Nature and golf walk arm-in-arm at The Sanctuary Golf Club, thanks to the care that Kyle Sweet, CGCS, takes to provide and preserve a “special place” for the game.
Kyle Sweet, CGCS, Golf Course Superintendent at The Sanctuary Golf Club on Sanibel Island, Fla., calls the golf facility a “special place.”
And with good reason.
The Sanctuary Golf Club is the only golf course in the United States that is completely surrounded by a national wildlife refuge. That makes working and golfing at the club a bit unusual—but surprisingly, not more difficult—than other golf facilities. Sweet says that everyone at the facility—staff, membership and guests—enjoys the opportunity to be on a golf course that is in lock-step with the environment.
|Super in the Spotlight:
Kyle Sweet, CGCS
Education & Training: Lake City (Fla.) Community College, A.S. in Golf Course Operations; Certified Golf Course Superintendent; CMAA BMI II Training; Certified Arborist
In fact, Sweet says he takes the most pride in assisting the Sanibel Natural Resources Department in the creation of the Sanibel Water Quality Management Best Management Practice (BMP) guidelines. He spearheaded a campaign to not have Sanibel golf courses be subject to a restrictive fertilizer ordinance, suggesting instead that BMPs be implemented to protect the waterways. After several meetings and detailed reports, golf courses earned an exemption to a fertilizer ban. The mayor of Sanibel was so impressed that he dubbed Sweet the “Ambassador of Sanibel’s Golf Courses.”
The formula for success at The Sanctuary has been to provide a complete, high-quality experience for members and their guests. That means outstanding customer service, stewardship of the environment, and excellent course conditions.
“Everyone is supportive of each other,” Sweet says. “And that makes for a great operation. We have a mission and we are all focused on serving it. That makes for a fun experience as well.”
Sweet provided insight into how he helps The Sanctuary team achieve its mission during this interview with C&RB:
Q: What makes managing a golf course that is totally surrounded by a National Wildlife Refuge different and more challenging?
A: The property purchased for The Sanctuary Golf Club was originally 400 acres, but the course and community is now only 200 acres. The other 200 acres were deeded to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. So we are required to provide requests for chemicals to be used on the course, and annual chemical usage reports.
In addition, we manage the edges—the immediate interface areas—differently; we apply fewer or no pesticides along rough areas next to the refuge lands, which total seven miles in length throughout the course. We share the plants and animals along this fringe and understand that our actions on the course can have a direct effect on animals that call the refuge their home.
Q: How have golfers reacted to your environmental practices?
A: Our membership pulls from Sanibel and Captiva Islands. They understand the environmental sensitivity that exists here. I think the task early on was to show that we walk the walk and not just talk the talk.
Our Audubon certification in 2003, and our continued involvement with all of our island environmental groups, have shown that the environment is as much a passion for us as great fairways and smooth, quick greens. Our agronomic practices continue to be sound and are the backbone of our environmentalism. Our members understand that, and they are willing to allow us to close two days weekly, as well as for a week on three separate occasions during aerification in the summer months.
We plant several areas of wildflowers each year and we have worked to get those areas away from play, to avoid increasing the difficulty of the course. Our lake-bank plantings, a key in our Water Quality Management Practices, had to be adjusted once the plants reached maturity, because in many areas the plants were obscuring the view of fairways, rough edges, etc. We worked through that while at the same time stressing the importance of the plantings to the course and community.
|Golf Course Profile
The Sanctuary Golf Club
Q: Given your special interests in environmental stewardship, how have you added to your knowledge in this area, beyond the traditional resources available to superintendents?
A: I am fortunate that I am surrounded by so many environmentally educated individuals. Over 60 percent of Sanibel Island is preserved land. This land is split between several entities, including The City of Sanibel, The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, and the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF).
The Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) is another organization we have been involved with. Not only have we brought injured and/or sick animals to CROW, we’ve had their staff speak at the club, we’ve attended wildlife tours, and we’ve volunteered to help at the animal hospital with a variety of tasks.
I work closely with all of these groups here at the club. Sanibel also has Natural Resource officers that I have learned so much from over the years and continue to work with, on issues such as permitting needs, water quality monitoring, and exotic vegetation surveys and removal. Wildlife Refuge officers have spent many hours on the course and are an excellent resource. SCCF biologists have conducted several studies on the course and are willing to share their expertise.
I have been asked if I have a biology background by members and guests. I tell them no, but I get a lot of on-the-job training. Audubon International has been a great resource as well, and I also have to credit all of the continuing education that our club promotes for its staff, through the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and the Club Managers Association of America.
Q: You had a special challenge with alligators. How did you find a good solution for all concerned?
A: The Sanctuary boasts the healthiest population of alligators on the island, with as many as 20 to 30 counted on surveys conducted by the refuge. It’s not easy for the alligators and golfers to inhabit the same area and not have interaction. As part of our Water Quality Management Program on the course, we have vegetated over 75 percent of our course-side lake banks, which can make basking alligators difficult to see when golfers are looking for their wayward shots. So we installed “CAUTION / ALLIGATOR HABITAT” signs throughout the course, and have also constructed “Gator Beaches.”
