In addition to caring for a 96-year-old golf course that has ties to Tom Bendelow, Jeff Sexton’s duties at Evansville (Ind.) CC also entail tending to over 13,000 annual flowers and more than 200,000 honeybees.
While studying to be a golf course superintendent, Jeff Sexton, CGCS, knew he would spend much of his time managing turf. He also figured he would do a bunker renovation at some point during his career. And no doubt there would be an irrigation upgrade to be completed, too.
What the Superintendent at Evansville (Ind.) Country Club [ECC] didn’t anticipate, though, is that his career would also eventually entail taking care of 13,000-plus annual flowers, and tending to more than 200,000 honeybees. Those features, and more, are just a part of Sexton’s philosophy and approach for delivering an outstanding experience to club members. And being a resident of the city since his early teens, he brings an ample amount of hometown pride to his position as well.
“The flower project was started by the previous superintendent Gary Shetler [who is now the club’s General Manager] in the early 2000s,” Sexton says. “To save money, instead of buying plants, I decided to grow them from seeds, which allowed us to provide more flowers.
“We plant the seeds in our 3,000-sq. ft. greenhouse in early February. Our varieties include Vinca, Lantana, Impatiens and Petunias. I believe we have the biggest display of flowers of any club in the country.”
A big hit at the club, the flowers are displayed at tee boxes, and also presented as gifts to members. At the beginning of the season for the ladies’ club, each participant is given a hanging basket of flowers. A flower pot is also given out to attendees at the Mother’s Day Lunch.
The bees came along when Sexton introduced them in 2015 to prove a point. Frustrated by the negative publicity that bees were being killed by pesticides, he introduced five hives off the 14th hole, because he knew that bees are extremely important to the plant ecosystem as pollinators, transporting pollen to plants and enabling them to grow and produce crops. The club was leery of the project, Sexton says, but he eventually won them over.
“I was very apprehensive sitting in front of Gary [Shetler] telling him what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “But I got the green light.
“We now produce six to seven gallons of honey from the hives each year,” he says. “We call it ECC honey, and let me tell you, it is in high demand. Our chef is first in line. Then we sell the rest to the membership and put the money back into our operations. I’m told there is no better honey than ours.”
Working so close with the hives and bees, the obvious question is, has Sexton ever been stung? “Oh yeah, a few times,” he says. “It doesn’t feel very good.”
But overall, Sexton’s career has been a feel-good story, as he described in his conversation with C+RB:
C+RB How did you decide to become a golf course superintendent?
Sexton When you have a father [Tony] who was a golf course superintendent, an uncle who worked for him and then another uncle who was a superintendent, golf is naturally a frequent subject of your conversations. I began helping my dad on the golf course when I was 10 years old by picking up the wooden tees. If I did that, he would allow me to drive his golf cart around the course. I began helping him to do other things as I worked through high school and when I was home from college. But I made the decision on my own. My father really did not encourage or discourage me. He wanted me to do what I wanted to do.
C+RB Who were your mentors in the profession?
Sexton My father taught me the importance of attention to detail and of having a strong work ethic. He was such a hard worker and it made an impression on me. When I was an assistant working at Rolling Hills Country Club in Newburgh, Ind., Brad Coole, CGCS, was—and still is—the superintendent. He taught me the importance of communications, of being a professional, and of getting involved in your professional associations for the education and networking opportunities.
One thing that [Brad] shared that stuck with me is that the golf course belongs to the members, not me. So it is important for me to listen to them and communicate with them. I have a column in the club newsletter, do a member e-mail every two weeks, and maintain a Twitter account. I get good feedback and they appreciate knowing what we are doing on their course.
C+RB What is your biggest golf course management challenge?
Sexton One reason we are doing an in-house irrigation project is we had an uneven application of water. So we are replacing some heads, plus we are extending lines so we can reach the edges of the fairways and roughs. The original system was installed in 1987, so it was time.
The other issue we have is flooding from Pigeon Creek, which runs adjacent to the golf course. We have had some discussions with the Corps of Engineers to see what can be done. It would be at our expense, so we are looking at options right now. And one thing we have done to help our turf quality is to have a strong tree removal program.
C+RB What has been the impact of your recent bunker project?
Sexton That was one of the best things we have ever done. The history of bunkers here was that we would renovate a few every year and then when we got all 67 done, we’d start over. In the meantime, there was so much maintenance needed on the older bunkers and they would get muddy.
