Even with nearly 400,000 annual rounds played on Montgomery County, Md.’s nine courses, Jon Lobenstine’s Director of Agronomy role has grown to now include supporting new revenue growth through everything from Footgolf to bourbon tastings and Saturday concerts.
Jon Lobenstine answered a want ad in The Washington Post for a grounds staff position at Chevy Chase (Md.) Club with no intention of starting a career in golf.
By his own admission, Lobenstine had bounced around after graduating from college and was looking for steady work. He had performed some odd jobs, including digitizing nautical charts for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, when his curiosity got the best of him.
“I had some friends who introduced me to golf and I found I enjoyed it,” Lobenstine said. “At the time I was doing landscaping work, so a position at the golf course interested me. But to say I thought it would be the start of a new career would not be accurate. I did not want to be tied to a desk indoors, so I looked at it as a steady job that I would like.”
SUPER IN THE SPOTLIGHT
It is just one of many decisions that Lobenstine has made over the course of time that have paid big dividends. In just seven years, he went from answering a newspaper advertisement for a staff position to directing a Maryland county’s agronomy unit, with responsibility for nine golf courses.
“I’ve been fortunate to be around some great people who helped to show me the way,” Lobenstine said. “I’ve learned so much from them, and they have put their trust in me.”
At Chevy Chase Club, he worked under the tutelage of the widely respected Dean Graves, CGCS. A mentor to countless turf industry professionals, Graves instilled in Lobenstine superior turf- and people-management skills, and the importance of professional development that would later pay dividends. He also completed his advanced turfgrass management certificate from Penn State University while at Chevy Chase. It was clear that Lobenstine had found his calling.
“It didn’t take long for me to know this is what I wanted to do,” Lobenstine said. “When you are doing something you like, it doesn’t seem as much like work. There have been some tough moments, but it’s been rewarding.”
After “graduating” from Chevy Chase in 2003, Lobenstine took an assistant superintendent position at Falls Road Golf Course, at the time one of five golf courses under the direction of the Montgomery (Md.) County Revenue Authority (MCRA), just north of Washington, D.C. He would then be promoted to Falls Road’s head superintendent position in October 2005.
In 2006, the MRCA took over the responsibility of managing four additional golf courses leased from the county’s Parks department. That growth necessitated a structural change and the addition of a Director of Agronomy position. Impressed with Lobenstine’s abilities, MCRA’s new CEO, Keith Miller, gave him the additional duties of overseeing the agronomic programs of the entire system. With expanding duties, Lobenstine relinquished his duties at Falls Road in 2014 to better focus on long-term goals for MCRA.
“The MCRA was growing and we started to look at new opportunities that required more of my time,” he says. “I was putting in 14-plus-hour days most of the year, including winter, so it was time to hire a superintendent for Falls Road.”
And there was still plenty to do with “just” his MCRA duties, as Lobenstine describes in this interview with C&RB.
C&RB: Can you explain the management structure for the MCRA’s nine golf courses?
Lobenstine: It is a bit of a unique arrangement. The Authority was created in 1957 by state charter, then transferred to the county in 1996. All of the golf courses are public facilities.
The MCRA is a quasi-governmental organization. We are a public corporation and an instrument of the county, but we are self-funded, reinvesting our revenue and paying all of our expenses.
Each MCRA course has a general manager and a superintendent, and the superintendents report to me. I report to the MCRA CEO and he reports to a Board of Directors appointed by the County Council.
C&RB: Do you have any other responsibilities with the MCRA?
Lobenstine:There are three divisions: golf, the airport and a public financing arm. I have additional responsibilities with Gaithersburg (Md.) Airpark, overseeing grounds management.
C&RB: What do the nine golf courses offer to the public?
Lobenstine: We like to say we have something for everyone. We have a nine-hole golf course, two 27-hole facilities and six 18-hole courses. We pride ourselves on having enjoyable, well-conditioned golf courses for the public to play, and quite a range of golf experiences that suit beginners and competitive golfers alike.
We manage a total of 171 holes over 2,250 acres, and average 360,000 to 390,000 rounds a year. That is above the average for similar courses in our area, according to the National Golf Foundation. Our golf season is essentially mid-March to mid-November, but officially the only day we are closed is Christmas.
We see people who are members of private clubs come to play our courses because they enjoy the experience. We manage our tee sheets aggressively. We monitor play and will adjust fees throughout the day. We also offer different memberships and loyalty programs that allow you to play all of the courses.
We have a strong instructional component in the MCG Golf Academy, including an indoor studio and simulator. We offer tournaments; leagues for juniors, women and men; outside charity events and corporate events, and we have even hosted USGA qualifiers.
C&RB: How has the management of the courses changed over your tenure?
Lobenstine: We strive to let each golf course have their independence. We want them to identify practices and operations that work best for them. The vast majority of our revenues are from golf, so we are looking to diversify.
For example, we offer Footgolf at two facilities, and interestingly enough, we get people who play soccer and who’ve never been on a golf course to come out and then they decide to play regular golf as well.
We are also starting to use our facilities year-round for meetings and events. We have had a Saturday concert series at our nine-hole course. We are doing things like bourbon tastings and other social events to bring new people, and particularly non-golfers, to our courses and to see them not just as “golf.”
I spend a considerable amount of my time with our senior executive team in strategic planning sessions, looking at how we can increase revenues and utilize our facilities in new and different ways. We take a great deal of pride in the fact we are a lean and efficient operating unit. We are in a very competitive region for golf.
C&RB: Do you dictate uniform agronomic programs for each course?
