Improvements to the Montgomery Bell Golf Course, part of the Tennessee Golf Trail and the state parks system, are the brass ring of better maintenance practices and playability for golfers of any level.
Montgomery Bell Golf Course
Location: Burns, Tenn.
Golf Holes: 18
In the early 1800s, middle Tennessee was home to a vibrant iron industry, and the Tennessee Iron Furnace Trail tells the story of those laborers and the places they worked. While the blast furnaces and forges may be a remnant of the past, 21st-century denizens are encouraged to explore another state trail—the Tennessee Golf Trail – and bring their irons with them.
Part of the state parks system, the Tennessee Golf Trail consists of nine golf courses. One of them, the Montgomery Bell Golf Course of Montgomery Bell State Park in Burns, Tenn., might offer special appeal to history buffs. The park was once the center of the iron industry in middle Tennessee, and its namesake, Montgomery Bell, was an early 19th-century industrialist who helped build the region’s base, supplying cannon balls and other materials for the War of 1812.
In recent years, Montgomery Bell golf course personnel have made efforts to extend the property’s appeal to golfers of all abilities. Mike Nixon, Special Assistant to the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), and the Tennessee State Parks Director of Golf Operations, was brought on board in 2011 to oversee operations for the entire golf trail. Nixon played professional golf for 15 years, and he has a background in golf course architecture and real estate development.
“The Trail had a name, but no one was pushing hard to integrate all nine golf courses,” says Nixon. “I’m doing my part to give back to the game, which has been good to me.”
In turn, the changes that Nixon and Golf Course Superintendent Jeff Kuhns have implemented to improve playability and streamline maintenance at Montgomery Bell, which is 35 miles west of downtown Nashville, have been good for the course.
In 2009, the property converted its greens from bentgrass to the warm-season Champion UltraDwarf Bermudagrass, which provides a denser putting surface, more consistent ball roll, and better surface uniformity. Five other Tennessee Golf Trail courses also have Champion Bermuda greens.
“The quality of the greens surface has improved dramatically,” Kuhns says. “They’re at their best during our peak golfing season, from March to October.”
However, Golf Course Manager Darrel Hartsfield adds, “We wanted to increase the amount of time that the greens are in good shape. We can play on these greens 12 months out of the year.”
The conditions of the greens are vital to golf course operations at Montgomery Bell or any other course, notes Nixon.
“If your greens are good, then people will come play,” he says. “If you have good putting surfaces, you will have customers.”
Providing top-notch greens is the best way for properties with limited budgets to create optimum course conditions, he explains, and maintenance departments can build on greens conditions to improve their tees, fairways, and bunkers.
In another effort to upgrade conditions at Montgomery Bell, the property underwent a major bunker renovation project in 2016, which emphasized strategic placement of the bunkers to increase pace of play. Kuhns, who has been at Montgomery Bell for 11 years, says the golf course has reduced the number of bunkers from 41 to 23 during his tenure.
“It really has sped up play quite a bit and improved everybody’s experience,” he states. “We want people to have fun and enjoy being outside in a state park, whether they shoot 120 or 70.”
For the project, Kuhns and Nixon discussed which bunkers to take out to improve maintenance and playability.
“For the general public, there were two or three bunkers that a decent player would never hit. But a less-skilled person would,” says Nixon. “They were 40- to 60-yard bunker shots—the hardest shot in golf.”
Montgomery Bell removed some of those bunkers, as well as some that were difficult to drain. While some were converted to grass, others were eliminated completely. The property also added new sand and new drainage systems to the bunkers that remained.
“Bunkers are supposed to be hazards, but they were really inconsistent. They’re more reliable now,” notes Kuhns.
With gravel in the bottom and sprayed polymer (similar to Better Billy Bunkers), the new bunkers have done more than just help golfers. They have also benefited the staff by reducing maintenance time and saving labor costs.
“The grounds crew was spending 18 percent of its time raking, draining, or putting more sand in the bunkers. That was wasted time and man hours,” says Nixon. “Now they spend about two percent of their time maintaining the bunkers.”
And when the bunkers are in good shape, everyone is happy.
“We’ve seen first-hand how much better the experience can be when we have really good greens and bunkers, and how they affect customers,” Kuhns says.
Montgomery Bell has also built seven new tees and added 300 yards in length. The new tees, which were constructed from organic matter that was given to the park and arranged by Park Manager Pat Wright, will open in a couple of months.
“We changed two tees a little; we changed two tees a lot; and we changed three tees drastically,” notes Nixon.
