The industry loses 2 celebrity superintendents

By and |  January 18, 2019 0 Comments
Steve Wright and Eric Swenson (Photo: Seth Jones)

Steve Wright (left) was a friend to many in the golf industry. Here he is with Eric Swenson, Floridian National GC, at a Palm Beach GCSA chapter meeting at Rees Jones’ Breakers West Course. (Photo: Seth Jones)

It was a sad time for two families and the golf maintenance industry recently as news spread of the passing of two celebrity superintendents.

Both men were based in Florida at the time of their deaths, but their impact was felt beyond the borders of any single state. Jimmy Ellison, 68, was well known around the world for his work alongside Arnold Palmer, and also as the longtime superintendent at Bay Hill Club. And Steven Wright, 61, was well known in the industry as an integral part of the Florida GCSA, a columnist for Golfdom and a mentor to many.

We pay tribute here to both men by profiling Jimmy and Steve and the impact they had on the industry and the people in it.

Jimmy Ellison, 1950-2018

Jimmy Ellison (Photo: The Ellison Family)

Jimmy Ellison’s distinguished career led him from superintendent at Bay Hill Golf Club to golf executive to golf course design and agronomy consultant. (Photo: The Ellison Family)

When the life of Jimmy Ellison was memorialized at the Bay Hill Golf Club in Orlando, Fla. in mid-November, there were tears and hugs between those who knew and worked for Ellison over his many years in the golf industry.

But rather than maudlin, the event was a celebration of Ellison’s life and the often enormous impact he had. Jimmy Ellison certainly touched the lives of many people in the golf industry and beyond during his 68 years of life.

“It reminded me of a reunion,” said Danny Aylwin, superintendent at Oceanside G&CC in Ormond Beach, Fla. “There were lots of people from the golf business that have been in it for their whole lives. There were good stories and memories of how Jimmy had crossed and affected all of our lives. Bay Hill was a perfect setting for Jimmy’s last hurrah.”

It would have been fitting if the fragrance of freshly mown grass had filled the air; it was like nectar to Ellison’s innate and keen superintendent’s senses.

Ellison passed away Oct. 16 after a long illness. He had a distinguished career in multiple phases of the golf industry, starting out as a part-time employee of the maintenance staff at the Brentwood Golf Course in Jacksonville, Fla. (working for his dad, Gary, who was the course superintendent), to golf course superintendent, to golf industry executive, to golf course design and agronomy consultant.

A great listener and teacher

Ellison took over as superintendent at Bay Hill Golf Club in 1972 after Arnold Palmer purchased the course, and served in that post for 20 years. When Palmer and IMG renamed and reorganized as The Arnold Palmer Golf Management Co., Ellison was promoted to vice president of agronomy, overseeing the company’s properties throughout the world. At the same time, he also was involved in the Palmer Golf Course Design Co. He left the Palmer group in 2010 to start his own consulting firm, but one of his clients (the Country Club of Orlando) enticed him into becoming its superintendent. He retired a few years later because of his illness. He had been a scratch golfer most of his life.

Jimmy Ellison golfing (Photo: The Ellison Family)

Not only was Ellison a master of turf, he also was a scratch golfer. (Photo: The Ellison Family)

Humorist Will Rogers once said he never met a man he didn’t like. And apparently, no one who ever met Jimmy Ellison didn’t like him.

“We met at a Central Florida Golf Course Superintendents Chapter meeting,” remembered Joel Jackson, a retired golf course superintendent and former executive director of communications for the Florida Golf Course Superintendents Association. “I learned all about major tournament preparations, which served me well when Disney began hosting a fall PGA Tour event several years later. I saw his organizational skills in action and learned the best way to prioritize the various operations to best use the available manpower.”

Jackson said Ellison “was a good buddy to shoot the breeze with” about work, family and life issues. “Professionally, he helped me get to a life/career-changing level in golf.”

During a visit to Augusta, Ga., during the Masters, Ellison introduced Jackson to Arnold Palmer. “In 1991, Mr. Palmer and his company were partners with a real estate venture developing a new private country club and real estate development called Isleworth in nearby Windermere, Fla. After the course was built and had begun operations, Jimmy called me and asked if I’d be interested in assuming the superintendent’s position. I had 14 years with Disney at that point, but the opportunity to work with Mr. Palmer was just too big of an incentive to turn down.”

