Carry on

New GCSAA President Keith A. Ihms, CGCS, achieves the pinnacle of his profession despite a void that makes the moment bittersweet.

Howard Richman

Read this story in GCM's digital edition

Carry on: GCSAA President Keith Ihms: photo 1

Keith Ihms. CGCS, oversees the Country Club of Little Rock.
This Arkansas gem was built in 1902, and some members
still play with old hickory sticks.
Photos Joel Schmidt

In times of need, especially when the welfare of others is at stake, each second represents a valuable opportunity for newly elected GCSAA president Keith A. Ihms, CGCS.

Time is precious, something not guaranteed. He knows. His grieving heart tells him so.

There are no stipulations attached, nothing he wants reciprocated for these kind and important gestures from deep in the heart of this Texan. Ihms, director of grounds maintenance at the Country Club of Little Rock (Ark.) has proven in good times and bad that he is a dependable servant who answers the call time and time again.

Just ask golf course architect Keith Foster. He practically needed to duck for cover while standing in front of the members at Bent Tree Country Club in Dallas to deliver renovation proposals.

“The members started booing me,” Foster says, “and Keith is sitting in the front row, giving me a thumbs-up. Later he put his arm around me, says he loved the presentation. In the world we live in today, someone as authentic as Keith is rare.”

Fifteen months ago, Pastor Robert Weiss of King of Kings Lutheran Church in Little Rock was left in the dark after an ice-coated pine tree fell and damaged his parsonage, knocking out power.

“Keith and his wife Nita (her real name is Anita) invited me to come stay with them for a few days,” Weiss says. “That’s how Keith is. If anyone needs help or encouragement, he reaches out.”

Carry on: GCSAA President Keith Ihms: photo 2

Ihms with horticulturist Nathan Britt near the recently dedicated clock behind the 18th green.

What makes the Ihmses’ generosity so noteworthy in this particular act is that they were on the verge of facing end-of-life decisions, a scenario neither Keith nor Nita fathomed only four years after they married.

Three months earlier, Nita had been diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma. According to the National Cancer Institute, it is a rare type of cancer in which malignant cells are found in the lining of the chest or abdomen.

“For them to do that for me, near the end of Nita’s life … the love those two shared was wonderful to see,” Weiss says.

Today, barely more than 13 months since he lost the love of his life, Ihms has arrived at an intersection where personal tragedy meets professional triumph.

Ihms has enriched his industry and asked for nothing in return, but individuals, country clubs and major organizations such as GCSAA rushed to his side in time of heartache. Their encouragement is a driving force for Ihms — GCSAA’s 78th president — as he attempts to continue moving GCSAA forward.

“My country club has been unbelievably supportive, as have our GCSAA members. Their caring and compassion is unreal,” says Ihms, 56. “I received emails from GCSAA members, some of which I only shook their hand, yet they have taken this time to comfort me. That’s what this business is all about.”

From the Aggies to Arkansas

By the time he was 13, Ihms was prepping for his future.

As a youth in Llano, Texas, a small town northwest of Austin known for its abundant deer population, Ihms earned cash doing night watering at a nine-hole course. By day he’d golf there, and the wheels started turning.

Carry on: GCSAA President Keith Ihms: photo 3

Ihms (right, standing) receives a congratulatory handshake
from Quinton Johnson after receiving a turfgrass scholarship
from the Texas Turfgrass Association in 1978.
Photo courtesy of Keith A. Ihms, CGCS

“I knew I liked golf and I knew I liked the outdoors,” says Ihms, who learned the importance of being a volunteer and serving from his mother, Janet, who was in the front row when as a youth he spoke in front of 500 people at a 4-H convention in Chicago. “It was a pretty good life.”

Ihms enrolled at Texas A&M. Oh, he thought about being an engineer until, as he says, “I realized my math skills probably would not make that an enjoyable experience.” Upon learning there was a degree for turfgrass science, Ihms pursued.

His decision sounds like a case of perfect timing.

The legendary Dr. James Beard was the face of the program at Texas A&M during that period, when the rhizotron was developed and groundbreaking work, such as an overseeding system for warm-season grasses, materialized.

Ihms credits Joe DiPaola, a graduate assistant at that time, for helping mold his future. DiPaola, currently global lawn and garden research and development head for integrated solutions at Syngenta, recalls icon Dr. James Watson as a frequent visitor who would go to Beard’s house for dinner and kick around theories way past the 10 o’clock news.

Carry on: GCSAA President Keith Ihms: photo 4

A view of downtown Little Rock from the approach shot to the No. 2 green.

