Stuck in a rut as a bus company supervisor, Joe Wachter parlayed a chance meeting into a career change that then went full circle, to entrust him with care of the historic golf course at Glen Echo CC.
One day, Joe Wachter was a location manager with a school bus company, supervising 150 people.
The next, he was restarting his life as a 32-year-old assistant golf course superintendent at Sunset Country Club in St. Louis.Mo. Some 30 years later, he is the highly respected Golf Course Superintendent at historic Glen Echo Country Club in the St. Louis suburb of Normandy, where his road to success has been paved by hard work and a refreshing perspective on life.
“At the bus company, I realized that at some point I was going to have to get out,” Wachter says. “I was in a rut and there were changes coming that I did not see as advantageous for me. But it was not as if I was actively looking. You might say I was open to a change.”
His “opening” came at a golf fundraiser that was held at Glen Echo in 1990 for the Mississippi Valley Golf Course Superintendents Association, an affiliated chapter of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA). He was asked to play by his brother Ed, himself a golf course superintendent in the St. Louis area. Also in attendance was Lee Redman, the Superintendent at Sunset CC.
“Lee mentioned that he was losing his assistant and that piqued my interest,” Wachter says. “I did not say anything because I had no turf background. But the course was only two miles from my house, and it had a great reputation—in large part because of Lee.
“So I called my brother and got his opinion. He said to call Lee and mention his name, which might help in getting an interview. I got the interview a few days later, [and] walked out with a job”
Sunset CC offered Wachter an excellent opportunity to learn the business. There was a good-sized staff and ongoing green- and bunker-replacement projects.
With two-plus years under his belt, Wachter got his first head superintendent position at New Melle Lakes Golf Club in 1993, where the resources were not near as plentiful. He went from a staff of 18 employees to six, but the job afforded him a chance to see “how the other half lived.”
In 1996 he moved to Eagle Springs Golf Club in St. Louis, and in 2002 he crossed the Mississippi River to run Spencer T. Olin Golf Course in Alton, Ill.
In 2008, Glen Echo had an opening and he was selected. His career had come full circle from when he sat on the club’s patio nearly 18 years prior and first met Lee Redman, to now being the Superintendent for the course that hosted the 1904 Olympics.
“It’s funny when you look back,” Wachter says. “Lee had a back injury and did not play [in the 1990 event]. He was not going to come that day, but decided to join the group for dinner. If he had decided not to come out, I’m not sure where I would be.”
C+RB How have you compensated for not having a turf degree in your work?
Wachter It’s been a combination of on-the-job experience and taking classes at Meramec Community College and courses offered by the GCSAA and its local chapter. But most of all, I take the perspective that I’m not afraid of smart people. I’ve asked a lot of questions and reached out to people like my brother, Tim Hiers, Oscar Miles, Gordon Witteveen, David Stone, Ted Horton and Bob Randquist. They’re some of the best in the business— why wouldn’t I ask for their advice or opinions?
C+RB You’re also active on social media. Is that a learning platform as well?
Wachter Social media can be a cesspool, but if you use it right, it can be a very powerful tool. It’s a good way to contact many people and get quick feedback and also to communicate with your club and members. I started to read blogs by superintendents Chris Tritabaugh and Sean McCue, and saw how they used them to communicate to their club members. Then I started my blog (http://geccgcm.blogspot.com), because it’s a good way to explain what you are doing.
C+RB How were you first exposed to golf?
Wachter We moved to St. Clair, Mo., from the Cape Girardeau area when I was about 10 years old and my parents joined Sullivan Country Club, a little 9-hole facility where they also had a swimming pool. I had an uncle who was an avid single-handicap golfer. I still have his old JC Higgins blade putter, but do not use it nearly as well as he did.
C+RB Do you feel your “other” career has helped in your superintendent career?
Wachter I learned business and management skills at the bus company. While we grow grass, we are also in the people business.
I also learned a lot from my father. He was a high-school football coach, and got into the pizza business on the side. It grew so much that he got out of coaching. He believed in hard work and always trying to improve. He was never content with being “good enough.”
I began working for him in seventh grade, at 75 cents an hour. I put in a ton of hours, but learned so much about running a business. It really comes down to being willing to work hard.
When I went to college at Southeast Missouri State, I needed a job, so I started driving a school bus. They liked my work and dedication, so they offered me a management position with the company in St. Louis after I graduated.
C+RB You had a stint as Glen Echo’s General Manager. How did that come about?
Wachter Our GM had to take a leave of absence, so I threw my hat in the ring because I felt I had the skills from my other jobs and of course from turf management. I was appointed to the position, but walked into a bit of a firestorm as we had some turnover in the food-and-beverage area.
So instead of being in a director’s or strategic position, I was working in the business and much more of a manager. And I really did not get to spend any time on the golf course (we did not replace me as the superintendent). We had great assistants and they did a good job, but a full-time superintendent was really needed.
So after two years, I was encouraged to go back to the golf course, and gladly accepted.
C+RB What did you learn from the experience?
Wachter I learned a lot. One of the reasons I took the job is because being a superintendent can be physically taxing. When I went back to being a superintendent, I found myself working smarter and doing so in a way that was not so demanding physically.