Lobenstine: We meet as a group of superintendents throughout the year, and then I get to every facility as much as I can. I tend to spend more time where there might be projects happening or challenges facing a particular team.
Each course is unique, so we rely on each of them to implement what works best for them. Overall, the team’s goal is to question every process, use the fewest resources possible, and be as aggressive as possible with cultural practices to produce great conditions, while minimizing the loss of revenue that is typically associated with such events.
Some of the courses were once nice farmland, so the conditions to grow grass are better than at others that might have been constructed with topsoil seemingly as an afterthought. Some drain better than others. Elevation ranges from 300 to 800 feet above sea level. So you really cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach.
It takes some creativity from our team, and some early starts to keep the tee sheet open. I am regularly amazed by what they accomplish!
C&RB: What are the biggest challenges for the facilities from a turf-management perspective?
Lobenstine: We’re located in the transition zone, which means we’re in that area where the optimum conditions for growing warm-season and cool-season grasses meet. This also means that there are a few months a year where it’s not ideal for either, which presents a lot of strategic challenges, even in selecting which species of grass will perform in a certain area.
There’s a lot of disease pressure from dollar spot, anthracnose, gray leaf spot, pythium and brown patch. In 2018, the pressures from gray leaf spot and pythium were just brutal. Then we face the annual bluegrass weevil as the most troublesome insect pest. So we have to stay on top of things with a very extensive scouting program by our teams, to ensure we have a precise, targeted approach in dealing with all of these threats, rather than the outdated “wall to wall” applications of the past.
Another element is the county’s decision to move the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour. They are implementing it roughly $1/hour a year at a time. For each $1 raise, it costs us $300,000 in labor costs across the system. We try to avoid raising our fees, so we need to reduce already very lean costs or create new revenue streams. We are also facing labor challenges. It is tough to fill our staffs.
C&RB: You were a Spanish major in college. Why did you choose that field?
Lobenstine: I grew up in Silver Spring, Md., but my grandparents lived in Kansas City and I always wanted to attend the University of Kansas, because my mom graduated from there as well. I was going to be an architect, but switched to Spanish and completed my studies in an exchange program with the University of Costa Rica.
Little did I know at the time, but the degree has been very helpful. It has helped me in connecting and communicating with our predominantly Hispanic workforce, and I have also translated various documents, such as an employee handbook.
C&RB: Your activity in your local and national membership organizations has been considerable. How did that come about, and how has it helped you?
Lobenstine: I was fortunate to have an unbelievable mentor in Dean Graves at the Chevy Chase Club, and have had continued strong support now from MCRA’s Keith Miller, who is active with the National Golf Course Owners Association and who has had a pivotal role in my professional development. They are both active in supporting the profession and the golf industry, especially in advocacy activities.
I did not have a true appreciation of all that Dean did when I was at Chevy Chase 20 years ago, but later on I was approached to get involved in my chapter and I decided it was good for me and good to give back. I headed our chapter education committee and got to know some of the top researchers in the region and around the nation, and was able to pick their brains.
I served on the board of the Mid-Atlantic Association of Golf Course Superintendents for eight years, culminating as President in 2013. During this time, I also became active in advocacy activities. For the past eight years I have been involved in National Golf Day on Capitol Hill. We host congressmen, their staffs, regulators and others, to demonstrate the value of golf and teach them a little about what we do.
For the past two years, I have been involved in planning our Community Service Project of cleaning up the Mall in Washington, D.C. I was also on the steering committee along with local superintendents and researchers that created the Best Management Practices for Maryland Golf Courses manual. It has been rewarding.
C&RB: Looking at turf management in general, what do you see as the biggest changes in your profession?
Lobenstine: Without a doubt it is the advent of precision, data-driven turf management. Technology has allowed us to be so much more precise in helping all the players on golf maintenance teams produce better playing surfaces.
There will always be room for the intuition of the superintendent, but much of the guesswork of the past is now available to us in hard numbers. That means we use less water and other resources, we are more efficient in our labor usage, and we are far more targeted and judicious in our use of chemical products.
We’re using Minimum Level for Sustainable Nutrition guidelines now for fertilizer applications. This is all a result of education and research, some of which we have been doing in-house along with the University of Maryland. We’re always looking for new ways to minimize required inputs and to let nature do the work! C&RB
GOLF COURSE PROFILE
Montgomery County (Md.) Revenue Authority
Golf Courses in MCRA
(Holes; Designer, Year Opened; Superintendent):
• Falls Road Golf Course, Potomac, Md.
(18; Ed Ault, 1961; Tom Clark/Dan Schlegel/ Jim Cervone, 2003; Mike Fuoco)
• Hampshire Greens Golf Course, Silver Spring, Md.
(18; Lisa Maki, 1999; Teddy Blauvelt)
• Laytonsville Golf Course, Gaithersburg, Md.
(18; Ed Ault, 1974; Dan Hofmeister)
• Little Bennett Golf Course, Frederick, Md.
(18; Michael Hurdzan, 1992; Dan Wildeman)
• Needwood Golf Course, Derwood, Md.
(27, Main 18—Ed Ault, 1964; Inside 9—Russell Roberts, 1964; Matt Hopper)
• Poolesville Golf Course, Poolesville, Md.
(18; Ault & Jamison, 1959; Tom Clark/Jim Cervone, 1998)
• Rattlewood Golf Course, Mt. Airy, Md.
(18; Brian Ault, 1995; Mike Twigg)
• Sligo Creek Golf Course, Silver Spring, Md.
(9; Ault & Jamison, 1959; Marlon Rodriguez)