“It was a special moment in time. It created a long-lasting network that paid dividends for the industry and for the individual,” DiPaola says. “A&M was at the center of it. We were building facilities. We were a team. They were creative times.”

When he departed Texas A&M in 1979, Ihms landed his first professional position as an assistant at River Plantation Country Club in Conroe, Texas. His first superintendent job was at Golf Crest Country Club in Pearland, Texas, followed by jobs at Walden on Lake Houston Golf and Country Club in Humble, Texas; Pine Forest Country Club in Houston; and Bent Tree.

Those are the days Clint Ihms, Keith’s son, remembers (when he was a baby, Clint had a case of colic and the only way to calm him was for Keith to cart him around in a golf car during the early hours of the morning). Not only did the Ihmses regularly win the honor of Yard of the Month, Clint was totally convinced he had the coolest dad on the block.

“I got to fly with him on the Texas A&M team football plane in 1998 to a game,” Clint says. “When he did some work for the Houston Oilers, we had season tickets. That’s special stuff.”

Dallas, though, was too big for Ihms’ liking, so when an opportunity surfaced at the Country Club of Little Rock in 2005, he was intrigued. When the club called to ask if he would fly in for an interview, Ihms pounced. In time, the trip proved to be a package deal of sorts. Ihms not only got a new employer. He also found his soul mate.

Finding his niche

This was no time for Ihms to be without his cell phone.

Carry on: GCSAA President Keith Ihms: photo 5

Country Club of Little Rock General Manager/Chief Operating Officer Blaine Burgess (next to Ihms) and Class A PGA Professional Darrell Shelton review restoration plans for the course from 2010.

The February trip was all mapped out nine years ago when Ihms boarded a Southwest flight from Dallas to Little Rock. He would land, jump in a taxi and arrive at the Country Club of Little Rock to interview at 1 p.m. for the superintendent position. Ihms only had been to Little Rock once, when he accompanied the daughter from his first marriage, Cathey, to an Irish step dance competition. It rained the entire three days they were there. His second visit to Little Rock turned stormy as soon as he got into that taxi.

The driver apparently wasn’t well schooled in Little Rock geography. With no GPS and Ihms inexplicably forgetting his cell phone, their trek, which should have taken 20 minutes from door to door, resulted in a nearly two-hour disaster.

“The driver got lost,” Ihms says. “He couldn’t find the place. He took me to every other course (including the Country Club of Arkansas). At one point he asked me, ‘Has this course been here very long?’ I told him it has been here since 1902. By then, I was in panic mode.”

Finally, with only 90 minutes of his fourhour allotted window at the country club remaining, Ihms arrived. “There was someone standing outside the front of the club waiting for me,” Ihms says, “but a couple of people on their committee who had been there to meet me already had left. For a second I thought that nothing was going to come out of this fiasco.”

Carry on: GCSAA President Keith Ihms: photo 6

Country Club of Little Rock GCSAA Class A superintendent Brandon Wright, whom Ihms calls his “right-hand man,” on the 17th fairway.

The moral to this story: Showing up late for an interview doesn’t necessarily equal doom.

“When he came in for his interview, I was so impressed at his calm demeanor,” says Dr. John Moore, a member of the Arkansas Golf Hall of Fame and president of the Country Club of Little Rock when Ihms was hired. “He came in and apologized for being late, told us the story, and he said, ‘If I may, would you let me just talk about myself and what I think is important in a superintendent’s job, and what I would do and what I wouldn’t do?’ He basically took over the interview process in a very calm and assured manner.”

Moore noted that in the club’s history it had only employed a handful of superintendents. Ihms, who no longer was seeking steppingstones, ultimately joined that small fraternity.

“Point is, we try to hire a good man. And when we’ve got a good man … we like longevity if you’ve got the right person,” Moore says, “and I liked everything about Keith.”

Carry on: GCSAA President Keith Ihms: photo 7

Ihms and the heartbeat of his staff. To his left is Britt; back row, from left to right, are service technician Jeff Brewer; assistant superintendent Kyle Bunney; Wright; and spray technician Josh Majors.

The Country Club of Little Rock is nestled in the Pulaski Heights neighborhood on the eastern edge of town. It features breathtaking views of the downtown skyline and stages an annual four-ball event that has been a fabric of the club for nearly a century. The club even has welcomed a guy named Bill Clinton before the Arkansas governor became president of the United States.

Politicians seem to know how to work a room, accumulating supporters with often just a smile and a kind word. Ihms quickly gained their trust at the club.

“He’s one of those guys that kind of grows on you,” says Hayden Franks, greens committee chairman at the club. “The more you get to know him, the more you think of him.”

Unparalleled work ethic doesn’t hurt.