When the developers bailed out and began terminating higher-salaried staff, Jackson was on the list. “Several Disney execs had moved into Isleworth. When they heard I was going to be available, they offered me the opportunity to return to Disney. But every time I saw Mr. Palmer at the Bay Hill event, he always had a kind word and a handshake for me. That relationship was made possible by my good friend Jimmy Ellison.”

Peter McDonough also says he forever owes a debt of gratitude to Ellison for recommending him for the superintendent’s position at Keswick Hall and GC in Charlottesville, Va. He had worked for Ellison at Turtle Creek GC in Rockledge, Fla. “He recommended me for this job 27 years ago, and I’m still here. I worked for Jimmy for a few years when I was in my early 20s, and I was able to learn a lot of things about how to properly care for a golf course from his perspective.”

McDonough said that Ellison’s advice always “guided you to the best solution of any issue,” adding, “he was a great listener and ultimately a great teacher. He always had a clear and calm approach, which brought out the best of your abilities.”

Seen in magazines

Tommy Alex, recently retired superintendent of Grand Cypress GC, about four miles from where Jimmy Ellison held court with The King for years at Bay Hill, remembered Ellison as a friend and a man who impressed him from the get-go.

“Back in the 1980s, Jimmy was doing advertisements for Palmer ryegrass seed, and he was one of the first superintendents to do that. When I met him, I was so impressed because I had seen him in magazines,” Alex says. “Jimmy knew his stuff. I don’t think I have ever been around a man who was so humble and down to earth. He had a high-profile job working for Arnold Palmer but he never displayed any arrogance. And he traveled all over the world. I would call him quite a bit and ask his advice on matters and he always helped out, even though we were competing to some degree because our courses are so close to one another.”

Alex played golf with Ellison “15 or 20 times,” and he recalled him as a talented player. “I could beat him from tee to green, but he had a great short game,” Alex recalls. “I always paid him at the end of the round.”

Being generous and giving in all ways, it’s likely the money didn’t stay in Jimmy Ellison’s pocket for long.
— J.T.

Steve Wright funeral program (Photo: Seth Jones)

In a touching ceremony, Wright’s daughter Casey read his Arnold Palmer tribute column during his funeral. (Photo: Seth Jones)

Steve Wright, 1957-2018

Not only was the Advent Lutheran Church in Boca Raton, Fla., beyond capacity, its parking lot was equally overwhelmed.

A full parking lot wasn’t going to deter any of longtime superintendent Steve Wright’s colleagues. The ditch alongside the church was packed with pickups, a makeshift parking lot for the many superintendents in attendance.

Justin Jeffery, who worked with Wright early in his career, flew in on the redeye from Salt Lake City to pay his respects to his friend and former boss. He called Wright a passionate leader who pushed people to achieve their best.

“Any time I had an issue or was looking at a move, I would consult Steve. He was always willing to share his knowledge and experience,” Jeffery says. “He drove us to become detail oriented and not miss all the little things. I tried to give him credit as a mentor for my success at building Victory Ranch (Kamas, Utah), but he did not want credit and said to me, ‘That’s all you, man!’ Steve wanted more to be known as a friend and not my old boss… that’s how he would introduce me — ‘my friend.’ I’ll miss my friend.”

Good at everything

Joel Jackson remembers meeting Wright years ago at a Central Florida GCSA chapter meeting when Wright was an assistant superintendent at Sugar Mill G&CC, New Smyrna Beach. After he was promoted to superintendent, Jackson says Wright became an active member of the Florida GCSA.

“To me, Steve was the embodiment of the ideal young superintendent that we’d all like to see become involved in the whole picture of what being a superintendent entails,” Jackson says. “That means getting involved in stewardship, outreach, chapter functions and projects. Steve did those things in a responsible manner and his stature in the industry grew along with him. I can’t recall his entire résumé of courses, but I do know after establishing a solid reputation, he took a successful job at Hilton Head, and after a tour of duties in the Carolinas he returned to Florida with stops in Boca Raton, and lastly at the historic Pine Tree CC. You don’t land those jobs unless you are a true professional with great turf management knowledge, a good communicator and a good manager of resources and people.”

