Matt’s Memories: Why we’ve got to look backward to move forward

By |  March 17, 2023 1 Comments

The labor market is tight, supply chain issues are real and the cost of goods is skyrocketing! What is a superintendent supposed to do if these trends continue?

Sometimes, looking back at how the industry has changed may provide some solutions moving forward. I thought it would be interesting for you all to understand where the industry was 49 years ago and how it has changed since.

In 1974, at the ripe old age of 21, I graduated from college, got married and became a golf course superintendent. I had been an assistant for two seasons at two clubs and figured I’d jump right in at a club called Meadia Heights Golf Club in Lancaster, Pa. The club’s claim to fame was that it was where Jim Furyk started his career.

Lower tech

Meadia Heights was a small operation by today’s standards. We had an assistant, a mechanic, six additional employees and me. We triplexed greens and used a nine-unit pull gang for fairways and a five-gang for the rough. My wife cut both. She was an exceptional tractor operator; she knew how to use posi-lock and steering. She never had a spin or scuff, and her fairway edges were far superior to the edges of a triplex today.

We trimmed under the trees with a Jacobsen walking rotary (these mowers were nearly bulletproof). The mechanic fabricated a bracket to hold a 3-gallon gas can on one side, and you hung your lunch on the opposite side. You left the shop in the morning and returned at quitting time.

We sprayed some harsh chemistries, but we sprayed far less. We boom-sprayed greens with an old Cushman Truckster and a Thuron boom sprayer. We sprayed fairways with a pull-behind 400-gallon sprayer, a 20-foot boom manually lifted, and the only control was on/off. We clipped a chain to the end of the boom to leave a scuff mark so we knew where to start the return pass. Weeds were the primary target. Disease was seldom a problem because we seldom watered fairways.

Bunkers were edged and weeded by hand, and, of course, being an equipment junkie all my life, I owned one of the first riding bunker rakes called a Groomer. It had a manual lift rake, three speeds plus a reverse shifter behind your back and a Wisconsin Robin engine. We were blown away by how fast we could rake bunkers.

Manual labor

When I first started, we cut greens with 321 Jacobsen fixed-head mowers set at 3/16th of an inch on greens and Jacobsen estate mowers for tees. We cut approaches with fairway mowers and collars with a 321, set at a quarter inch.

National triplexes with manually lifted heads cut green and tee banks. Heck, we had some Ryan aerators that you manually lifted the aeration tines. I struggled with these when I was an assistant at Shawnee on the Delaware, and our superintendent Bill Templeton would yell to us, “I’ll make men out of you boys yet!”

While we are on the subject of aeration, we had old topdressers that would nearly run over you hourly as you walked them backward. When you engaged them, they would leap forward! If you had a slow reaction time, this was a very bad machine for you to operate.

Our tools were more fundamental, but our golf courses were so much fun to play because it was more about playability and less of a beauty contest.

In my next column, let’s talk about how those philosophies have changed as a result of innovation.

I encourage interaction, so please ask me questions. Most of you know it is nearly impossible to hurt my feelings, so bring on all criticism and believe me, I’ll make it easy for you.

Photo: Matt Shaffer

Photo: Matt Shaffer

Matt Shaffer, a longtime superintendent, is the owner of Minimalistic Agronomic Techniques (M.A.T.) He was previously the superintendent at The Country Club in Cleveland, Ohio, and is director of golf course operations emeritus at Merion GC, Ardmore, Pa., where he hosted the 2013 U.S. Open. Reach him at

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1 Comment on "Matt’s Memories: Why we’ve got to look backward to move forward"

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  1. Ludell of Rockbottum CC says:

    Excellent article. Write some more. This sentence should be a whole semester:

    ” . . more about playability and less of a beauty contest.”

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