From the January 2017 issue of GCM magazine:
GCSAA Col. John Morley Distinguished Service Award recipients Nick Christians, Ph.D., Patricia Vittum, Ph.D., and golf course builder Brent Wadsworth have each made an impact that has left a legacy.
Photos by Amy Vinchattle (Nick Christians, Ph.D.), John Solem (Patricia Vittum, Ph.D.) and Eric Ginnard (Brent Wadsworth)
Read this story in GCM's digital edition »
Their reach stretches far and wide, touching lives and communities across the nation and beyond. In the academic world, Nick Christians, Ph.D., and Patricia Vittum, Ph.D., initiated groundbreaking research that has made a difference for turfgrass professionals, and golf course superintendents are very much included in that group. Brent Wadsworth, meanwhile, built hundreds upon hundreds of golf courses, keeping superintendents in mind while doing it.
The trio is being honored with the 2017 GCSAA Col. John Morley Distinguished Service Award (DSA), named for the association’s founding father. The award is given annually to individuals who have made an outstanding, substantive and enduring contribution to the advancement of the golf course superintendent profession. They will be recognized Feb. 7 at the Golf Industry Show during the Opening Night Celebration, presented in partnership with Syngenta, in the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando.
“These three embody what the Col. John Morley Distinguished Service Award represents,” says GCSAA president Pete Grass, CGCS. “They have made significant contributions to the game through research, teaching and golf course construction. In a variety of ways, these individuals have dedicated themselves to the broader advancement of the superintendent profession.”
Here, GCM chronicles how Christians, Vittum and Wadsworth have helped advance the industry.
Patricia Vittum, Ph.D.
Whether it’s field hockey or the annual bluegrass weevil (ABW), a competitive spirit runs deep inside Pat Vittum, Ph.D.
Perhaps it comes from her mother, who, appropriately, is named Win. On her first day at the University of Massachusetts, Win attended an English class. “The professor looked disdainfully at the students and said something to the effect, ‘I am not surprised to see so many girls in here. You can’t handle the sciences.’ She left the class vowing to major in one of the sciences, and eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree with high honors in botany,” says Vittum, a Phelps, N.Y., native. Her father is Morrill Vittum, who was an agronomist at Cornell University and a fellow of the American Society of Horticultural Science.
Vittum has certainly scaled grand heights in her profession, winning accolades for her achievements along the way. A former all-state field hockey goalkeeper for two years in her days at the College of Wooster (Ohio), she is a professor of entomology in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and once called the prestigious USGA Green Section Award that she received “the Heisman Trophy of the industry,” comparing it to the ultimate prize presented to the top college football player.
She’s similarly thrilled about being awarded a DSA. “I looked at the list of previous winners; it looked like a list of hall-of-fame golf course managers,” says Vittum, who’s also in the College of Wooster Hall of Fame. “To think that my name is now on that list is an incredible honor.”
And an honor well deserved says Tom Leahy, CGCS at Sleepy Hollow Country Club in Scarborough, N.Y., and a 24-year GCSAA member. “She’s so well regarded, respected, liked by everybody. That’s a testament to the type of person she is,” Leahy says. “She was on the leading edge of helping superintendents. The go-to person.”
Patricia Vittum, Ph.D., has worked at the University of Massachusetts since 1980. Her efforts in research, particularly of the annual bluegrass weevil, have aided superintendents over the years.
Photo courtesy of Patricia Vittum
Vittum’s extensive work for more than four decades in entomology — much of it focused on the identification and control of ABW — thrust her into the world of golf course superintendents in the mid-1970s, a time when some superintendents in the New York metro region were scrambling for answers. ABW is particularly damaging to Poa annua and creeping bentgrass. The larvae feed in the turfgrass crowns, and each individual larva can kill as many as 10 plants.
“There were those of us who were losing collar areas, fairways, and superintendents were the ones getting in trouble for it,” says Ted Horton, superintendent in those days at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y.
As a graduate research assistant at Cornell University from 1975 to 1980, Vittum set up shop at Winged Foot. Horton cleared out an area next to his office for Vittum to do her job, and superintendents raised money to supplement her research. “My kids, who were young then, called her ‘the bug lady.’ She collected plugs, laid them out on the table, and the kids helped her pull them apart, looking for larvae and other insects,” Horton says.
Vittum’s dedication never wavered, Horton says, even if her mode of transportation was suspect. “She drove an old Plymouth that our mechanic kept running. She’d take off in a puff of smoke. We wondered if she’d ever get back,” he says.