“That sucker works a lot harder than most doctors,” says Franks, a dermatologist. “Keith and his staff (featuring assistant Kyle Bunney, superintendent Brandon Wright and equipment manager Jeff Brewer) made the business of the greens committee easy. The course looks so good that it looks like we’re doing our job well.”

Wright says, “He’s good about giving us opportunities to try to grow ourselves.”

Byron Freeland, former club president, insists Ihms is a rare breed. “When he tells us something, we don’t have to second guess it. It’s his attention to detail,” Freeland says. “I’ve never heard anybody criticize the superintendent, and that is unusual. That is remarkable, actually.”

The silent treatment works in that instance, but Ihms is vocal. His ability to communicate resonates from his staff to the clubhouse.

“Keith and I are very close,” Country Club of Little Rock PGA professional Darrell Shelton says. “I try to find out more about what he’s doing than what I tell him I’m doing. He’s always seemed to have great direction on what he wants to accomplish.”

When Ihms tours the course with general manager/chief operating officer Blaine Burgess, there is a routine that has come to be expected.

Carry on: GCSAA President Keith Ihms: photo 8

Ihms discusses mowing patterns with Jesus Salcido.

“Every time I go out there (golf course), he’s pointing something out, whether it’s a tree dying or a green that’s not getting enough sunlight,” says Burgess, who admires how Ihms meshes with everybody from the entry-level laborer to past board presidents. “We do something like a checkbook accounting system every week so I can see where he stands. He kind of stands above because he is so organized and detail oriented — not only on the golf course but also in his administrative duties. It’s just the overall package that he brings to the table.”

A major renovation in 2010 reunited Ihms with Foster, who eventually landed the renovation job for Bent Tree several years earlier. Now, the Country Club of Little Rock secured his services for a redesign.

“I saw Keith through the design lens, construction lens and the technical lens,” Foster says, “and he was fantastic. I love to see my work better than it is. I told him, ‘You made my work better than it is.’ I say that, even though to this day when he sees me he boos me.”

When Nita died, Foster spoke that morning with Ihms. In fact, they spoke often after she was diagnosed. Turn on the col “He handled it far better than I could have done it,” Foster says. “How does that not shake you to the core? Every time we’d hang up, I’d think ‘Keith is such a wonderful man.’ So many people care about Keith. His impact is wide.”

The Country Club of Little Rock’s patience and support during Nita’s illness still moves Ihms.

“The club has been tremendous, and I want them to know it,” says Ihms, a 33-year GCSAA member. “The club has a huge amount of tradition. But it’s about the people there.”

Moore says, “We try to make Keith feel part of the family. It was wonderful he had that support. It didn’t surprise me.”

Coping with tragedy

The phrase “What a difference a day makes” is so cliché. In the case of Keith and Nita Ihms, it’s so right.

Neither Keith nor Nita had found love for years after their first marriages dissolved. Like thousands of others, they joined the dating revolution and signed up for eHarmony, hoping to find love at first click. Even that, however, wasn’t doing much for Nita.

“She had a trial membership,” says Nita’s sister Teressa Robinson. “She was not going to renew it.”

Nita was on her final day of that trial when it happened, and isn’t that often the case in a love story, that something falls into your lap when you least expect it? Keith, who was at peace in his work and enjoyed hunting and collecting coins, rocks and arrowhead artifacts, still was missing a key piece to his life. He gave eHarmony a try, too. Nita’s profile proved to be intriguing. The feeling was mutual.

Their first date included a walk across the Big Dam Bridge. Keith laughs as he recalls his hands sweating like a 16-year-old’s as he took Nita’s hand in his, a connection that grew stronger daily.

“When I moved here from Dallas, it was for both personal and business reasons,” Ihms says, “and I actually found both things that I was looking for.”

Nita loved flowers, iced tea with lemon, freshly made guacamole, asparagus and strawberries. When her daughter Kalli graduated from nursing school, Nita beamed. When Kalli was studying to become a registered nurse, Nita often spent days and nights taking care of Kalli’s daughter, McKinley Grace, who called Nita Nana.

Carry on: GCSAA President Keith Ihms: photo 9

The wedding picture of Keith and Nita Ihms from Nov. 14, 2009,
at the Crescent Hotel
in Eureka Springs, Ark.
Photo courtesy of
Keith A. Ihms, CGCS.

A year after Keith and Nita met, they were married Nov. 14, 2009. Ask anyone and they will tell you this pairing was destiny.

“Nita was amazing. She brought out the best in him,” daughter Cathey says. “He was even better when they were together.”