Steve Wright and Seth Jones (Photo: Ted Bokern)

“Our time working together was too short,” Golfdom EIC Seth Jones says of Wright, “but I’m thankful that our paths crossed.” (Photo: Ted Bokern)

Brian Birney, superintendent of the East Course at the Club at Admiral’s Cove, worked for Wright as an assistant at Boca West. “Steve was good at everything he did — growing grass, playing golf, having fun with his family,” Birney says. “He knew when to put his foot on the gas and when to take it off. After a long week of aerification, he’d have us out on his boat. The first week of March Madness he’d let everyone out early. He just got it, and I definitely learned a tremendous amount from him in the time I worked for him.”

Birney says, “(Wright) was tough to work for if you didn’t have the work ethic. He was very demanding, but also rewarding. But as good of a boss as he was, he was a better friend.”

‘Refuse to fail’

Wright hired Wesley Dinsmoor when he was fresh out of Colorado State University. Dinsmoor started as an intern under Wright and worked his way up at Boca West for 11 years, up until Wright took the superintendent position at Pine Tree, Boynton Beach, Fla. That’s when Dinsmoor was promoted to superintendent at Boca West.

“I owe a whole lot to Steve Wright, I wouldn’t be where I am today without him,” Dinsmoor says. “Just look at the number of guys from this area who were there at his service. There were a lot of guys who came up from under him and have gotten great jobs. He pulled a lot of guys forward and helped them get placed. I really believe he is one of the guys who has helped take our profession from a blue-collar job and elevated it to a true profession.”

Dinsmoor, like Birney, says Wright was demanding of his leadership team and the crew.

“I won’t say that he wasn’t tough and demanding. He was huge on details. He told me that it was the details that put an average course above the rest. He used to say, ‘There is the wrong way to do things, there is the right way to do things, and there is the Wright way to do things,’” Dinsmoor laughs. “It was clear that he took his job seriously and it was clear that he loved what he did.”

A memorable moment Dinsmoor recalls was on Wright’s last day at Boca West. Wright and Dinsmoor drove the four golf courses at Boca West all day, so Wright could bid farewell to as many employees and members as possible.
“Steve told me that day, ‘Refuse to fail. Remember, there are good days and bad days, but you must always refuse to fail.’”

Birney says he’ll always remember Wright’s “Steveisms” and his hilarious one-liners. Trips to the Masters and concerts like Sublime and Florida Georgia Line were always filled with laughter and classic Steve moments. But his most memorable one-liner was when Wright was offended by the conditions of a course the two were about to play.

“Goosegrass is a prevalent weed here in Florida, and you really have to stay on top of it,” Birney says. “Well, there was some goosegrass right there on the way to the first tee. He looked at me and said, ‘Nothing says I don’t give a (flip) like when you have goosegrass on the walk up to the first tee!’”

A caring father

Wright leaves behind a rich and colorful golf legacy. Among his many accomplishments, he served as president of the Carolinas, the Low Country and the Palm Beach GCSAs. He was the vice president of the Florida GCSA at the time of his unexpected death. He worked as a superintendent in both South Carolina and Florida, overseeing numerous course constructions and renovations. He was a voice of the industry, both with his Golfdom column, “I’m Just Saying,” and his active Twitter feed.

But growing grass wasn’t his only skill. Justin Jeffery says his greatest accomplishment was as a family man.

“Steve always looked at career changes and career moves with his family in mind first. He did what he and Sheree thought would better provide for them. I admire his ability to navigate that,” Jeffery recalls. “Steve’s love for his wife and kids was so apparent. He was very proud of Casey, Pierce and Bayley. At some point in every conversation we had, he would always ask how my dad was, knowing our relationship and being a caring father himself.”

KC Henderson, superintendent at Adios GC, Coconut Creek, Fla., says he tries to emulate Wright as an example of a great superintendent, and also as a great family man.

“We lost someone important in the golf business, but he was even more impressive as a family man,” Henderson says. “He and (wife) Sheree were attached at the hip. His relationship with his wife and family, that’s what to model your own family relationships after.”
— S.J.

Find one of Wright’s “I’m Just Saying” columns here.

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