At 6,614 yards, Montgomery Bell is still not a long golf course. However, Nixon says the holes play longer than they are. “Golf balls have changed the game, and that’s a travesty,” he says. “It costs so much money trying to deal with that one aspect of golf.”
A lot of high school and middle school golf teams play at Montgomery Bell, reports Kuhns, and he hopes the new tees will attract youngsters to the course. “We want to grow the game and improve the experience for junior golfers,” he says.
The Montgomery Bell staff has also created low-maintenance, no-mow native areas in lower-traffic places, such as around the tees and next to the woods in the last 10 years. The native areas include wildflowers, black-eyed Susans, broomsedge, and tall fescue, Kuhns reports.
In the last five or six years on all nine courses of the Tennessee Golf Trail, Nixon has overseen the removal of 150 acres of maintained turf. The properties have replaced the manicured turf with native grasses and trees or let it grow back to its natural state. Some of the golf courses have larger native areas than others because of their size. On the rolling terrain of Montgomery Bell, about 10 acres of turf have been converted to native areas. Because the fairways are lined heavily with hardwood trees, Nixon says, the property does not have a lot of room for native areas.
However, he adds, “We do something all the time. We’re always tweaking.”
All of the Montgomery Bell course renovations were prompted by a desire “to take better care of the customers,” says Hartsfield, noting that it is one of five park-system golf courses that offers stay-and-play packages.
“Golf is part of the state-park experience,” he says. “Being a resort park, we get a lot of visitors from all over the world.”
The resort park also includes an inn, cabins, campsites, a conference center, hiking trails, biking, boating, fishing, festivals, and guided tours. The Inn at Montgomery Bell is undergoing renovations this year, and it will remain open throughout the project.
Montgomery Bell attracts many golfers who are traveling to Florida from Northern or Midwestern states, and Nixon expects the updated accommodations to increase golf packages in the park in the next several years.
He calls golf a major amenity for the state park system. “Golf puts 12 to 18 percent of heads in the beds,” notes Nixon. “It’s a two-way street, and golf supports other activities in all of our resort parks. All of our activities support each other.”
For instance, Montgomery Bell often calls on its food-and- beverage operation to cater golf events.
Nixon conducted a study four or five years ago to measure the influence of golf on park operations. “I update it all the time, but the percentages don’t change that much,” he says.
Part of Nixon’s mission is to establish standard operating procedures for each golf course on the trail, and the changes to Montgomery Bell have gone beyond enhancing playability for golfers. Many of the actions and maintenance practices the staff has taken are environmentally friendly as well. All nine golf courses have earned Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program certification, and all of them are Groundwater Guardian Green Sites.
“We’re cognizant of saving water, fuel, chemicals, and not cutting every blade of grass,” says Nixon. “We try to use as little as possible.”
As part of the environmental programs, Montgomery Bell has enhanced the natural landscape and wildlife habitat while minimizing potentially harmful effects of golf course maintenance. Montgomery Bell provides habitat for deer, geese, turkeys, and other wildlife, and the staff has set up bird and bat boxes on the golf course.
“Parks provide natural green space. They can be environmentally beneficial,” Hartsfield says.
The Groundwater Guardian Green Site program encourages green spaces to implement, measure, and document groundwater-friendly practices related to chemical and water use, pollution prevention, water quality, and environmental stewardship. The application evaluates a site’s groundwater-friendly inputs, such as pounds of fertilizer saved annually by using lower-input plants, and gallons of water saved yearly by using low-water and low-maintenance plants.
“We don’t use much water. Rarely do we water anything other than the putting surfaces,” says Kuhns. “The types of grasses we have don’t need a lot of water.”
Natural buffers and buffer zones contribute to the quality of the groundwater, adds Hartsfield.
Sustainability extends to the equipment used on the golf courses as well. Since 2017, the nine Tennessee Golf Trail courses have been using all-electric mowers for their greens. Montgomery Bell converted from gasoline-powered to all-electric greens mowers in 2014.
“The use of all-electric greens mowers reduces fuel consumption,” notes Kuhns.
In addition, with no hydraulic or other fluids, the mowers lessen the possibility of harm to the greens or groundwater that could result from leaks. As an added benefit, the virtually silent operation of the electric equipment minimizes noise that could disturb golfers and wildlife.
Along with their electric greens mowers, all nine courses have electric golf cars as well. “When we changed from gasoline to electric carts, we saved 2,500 to 3,000 gallons of gasoline every year,” Nixon reports.
