Customer Spotlight: Sycamore Hills Golf Club

Sycamore Hills Golf ClubIn order to help promote our customers and show our appreciation to them, we occasionally put the spotlight on one of our customers and feature them on our blog, promote them on social media, and mention them in our email newsletter.  The spotlight customer for January 2017 is the Sycamore Hills Golf Club, the only nationally ranked Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course in the state of Indiana.

Located in Fort Wayne, the club officially opened in July of 1989 when Jack Nicklaus and Tom Kelley played the first round of golf, and ever since that time it has been racking up awards and honors. The most notable among those include:

  • Being ranked in Golf Digest’s list of “America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses” in the years 1993-2003 and 2007-2011
  • Being ranked in Golf World’s list of “America’s 100 Best Golf Shops” in the years from 1994-2001 and again in 2011
  • Hosting the 8th USGA Women’s State Team Championship in 2009
  • Hosting the 2010, 2011 and 2012 Junior PGA Championships, and the USGA Junior Girls Championship in 2013,
  • Hosting the 2013-2015 tour finals
  • Being named a top 5 finalist in Golf Inc.’s Renovation of the Year Contest in 2016

The club itself is located on a beautiful 750-acre piece of property that includes mature trees, gentle hills, a housing development, and the Aboite River, with the course itself occupying about 300 acres. Responsible for maintaining the turf on the course is superintendent John Thompson, who has been with the club since 2013. He recently spoke with Kenney Machinery about his experience as superintendent at one of the premier private golf clubs in the country.  Here’s what he had to say in response to our questions:

In your opinion, what is most unique about Sycamore Hills Golf Club?

“There’s a few things that stand out in my mind that make us unique, starting with the fact that we’re a Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course. Jack personally knew the family that founded the club, and before construction began they told him to “Give us your best design.” It’s pretty amazing to think that he was out here actually walking around and playing the course.

“Another unique thing about Sycamore is that it’s a very spread out course with a lot of creeks running through it. They didn’t move a lot of dirt around when they built the course; instead they used the natural landscape and built the course around it. It’s very welcoming, but also very challenging, which is part of the reason we’ve hosted nine major championships in eight years.”

What accomplishments are you most proud of during your tenure as superintendent?

“Within a week after I started my job here, the owners of the course got bought out by three new owners, who wanted to do a mass renovation of the course. The renovation involved putting in Billy Bunkers, installing new greens loops around all the greens, and many acres of re-contoured fairways. 

“Balancing a golf course renovation in between major tournaments with guidance from the PGA and working with the Nicklaus design staff was hard work, and the fact that we pulled it off so well is what I’m most proud of so far. A big part of that is the seasoned crew I have, who came through with flying colors. We have had great reviews from the players, who got to see all the changes we were making as they came back year after year. “

Aside from major renovation projects, what challenges do you face in maintaining the turf at Sycamore Hills on a day-to-day and season-to-season basis?

“I think that right now the hardest thing for me and a lot of other superintendents in this industry is finding good part-time employees. It’s hard when you can’t afford to pay them as much as you’d like to, but still expect them to care about the work as much as the full-time guys do. As we always tell the seasonal workers we bring in during the summer, for most of us this is our “real” job. It’s a career that we’re very passionate about, and we’re proud of the results we’ve achieved as far as getting in the top 100 rankings on a consistent basis. The hardest part of my job is getting the seasonal workers to care about the job as much as my core group of guys do.”

Is there anything you wish your customers knew about things that go on behind the scenes that are required to maintain the turf?

“Sycamore Hills is a very challenging course to water because there’s so many microclimates. We have 4,000 sprinkler heads out there since it’s such a big property, but it is still tough. One thing I’ve done is try to keep fast, firm conditions every day that would be up to tournament standards. I try to stay one step ahead of the members so that they never have anything to complain about. 

“One unique situation that we have is that our maintenance facility is about a mile away from the clubhouse, so many members don’t even know where it is. We’re out of sight and out of mind, which in a sense is a good thing, since you want golf course maintenance to stay more or less behind the scenes.”

What advice would you give to other turf professionals?

“I think a lot of superintendents are fortunate because we love what we do. We have a great office to work in. If we didn’t love what we do, we probably wouldn’t do it. I’ve had a lot of good mentors over the years, and my philosophy is that if you hire people who are smarter than yourself, and surround yourself with good people, that you’ll be set up for success. 

“I would also tell newcomers to the industry not to be afraid to ask questions. I love assistants or even guys on the crew thinking about getting into the turf business who ask questions like, “Hey, why are you doing this?” It makes everybody better, and it’s important to stay up on all the current processes and practices out there. There’s always a better way to do something, so keep an open mind and always be on the lookout for ways to improve.

“The last thing I’ll say is this: doing this job and balancing it with family life is very important to me. I’ve got five kids, and my boys work on my crew, which is awesome, but it’s still definitely a balancing act for the hours that we work.”

How has Kenney Machinery supported you during your time at Sycamore Hills?

“They’ve got great sales people. I consider my salesman one of my best friends. I know that he’ll go above and beyond, if there’s anything I need. Obviously, I’m all Toro here. We have Toro irrigation. We have Toro turf equipment. I wouldn’t change that for the world. If they don’t have the answer for you, they’re quick to find somebody else who does have the answer, which I appreciate. That’s what’s expected of a superintendent as well if you don’t have the answer, you’re expected to get and find somebody that does. As far as Toro’s parts and service goes, there’s nothing that even compares in my opinion.”

Many thanks to John for taking the time to share his experience with us, and for being such a great customer. We’re happy to add the title of “Kenny Machinery Spotlight Customer” to Sycamore Hills’ long list of accolades.