To improve our understanding of alligators, Dr. Kent Vliet, Head of the University of Florida’s Biology Department, made presentations to our membership and staff. He recommended installing the Gator Beaches, to give them easier egress and get them out of the golfers’ way.
In one situation we had a large alligator, 9’ 11” in length, that continued to bask on our second tee. It often surprised golfers traveling from the first hole to the second, and in many cases it would not move off the tee. Begrudgingly I called to see about the options for removal, and fortunately found that we could have the alligator removed and relocated to a licensed receptor site in central Florida.
|Course & Grounds Operations Profile
Annual Course Maintenance Budget: $1.7 million
It was very important to all of us at the club to accomplish this successfully. We currently have several large alligators on the property and consistently observe them to make sure they aren’t acting aggressively or posing a threat to our golfer or community members.
Q: You inherited a full bermudagrass surface when you came to The Sanctuary, and then changed to Paspalum in 2005. What has been the reaction of golfers and your team?
A: The reaction of our members has been overwhelmingly positive. For years we overseeded so we could provide the best conditions possible, but this process interrupted the start to the season. Many golfers are already here in November when south Florida finally cools down. The overseeding also created softer, slower conditions that we can now avoid. Paspalum provides for a denser surface in the winter than Bermuda, so we get the color that we did with overseed, and have much better playability.
Transition was also an issue in the past, with our dry April and May down here. That’s not an issue any longer and doesn’t impact the late-season conditions on the course. Our green and grounds team appreciates it just as much. We are much more astute on diseases and conditions for disease pressure. Our equipment managers don’t see the amount of hours climbing up on our machines so quickly, either. This is because paspalum growth slows down and reduces the mowing required to provide the conditioning needed.
Q: You removed about an acre’s worth of concrete cart paths. What surface do you have now?
A: Several years ago, after the course regrassing, we created a committee called the Aesthetics and Playability Committee. It reviewed the course each season to look at opportunities to improve both areas. Our course measures over 6,500 yards and has 75 acres of turf, not unlike the size of many courses in southwest Florida. It has been mentioned many times that our green surroundings are very small and all of these green surrounds had concrete cart paths. The committee wanted to address the “super ball” (as we call it) around the greens, and alternate path material was suggested.
Once we removed the path on one hole and saw what it was going to do aesthetically as well, the process just took off. Now we only have concrete paths at four green areas, all of which are not looking to be changed. We use a concrete manufacturing byproduct called 131 screenings and the paths do require sand pro or steel drag raking and can get dusty during dry times. Many of the paths are irregular in shape and tie into trees and shrubs along the path that used to be mulched and maintained with extra input. If in the future we needed to expand parking lots, create any new facilities, etc., it was to our advantage that we have removed so much impermeable surface since the club’s inception.
Q: You list as one of your job duties as “member relations.” What does that mean, and how might it differ than the role of superintendents at other facilities? How specifically do you work with the General Manager and golf professionals at The Sanctuary to pursue this goal, as well as your overall objectives for the property?
A: Member relations for our staff is to ask each member: “What can I do to help you to enjoy The Sanctuary in any way possible?” That may be traveling the course is search of a club that someone misplaced, or catching a snake that’s in your garage, airing up your bike tires, and jump-starting the car. I also enjoy a lot of one-on-one time with members educating them on the course, vegetation, our maintenance facility and anything else that I think will help them understand and enjoy the club more.
I guess I may be different because I put myself out there in the middle of my membership and work hard to bring them into who and what I am. I’ve been here for a long time, 17 years as Superintendent, and have found in that time that most members want to see staff as part of the property’s family and they do genuinely care about us as employees—so I embrace that!
I personally host activities each year that have built great member relations, including:
1. Green and Grounds Open House
2. Native Plant Tour
3. Spring Bird Count
4. Wildlife Tour
5. Reptile Show (with herpetologist host)
6. Wildlife Explorers (kids and adults on short course tours, to find and count wildlife)
Member relations is also walking into the restaurant after Men’s and Ladies’ Day and discussing anything they want—the course, the weather, last night’s ball game, etc.
I always learn something when talking with members. “Touch” is something that I believe in, big time! A handwritten note, a dozen “found” golf balls in their locker, e-mailing a photo of them playing golf, etc., are all ways that I have built better member relations over the years.
Our golf professionals and General Manager are very much the same. The “family” feel extends to all areas of the club. We all know and appreciate the closeness that each one of us has with our members, and work together to provide a consistent level of service to the membership.
Our mission is to deliver exceptional golf, dining, social, and recreational experiences with outstanding personalized service to all members, their families, and guests in a community of casual and natural elegance. We all work to make our members and guests feel welcome at the club and take the extra effort to provide exceptional service. Our annual membership survey results have continually graded the courtesy of the Golf Course Maintenance Staff as one of the highest member-service satisfaction items. Many might not consider that to be very important, but we sure do.