Orlan Ihms, Keith’s oldest brother, says: “The two of them fit like gloves. He glowed.”

Robinson says her sister adored Keith. “She had finally found her knight in shining armor,” Robinson says.

Ihms’ mettle would be tested when his father Lester, who was Keith’s hero because of how hard he worked without ever raising his voice, became ill in 2012. Later that year, in September, Ihms returned to Little Rock from a GCSAA board meeting and they received the news of Nita’s illness. One month later, Lester Ihms died at the age of 97.

Once Nita’s illness was diagnosed, Ihms was regularly by her side with his club’s blessing. It is one reason why he feels so indebted to them.

Nita’s daughter Jennifer Campbell watched as Keith accompanied her mom on every doctor visit and set alarms to ensure Nita received each dose at the precise time. “They put needles in her lungs twice a week to drain fluid yet she hardly ever complained,” Ihms says. “She did what she needed to do though she knew she wasn’t going to survive it and at the same time she still worried about everyone else.”

Anita “Nita” Faye Ihms died Feb 23, 2013. She was 57.

“They were over the top for each other. It’s heartbreaking to me that I can’t help him more,” Campbell says.

The thought of her often still brings tears to Ihms’ eyes. She loved to travel, and not having her by his side when he embarks on numerous journeys that come with being GCSAA’s president hurts.

Carry on: GCSAA President Keith Ihms: photo 10

Ihms checks on the irrigation system for the 16th green.

“I know she is proud of him and thought he would be a great president,” Robinson says. “This will be very good for him in several ways. The first year is always hard. This will keep him busy, if you know what I mean.”

Wally Smith, who was general manager when he hired Ihms at Bent Tree, is certain GCSAA has its man.

“I told him 25 years ago he’d be president,” Smith says. “He spoon-fed me, taught me everything about the business, shared everything freely. You couldn’t find a better guy.”

The clock is ticking on his time in office. Ihms plans to make the most of it. For himself. For the Country Club of Little Rock. For GCSAA. For Nita.

“It’s a big responsibility, and I take it seriously,” Ihms says. “It will be sad, not having her there. They tell me as time goes on things that make you sad will make you smile. So that’s what I’m hoping for.”

Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.

Man with a vision

GCSAA member classifications. Field staff. Rounds 4 Research. China. PGA of America and United States Golf Association.

This is by no means a multiple-choice quiz, but Keith A. Ihms, CGCS, certainly could be a man with the answers.

As he settles in for his term as GCSAA president in 2014, Ihms has an agenda of ideas. A key target: Coming to a resolution and possible reduction on the total of member classifications, which currently includes more than a dozen.

“Do we want to simplify it? If I had a goal, I would hope that the board of directors this year would be able to, by the time of the Chapter Delegates Meeting (in October), say, ‘This is what we think. What do you think?’ We need to decide,” says Ihms, director of grounds maintenance at the Country Club of Little Rock (Ark.).

Ihms also ponders expansion for GCSAA’s field staff, which has grown to nine individuals who cover the nation’s membership chapters. Ihms envisions some regions with two field staff members.

“An example is maybe in the D.C. area there’s a person who can help in government relations,” he says.

Capitalizing on Rounds 4 Research’s success in 2013 is another objective for Ihms.

Administered by the Environmental Institute for Golf (EIFG) and presented in partnership with The Toro Co., Rounds 4 Research has raised approximately $175,000 for turfgrass research and education. A crucial factor is ensuring the end users support the program.

“The ones hitting on the tee are the beneficiaries of that program,” Ihms says. “They’re the ones who are benefitting from the research.”

GCSAA’s international footprint has widened in recent years. Ihms hopes to build on those relationships, including in China, where GCSAA supports industry trade shows and education. Expanding staff devoted to international efforts should be considered, he says. Ihms likes GCSAA’s positioning as it looks ahead, with the goal of becoming the global leader in golf course management by 2020. He says GCSAA’s relationships with the PGA of America and USGA are evolving and becoming stronger, which is important to GCSAA’s future status.

“We’re going to be involved in some of their initiatives, whether it’s growing golf or pace of play. We serve an important role in that because our association has the boots on the ground that can affect it,” Ihms says. “We all want the same thing because if we don’t grow golf or we don’t make golf more enjoyable, none of us are going to be happy.” GCSAA has weathered bumps in the road. Ihms, though, realizes the journey is far from over.

“Financially, I think we’ve done a good job and we’re sound. We’re smaller, obviously. We on our board don’t like it smaller because it’s a dollar number, so it impacts our programs overall,” Ihms says. “We feel we’re in a good position, but that being said, we still have to stay very diligent in what we’re doing.”

 — H.R.