In addition, my wife and I had become accustomed to a certain schedule when I was a superintendent. When I became GM, my hours changed significantly, and that was tough on us. We had lived one way for so long, and now our schedule was turned upside down. I was going in about 10 a.m., but staying until 8 or 9 at night. Plus, on the weekends I would be there for events.
So going back to being a superintendent was a bit of a wakeup call for me. I think I became an even better superintendent, but I also got my life back. I’m not too proud to admit it. It was better for me and better for my family. I could pay attention to the little things, such as taking better care of my yard. The little things in life are important.
I don’t look back at my time as a failure. It didn’t work out, but in life you must make the best of difficult situations.
C+RB Glen Echo hosted the 1904 Olympic Games golf competition. What does that history mean to you and the membership?
Wachter It’s an honor to work at a facility that has been around since 1901. It’s on the National Historic Register. The club has always prided itself on providing a high-quality golf course. I am not sure members join because of the history, but I think once they join and spend a little time here, they gain a greater appreciation for it. They embrace it and take great pride in it.
As a superintendent, you want members who are proud of their golf course. That can make the job more difficult, but it can also mean they appreciate more what you and your staff do.
Interestingly, one of two brothers who designed the course, Robert Foulis, stayed on to be the first superintendent/pro until 1913. He and his brother Jim, the other designer, came over from Scotland. They learned their trade from Old Tom Morris. So we have a direct connection to the forefathers of the game.
C+RB What are the agronomic challenges?
Wachter In St. Louis, we are in the transition zone, which means you can grow almost every grass good, but you cannot grow any grass great. We must scout for disease and baby the turf a bit. And our greens are not exceptionally fast during the heat of the summer. They are sand-capped greens with no internal drainage system.
I think that is where communication is important. You must tell the membership what you are doing and why. When things cool down in September and October, I’ll increase the greens to what I call “rocket speed,” to give the members a chance to see what the pros play on.
C+RB Has the course changed over time?
Wachter Interestingly, the bulk of the changes came in the first 30 years of the course. In the late 1920s, they moved the original clubhouse across the street and that meant some work had to be done in building a new first and eighteenth hole.
But after that, the biggest change came in 1935-37, when A.W. Tillinghast recommended the removal of most if not all fairways bunkers that crossed and lined the fairways. It was part of a movement around the country to make courses more playable and easier to maintain, and it is interesting to note that we are still talking about that today.
When the course was built, it was very open. With the fairway bunkers gone, our future was decided with the movement to plant trees, and now it is a parkland-style as opposed to almost a links-style layout when it was built.
We remove trees because of safety or disease, but we generally do not have a tree program to remove trees. We have requested specific trees to help with the turf health of greens and trees. There are discussions regarding a long-term tree management plan and potential master plan to provide a road map for the future.
The first week I got here, I took time-lapse photography of the trees around the greens to see where we had some issues, and that told me a lot. We recommended a few for removal and others that I thought needed removal were proven to not be necessary from the study.
C+RB What makes Glen Echo fun to play, yet challenging?
Wachter There aren’t any tricked-up holes here. They moved very little dirt in building the course. So you can walk the course, and about half of our membership walks it. There are some climbs, so you do get a good workout, but it is not so much you do not enjoy it.
There are some side hill, uphill and downhill lies, so you must be able to play with the ball above and below your feet. It’s not a long course, but you want to keep it in the fairway. Plus our greens are somewhat small, at about 4,500 sq. ft., so you need to be accurate in your short game.
Super in the Spotlight
Current Position: Golf Course Superintendent, Glen Echo Country Club, Normandy, Mo.
Years at Glen Echo CC: 12
Years in Golf Course Maintenance Business: 30
• Golf Course Superintendent, Spencer T. Olin Golf Course, Alton, Ill., 2002-2008;
• Golf Course Superintendent, Eagle Springs Golf Course, St. Louis, Mo., 1996-2002;
• Golf Course Superintendent, New Melle Lakes Country Club, St. Charles, Mo., 1993-96;
• Assistant Golf Course Superintendent, Sunset Country Club, St. Louis, Mo. 1990-93;
Education & Training: B.S. Business, Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 1980
Honors and Awards:
• President, Missouri Valley Turfgrass Association;
• GCSAA/Golf Digest Environmental Leaders in Golf Award;
• Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary;
• Golf Course Industry Best Use of Social Media Award
Course + Grounds Operations Profile
Staff Size: 12 (7 full-time/5 seasonal)
Other Managers: First Assistant Superintendent, Skip Fierro (39 years at Glen Echo); Second Assistant Superintendent Tom Lewis (20-plus years at Glen Echo).
Water Source and Usage: Irrigation ponds (supplemented by city water).
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules: Greens: Dryject/deep-tine in March and October; needle-tine in May and July Fairways: Core in June
Tees: Core in June.
Upcoming Capital Projects:
Renovate shared 4th and 12th tee complex in fall 2020.
Currently working on short-course area that will open in late 2020 or early 2021.
Golf Course Profile
Glen Echo Country Club
Ownership: Private, member-owned
Golf Course Type: Parkland
Golf Course Designers:
Jim and Robert Foulis (brothers)
Year Opened: 1901
No. of Holes: 18
Golf Season: Open year-round, weather permitting, but generally mid-April through October.
Annual Rounds: 16,000
Tees, Fairways: Zoysia
Greens: Bentgrass/Poa annua
Water Features: Four lakes. Three feed into one large irrigation pond.
All lakes come into play.