Austin Lawton, Golf Course Superintendent of Forest Lakes GC, networked with turf industry leaders to receive donations of goods and services to upgrade the golf course.
In his 11 years in the golf course maintenance field, Austin Lawton, Golf Course Superintendent of the Forest Lakes Golf Club at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College (ABAC) in Tifton, Ga., has learned a thing or two. At the nine-hole public golf course, which also serves as an instructional lab for ABAC turf students, Lawton also teaches future industry leaders a thing or two. And Lesson No. 1 is: Never underestimate the power of networking.
Shortly after becoming Forest Lakes’s Superintendent, Lawton, a 2011 ABAC graduate himself, realized that the course’s limited budget would force him to use a little creativity to implement much-needed irrigation and turf improvements.
“You need to give 100 percent and think outside the box and network,” he says. “But at the same time, you need to be patient. If you’re patient, something good will happen.”
|THE GOAL: Golf Course Superintendent Austin Lawton wanted to find ways to improve the playability and conditioning of Forest Lakes Golf Club with a limited budget, to give valuable hands-on experience to turf students in an economical fashion.
THE PLAN: Lawton networked with turf industry leaders to receive donations of goods and services to upgrade the golf course. Turf students who work on the golf course use these resources to learn about maintaining golf courses and sports turf.
THE PAYOFF: The golf course has received improvements to the playability and conditions of the nine-hole layout. Contributing businesses have the opportunity to showcase their products and build relationships with students, who can continue the bond with these companies at future places of employment.
That patience first paid off after Lawton approached Joe Hayes, the John Deere representative for his area, at the 2013 Golf Industry Show in San Diego and explained his needs. Hayes put Lawton in touch with Kevin Johnson, the National Sales Manager for Hunter Industries, a San Diego-based manufacturer of irrigation equipment.
After visiting Forest Lakes, Johnson worked with Lawton to forge a partnership through which ABAC would receive free products and services, while Hunter Industries would get the opportunity to build relationships with the students that, Johnson expects, will pay off for his company as those students take their familiarity with Hunter products to future jobs in the golf course maintenance and sports turf industries.
Through the partnership, Johnson also teaches a construction and irrigation class at ABAC each semester. Seven of ABAC’s 75 or so turf students also work on the golf course, and Johnson helps them install irrigation one hole at a time. So far, installation has been completed on two holes and the driving range, and the group will work on another hole this fall.
In the next five to 10 years, Hunter Industries will replace all of the nearly 200 sprinkler heads at Forest Lakes, along with three control boxes. The company’s donations have totaled $30,000 in value to date, Lawton says.
“We’re doing things to the golf course that the students need to learn, and not just irrigation,” Johnson says. “We also need to do work on the pump station, clubhouse, greens, and tees. We’re looking at the big picture.”
Johnson is also launching an internship program at his company, and his association with ABAC will help him get to know students who could potentially fill some of those positions.
Lawton’s networking efforts have also secured these other donations:
• $3,000 worth of Tif-Tuf Bermudagrass sprigs from Dr. Brian Schwartz, who has researched and developed hybrid Bermudagrass at the University of Georgia campus in Tifton. “It gives us experience with Bermudagrasses that we can put on the golf course, and he can study [the results],” Lawton notes.
•$2,000 toward a $7,000 overseeding project from Pennington Seed, which has also donated $18,400 worth of overstocked and out-of-date fertilizer. “We’ve fertilized areas we’ve never fertilized before, and it has enhanced the look of the golf course,” Lawton says.
• The use of a Bobcat skid steer, provided by Brown and Cox Well Drilling, to remove several trees from the course and renovate the driving-range tee box, saving the property $9,600.
• A $1,200 ball washer and about $2,500 to thin out woods around the eighth green, from Dr. Larry Moorman and his wife, Debra, who owned the golf course before they donated it to ABAC in 2002.
Lawton is aware that being part of an educational institution certainly helps his cause. But he’s also learned the importance of being proactive and persistent, even when those he approaches for assistance aren’t always receptive at first. “Repeatedly going back to companies and meeting people helps,” he reports. “If I continue to negotiate with them, something will come out of it. [And if] a company donates a little money to products and services, it will see the long-term potential.”
Hunter Industries’ Johnson agrees. “Part of my job is to find solutions like this everywhere,” he says. “We’re always looking for opportunities like this. We do this a lot for other programs that benefit underprivileged kids. We think this is really going to pay dividends for us down the line.”
Efforts will continue in November when Forest Lakes holds a fundraising tournament for leaders in the turfgrass industry. Lawton, Johnson, and Anthony Williams, CGCS, an ABAC alumnus and former president of the GCSAA Georgia chapter who now works at the Four Seasons Resort in Texas, are organizing the tournament. They also hope to have PGA Tour players help with publicity and make an appearance at the event.
“The tournament will raise money to put back into the golf course and forge relationships with partners,” says Lawton. “We’re not just trying to get free products from them. The students also get to see their products and get hands-on experience working with them.
“The reason ABAC has a golf course is for teaching purposes,” he adds. “What sets us apart from other golf courses is that we’re able to experiment on the golf course because we’re a learning lab. Everything I’ve tried to do, I’ve tried to fulfill the mission of the college.”