She did return. Often. And not only to Winged Foot, but to many other places in the region that depended on her expertise. Eventually, ABW spread to the New England area and into Ontario and Quebec.
“In the entomology world, she was the one,” says Mike Maffei, CGCS at Morefar Golf Course in Brewster, N.Y., and a 45-year association member. “It (ABW) affected many of us. It’s a tough insect — still is. But it’s not as bad as it used to be. She discovered that the main issue was the timing of applications. She was instrumental in giving us a plan, no doubt about it.” Scott Niven, CGCS, a 37-year GCSAA member and property manager at The Stanwich Club in Greenwich, Conn., says, “She eats, sleeps and drinks what she does.”
Vittum studied under Haruo Tashiro, whose 1987 book “Turfgrass Insects of the United States and Canada” was the first comprehensive work on insects and other arthropods that are destructive to turf in the U.S. and southern Canada. She served as senior author of its second edition in 1999. When she wasn’t teaching or researching, Vittum participated in countless turfgrass conferences here and abroad. She intends to remain active in the industry after retiring in March from UMass, where she has taught since 1980. Her plans include a third edition of the book.
Just maybe, all of this was meant to be. As a college student, Win Vittum lived in the home of professor Lawrence Dickinson (a 1958 DSA recipient) and his family, earning her room and board by doing housework there. Dickinson, by the way, created the turfgrass program at UMass.
What has driven Vittum all these years? Her mother Win had much to do with that. “I don’t like to lose,” Vittum says.
Nick Christians, Ph.D.
Sometimes it takes nothing more than a phone call for veteran Iowa State University instructor, researcher, author and innovator Nick Christians, Ph.D., to change lives.
“I’m sitting on my dorm room bed my freshman year in college at Northern State University (in Aberdeen, S.D.), and I get a call from Dr. Nick,” says Joe Livingston, CGCS. “He says, ‘I hear you’re studying environmental science, but all you’ve done is work on a golf course.’ Next thing he tells me is that he’s setting up my transfer next semester to Iowa State.”
Livingston, son of late superintendent Bob Livingston, had never been to Ames, Iowa, which is home to Iowa State. Yet that call from Christians was enough to convince him a change was in order. He enrolled and would graduate, and his degree would take him other places, including where he is today. Livingston, a 23-year GCSAA member, oversees River Crest Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, and he remains in frequent contact with Christians, whom Livingston says has a special way of connecting with people.
“I spent a lot of time around him, and he knew your life,” Livingston says. “If a grandparent died, he knew. He knew your birthday. I had a classmate who told me that the adviser he had didn’t even say his name properly when he walked in the door. Dr. Nick was the opposite, and I’m a microcosm of his life. You could talk to hundreds of others like me who had him that will say the same thing.”
GCSAA Class A superintendent Ross Laubscher, a 16-year association member who attended Iowa State and works at Entrada at Snow Canyon in St. George, Utah, says, “He’s given his life to his profession and to us. You go to Nick’s class and you learn things that are going to help you in your career, and he could make what you learn stick.”
Nick Christians, Ph.D., has been a teacher, researcher and mentor
at Iowa State University for more than three decades. The patent
he earned for a pre-emergence herbicide for weed control had
a major impact on the industry.
Photo by Amy Vinchattle
A fixture in Iowa State’s horticulture department going on 38 years, Christians has mentored more than 1,000 students, many of whom have become industry stalwarts. Christians, who originally wanted to be a wildlife biologist, certainly proved to be a pioneer in the business. A prime example is a breakthrough he made concerning herbicides. In 1986, Christians produced a pre-emergence herbicide for weed control made from corn gluten. His discovery was patented, and it was licensed to more than 20 distributors for use on turf and home gardens.
“It came about by accident. It was just an observation from an unrelated study,” says Christians, who is from Kanawha, Iowa. “I was working with another faculty member, using cornmeal to grow a fungal organism.”
Christians received 22 percent of the patent royalties, paid to him over a span of years from Iowa State. Although he would secure more patents in time, that first one was quite a treasure. “I felt elated. A patent looks good on your résumé. Not everybody has them,” says Christians, who, with his wife of 46 years, Marla, has two sons, Lance and Timothy, the latter of whom is a superintendent in the Chicago area.
He also is the author of several books, perhaps the most notable being “Fundamentals of Turfgrass Management,” which was first released in 1998 and is expected to be available at the Golf Industry Show next month in Orlando. The fifth version was updated with the help of two of Christians’ former students: Purdue University’s Aaron Patton, Ph.D., and Purdue graduate research assistant Quincy Law.
