. Osprey Valley prides itself on being known for stellar early season conditions, and with good reviews following Toot’s recent opening, it’s his turn. How does he feel about the conditions on Heathlands?
“I felt great about 3 weeks ago. Then we had that ice storm,” he says.
“Three weeks of chainsaws,” chimes in Aaron.
Scott nods, “It was like a bomb went off.” With seasonal staff not yet on site, it meant many long days for the full-timers clearing fallen trees and overhanging limbs. Fortunately, the trees bore the brunt of the storm instead of the grass.
“Our greens wintered well,” according to Scott. “There is still some fine-tuning I would love to do, but it’s ready.”
It is an understatement, but Superintendents see things differently. Being picky comes with the job and makes for busy mornings. But today, on the first tee, there is time to pause and take in the scenery, lit by a rising sun.
Scott has seen the dawn from both sides. “I used to be a D.J. in clubs in Toronto in my 20’s,” he says. Six a.m. was the end of his day rather than the beginning. Then he began working for golf courses. “I ended up enjoying it a lot more. This shows you a different side of life. Chasing the deer off the course and seeing the sun rise. It’s very tranquil.” Then, the inner golfer emerges and he smiles. “I was just thinking it would be a great day to play.”
The first stop of the day is anything but tranquil or scenic. The churning machinery in the pump house across the pond from Heathlands’ first tee supplies water to all eighteen holes, and water is the lifeblood of any golf course. An inspection and recording of water pressure each morning is essential.
“No leaks in the sprinkler system so far this year,” Scott says. The streak ends on the third green. This morning, a sprinkler head requires the first irrigation fix of the year.
cott pulls out his bag of tools and begins taking apart the failing device, stopping once to rub his hands - “That water’s cold this time of year!” In a matter of minutes, the sprinkler head is fixed, re-assembled and tested. “Just like new,” says Scott, and he’s off to Number Four.
Each hole, especially the greens, gets a close visual inspection. A little spot of moss that golfers don’t even notice can quickly turn into a problem. The job is a careful balancing act, to protect the turf while developing a great playing experience for golfers.
Water keeps the grass healthy and growing, but too much makes the greens soft and slow. How much is needed? When in doubt, Scott takes a soil sample. “See? What I thought was dry is actually pretty moist.” It is also an opportunity to check root development. “We don’t want to water too much this time of year. We want the roots to search for water. It makes the plant stronger through the droughts of the summer.”
Everyone wants firm, fast greens, but that’s a difficult feat in the cool, wet spring. To test green speeds, Scott uses a stimpmeter to roll a ball from a controlled height, then measures the results. His Opening Day goal is eight feet and his tests hit the mark. By mid-season, he aims to see ten feet consistently. Eleven or twelve feet is considered ideal, but with Heathlands’ undulating greens, that might be unfair. “I don’t want newer golfers to be frustrated because they’re five-putting every green,” says Scott. “Consistency is as important for playability as speed.”
The detailed work involves taking a lot of notes. “I’m always making lists,” Scott says, making a list. In addition to documenting the conditions, he is planning ahead. “We have a pretty good idea what the staff is going to be doing every morning, whether it’s cutting greens, setting pins or raking bunkers.” In the afternoon, job assignments are created from the morning’s lists.
It comes back to training the staff, not just to get the job done, but also to protect them. New staff members don’t know how to look out for golfers or golf balls. The Assistant Superintendents will often take them to watch golfers tee off and see how easy it is to lose a ball in a blue sky with white clouds. It comes down to experience. “I can usually tell by a golfer’s practice swing if it’s going to end up in the fairway or in the rough.” The mischievous grin returns. “For the most part, I’m pretty safe in the middle of the fairway.”
Scott’s experience as a lifelong golfer also helps. He began at seven when his father would take him out on the local course. “As soon as we were out of view of the clubhouse, he’d throw a ball down and tell me to go whack it.”
As Opening Day approaches, he tries to see the course through a golfer’s eyes. Each task is weighed against the goal to create a great experience for every player. It comes with a price when he gets the rare chance to play a round on his beloved Heathlands. “I love playing it,” Scott says, “but it’s tough for me to focus on the game. I focus on things we can do to improve. My scorecard quickly becomes a notepad: Branches down on this hole. Bugs in the fescue on that hole.” That’s where Hoot and Toot come in handy: “I can play the other two courses and let go.”
His love of golf is “one of the reasons I want to stick around. I will never get tired of playing these golf courses.” It also led to his first turf job in high school when his local course needed hands to rake bunkers. Later, in Toronto, he worked at Rosedale Golf Club for two years, where Superintendent Bob Burrows pushed him to further his education.
After completing the Turfgrass Management program at the University of Guelph, Scott planned to return to Rosedale, but Burrows encouraged him to broaden his experience. It was great advice, and led to Baltusrol Golf Club, the site of this year’s PGA Championship, then another prestigious course, the Fairmont Banff Springs. As much as he loved his time away, it “made me love Ontario more. It made me appreciate what I have here, family and friends,” and the incredible quality and variety of Ontario’s golf courses.
So he returned home in 2009 and found Osprey Valley Golf. To Scott, it was a fluke. Osprey Valley wasn’t hiring an Assistant Super, but he was ready to prove himself. “I told them, I’ll be a tech, I’ll be a foreman, whatever you need.” He got lucky. An Assistant Superintendent job opened up soon after and he got the call.
His supervisor, Heathlands’ Superintendent Scott Brook, remembers it differently. When he met Scott, he was impressed. The interview “wasn’t for an Assistant Super job, but it turned into one.”
Seven years later, neither has any regrets. “Scott is an invaluable part of the team and has become a good friend,” says Brook, noting that everyone appreciates how his sense of humour keeps things light.
Ironically, Scott credits Brook for keeping things light. Scott’s intensity and passion for Heathlands and Osprey Valley are obvious. He admits that he can get worked up when hours are dropping away faster than the tasks on his list. The laid back calm that Brook offers is the right answer. “Sometimes he just takes me aside and reminds me that the grass will be there tomorrow.”
Does it do the trick? Maybe. According to his wife Cheryl, a school teacher, she too reminds him to let go. “Then he tells me that my kids go home, but the grass doesn’t stop growing,” she says smiling. Once, on a vacation to Florida, she was amused to find him constantly checking the Caledon weather reports online.
So, the one-time Toronto club D.J. is now a small town family man with a wife and young daughter, enjoying the longest tenure on his resume. What do the next seven years hold? Will he still be at Osprey Valley?
“I’d love to be,” he says. Ultimately it will be a family decision. He and Cheryl “talk about places we could go.” But she reminds him, “I could go somewhere else and not have what I have here. Another golf course might be less hours or more money, but you may not have the environment, the people you work with, you might not like the course as much.”
“It all boils down to happiness. I’m happy. Why change?”