So I decided we were going to do a project in-house with the Better Billy Bunker liner system. It took us four years to do the front nine. But the results were amazing. There was better drainage, the sand was consistent, and the look was cleaner. The membership decided to give me more resources to finish the back nine in one year, because they liked the results so much.
C+RB What makes the course fun to play, yet challenging?
Sexton We have an unusual layout, with the front nine being a par 34 and the back a par 37. We have tight fairways and a lot of undulations in the greens. So you better keep it in the fairway and you better be a good putter if you want to get a good score.
We are not really long, so you might think it is easy to play, but we can hold our own. They call Doral the Blue Monster— I call us the “Short Monster.” That makes it fun, but challenging.
C+RB What does the club offer to members?
Sexton We are full-service. We have a great junior golf program, laid out by our Head Golf Professional, Nick Haudek. We have swimming. We have tennis. We do a lot of events, including weddings and parties, and meetings as well. Our food and beverage is significant, as we have a huge social membership. As for golf, we host several Monday outside events for groups and businesses.
C+RB What is your membership demographic?
Sexton That has changed over the years. Today, we have businessmen, retired couples, families—it’s across the board. I heard that in the 1990s, our average age was closer to 70. I’d say it’s closer to 50 today. We offer a little bit of something for everyone.
C+RB I understand that Arnold Palmer once made a big impression on the club?
Sexton I think it was 1964, and someone arranged for Arnold Palmer to come do an exhibition. People still talk about it. They said we had 5,000 people come out to watch him play a match against a young club member, Jerry Schreiber. Jerry actually beat Arnold by one stroke on the front nine, shooting a 32. But on the back nine, Arnold shot a 33 and Jerry had a 37. That was a big day around here.
C+RB What has changed most in golf course management during your career?
Sexton It’s been this way for a while, but labor is tight. Not only for our staff, but especially in finding assistant superintendents. The schools are not producing as many turf students, so the top 100 courses get them as assistants. If we get them, they are here a short time and then move on to higher-paying positions.
So I made a decision to stop chasing the assistant and divide that salary among a few guys who had been here a long time. I figured they know everything about the course, they are loyal, and they can handle things when I am gone. Why not reward them? That might be a bit controversial, but I think it is something others should look at doing.
Also, I really do not get caught up in the issue of high or unrealistic golfer expectations. That is what we signed up for when we got in this profession.
Evansville (Ind.) Country Club
Golf Holes: 18
Yardage: Championship Tees, 6,200; Member Tees, 5,900; Women’s Tees, 5,100
Ownership: Private/Member Owned
Course Designers: Front 9 designed by Tom Bendelow prior to 1924. The course added an additional 9 holes, plus redesigned the front 9, with the help of William Tucker from 1926-1927. The course was renovated again by Bill Diddel in 1945, and by Gary Kern and Ron Kern in 1992.
Year Opened: 1900 (as Social and Fishing Club). Golf course opened as a 9-hole course in 1908.
Golf Season: April 1–October 31 (year-round, weather permitting)
Annual Rounds: 13,500
Fairways and Tees: Meyer Zoysiagrass
Greens: Penncross/Pennlinks Bentgrass mix
Water Features: Two ponds (both in play; one for irrigation); Pigeon Creek adjacent to the course
Water Source/Annual Usage: Pigeon Creek; 12 million gallons
Super in the Spotlight
Jeff Sexton, CGCS
Current Position: Golf Course Superintendent, Evansville (Ind.) Country Club
Years at Evansville CC: Eight
Years in Golf Course Maintenance Business: 20
• Golf Course Superintendent, Henderson (Ky.) Country Club, 2010-12
• Golf Course Superintendent, Madisonville (Ky.) Country Club, 2004-05
• Assistant Golf Course Superintendent, Rolling Hills Country Club, Newburgh, Ind., 1999-2004; 2005-10
Education & Training: B.S., Turfgrass Science, Purdue University, 2002
Certifications: GCSAA Certified Golf Course Superintendent
Honors and Awards:
• Tri-State GCSA Superintendent of the Year, 2011 and 2014
• President, Tri-State GCSA, 2013-14
• Board of Directors, Midwest Regional Turfgrass Foundation, 2013-19
Course + Grounds Operations Profile
Staff Size: Eight full-time; seven seasonal
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules: Aerate greens twice a year (March and September, solid tine)
Upcoming Capital Projects: Releveling tees; extending irrigation to rough; acid injection system added, to neutralize high pH levels in water.