For those like Dan Bergstrom, Christians helped shape some memorable life chapters. Bergstrom, who was previously groundskeeper for the Houston Astros and currently oversees the field for the Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer, was initially a journalism student at Drake University. He was working a summer job on a golf course during college when he met Christians, who spent a considerable amount of time one day telling Bergstrom about Iowa State’s turfgrass program and all the opportunities that could come of it.
“I’ve been on an amazing ride. If I don’t meet with Nick that day, end up going to Iowa State, get the turf bug, none of this happens,” Bergstrom says. “Nick opened doors for me that I really had no interest in even trying to open.”
A former superintendent himself (Christians worked for two years as superintendent at Pueblo West Golf Course, which now is called Desert Hawk at Pueblo West in Pueblo, Colo.), Christians recalls his office upon arriving at Iowa State. Stationed in what previously was the botany building, he describes the space as having holes in the roof, bats and squirrels as tenants, and no elevator to his fifth-floor desk. “I carried my books. It was exhausting,” he says.
Ultimately, it was worth the climb — for Christians, and for all of those who scaled impressive heights on their own by following his lead.
“He guided me. His knowledge of the industry, his passion for it, was pretty contagious,” says Jeffrey Kadlec, who runs GLK Turf Solutions in San Antonio. “It’s kind of cliché, but he had an open-door policy. I never saw his door closed. He was always there for us. Very present.”
You could say Brent Wadsworth benefited from insider knowledge when he recorded a hole-in-one on May 20, 1982.
The blessed event happened on No. 4 of the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Fla. A perfectionist at heart, Wadsworth certainly put his heart and soul into that particular golf course. He did build the place, after all.
Brent Wadsworth entered the golf course construction business in 1958, and his company is still going strong. Wadsworth Golf Construction’s profile of customers includes Augusta National Golf Club.
Photo courtesy of Wadsworth Golf Construction
There is a pretty good possibility that you’ve played on a golf course Wadsworth built. Wadsworth Golf Construction Co., established in 1958 in Plainfield, Ill., has built or remodeled nearly 900 golf courses in 47 states.
“Golf is such a great game. I have pursued it all of my life,” says Wadsworth, who will turn 88 in March. “I’ve gotten to know mountains, lakes, rivers and prairies.”
The industry is better because of him, golf course architect Michael Hurdzan, Ph.D., says. “His work transcends this whole industry. Everybody knows the name Wadsworth. He built that reputation by doing outstanding work,” says Hurdzan, who received GCSAA’s highest honor, the Old Tom Morris Award, in 2013. “In my mind, he is the first national golf course builder. I really think Wadsworth set the trend for what the business ought to be. He set the model. Everyone else had to live up to it.”
One of the courses Wadsworth’s company did some work on was Augusta National Golf Club, home to the Masters. “The golf course industry is a small world with a great family of people,” says Marsh Benson, who was superintendent at Augusta National at the time. “I think what glues that family together and makes it seem tighter in relationships has to do with the development of young individuals through mentoring. That mentoring causes ripples to flow through the industry, and I can think of no better example than Brent Wadsworth and his company as representatives of this mentoring rippling through our industry.”
Wadsworth’s passion for the land can be traced to his roots as a young boy who lived at 956 Buell Ave. in Joliet, Ill. “It started as a kid, mowing our lawn. I loved trying to make it look good,” he says. In time, he studied landscape architecture at the University of Illinois before serving in the U.S. Air Force, working for the National Security Agency, an intelligence organization launched in 1952. “We were instrumental in trying to keep track of what might affect our country in one way or another,”
What happened next had everything to do with golf. In 1954, Wadsworth joined golf course architect Larry Packard to form Packard and Wadsworth. Four years later, Wadsworth decided to shift his attention to golf course construction, launching his own business during the time the emergence of Arnold Palmer was revolutionizing the game. “I liked to get outside, work with the ground,” he says. “Back in those days, they didn’t have as many golf courses. Fortunately, it came at the right time in my life. Golf was expanding.”
Among the courses his company has built are Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky., The Country Club at Castle Pines in Castle Rock, Colo., and Shadow Creek in Las Vegas. Wadsworth constructed all four courses at Innisbrook Resort, each of which was designed by Packard. No matter the architect, Wadsworth always had one goal. “You wanted to please them. You wanted to do what they wanted — that was my goal,” Wadsworth says. “They were behind the design; I tried to provide for their interests.”
Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.