For completing the transition of all 650 golf cars at its nine courses from gas to electric models, Tennessee State Parks won a Tennessee Sustainable Transportation Award from the state’s Department of Environment and Conservation, in partnership with the state Department of Transportation, in September 2018. The change is expected to result in an estimated savings of $80,000 per year and to prevent the release of about 350,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions annually.
Except for their largest units, adds Nixon, the golf courses have all-electric equipment.
“We’re just doing things that help us. We live on this planet, and we’re trying to find better ways to do things,” he says. “We need to take care of what we’ve got. It’s all we’ve got.”
Because the Tennessee Golf Trail courses are owned by the state and run by its Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), the golf course personnel feel an added responsibility to be eco-friendly. “We learn things about being environmentally friendly while we’re doing our jobs. We owe it to TDEC,” says Nixon.
Kuhns agrees. “It’s everybody’s land,” he adds.
With a shared appreciation for the property, golf course personnel at Montgomery Bell work together to enhance playing conditions.
“It has all been a team effort to make improvements,” says Hartsfield.
Kuhns says he and Hartsfield speak daily. They work together closely, he says, on course setup for tournaments such as the Dogwood Classic, which is normally the opening event in the Tennessee tournament season, and other sub-regional and district tournaments at Montgomery Bell. However, Kuhns says he might talk to Nixon twice a week, or go two or three weeks without communicating with him.
Nixon plays Montgomery Bell, which is the closest trail course to his office, a few times each year. He also visits the property to walk the golf course with Kuhns, and they make suggestions and bounce ideas off of each other.
“We’re always thinking about what’s best for the average golfer,” says Nixon. “That’s our player.”
Nixon says Kuhns is a good golfer, and he often defers to his judgment. “You can be a good agronomist,” he explains, “but if you can’t play, you can struggle with the appearance of the golf course from each tee.” In addition, he says, “Jeff has a green thumb. He has the touch to grow grass. I trust him a lot.”
Hartsfield, he notes, is also a former greens superintendent who knows how to run equipment.
Even the park rangers get involved, notes Kuhns, by conducting monthly nature tours on the Montgomery Bell golf course to point out its wildlife and native habitat to visitors.
The communication and teamwork reach beyond Montgomery Bell, however, as the personnel at all nine Tennessee Golf Trail courses collaborate to share equipment and ideas. Nixon appointed Paul Carter, CGCS, of The Bear Trace at Harrison Bay in Harrison, Tenn., and the 2011 TurfNet Superintendent of the Year, as the Director of Agronomy for the Trail golf courses.
Nixon and Carter devised a new plan to aerify the Bermuda greens only once a year, instead of twice annually, at six of the golf courses, including Montgomery Bell. Because the properties aerify at different times, they share aerification equipment. Each golf course sets its own aerification schedule, which is posted online to keep golfers in the loop about maintenance practices that could affect their rounds.
In December, Nixon also holds his annual meeting with the golf managers and superintendents at all nine Tennessee Golf Trail courses.
“Golf course superintendents and managers need to communicate a lot more than most people think,” says Nixon.
“We all stay in contact. We discuss weather issues and share equipment such as aerifiers and mowers as needed,” says Kuhns. “We see how other golf course superintendents and pros operate. We get ideas from each other about the quality and quantity of play. We all deal with some of the same problems, like cart traffic and typical tournament issues.”
However, each individual enhances golf course operations with his own experience as well.
Nixon draws on his days as a former PGA Tour player to guide him in his current position. “I’ve seen so many different golf courses in my life. I know people in the business and how they operate,” he says. “As a player you see a lot of courses. You see things you like and things you’re not as fond of. You find out what appeals to you personally in golf courses and their layouts and how they’re maintained.”
Kuhns, who has been working on golf courses since he was 15 years old and became an assistant superintendent at age 20, played two years of college golf – one at Faulkner University and one at Alabama State University. He also caddied at PGA Tour Q-School in 2003 and for Sue Cohn at the 2015 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur. He believes his background as a competitive golfer and as a caddie helps him create a better customer experience.
“We want everybody to play golf. We have a lot of people from local, high-end clubs play here,” he says. “This is a revenue-based business, and we try to accommodate every type of golfer.”
Years at Montgomery Bell GC: 11
Years in the Golf Course
Previous Employment: Assistant Superintendent, The Bear Trace at Chicasaw, Henderson, Tenn.
Certifications: GCSAA Class A Superintendent
Honors and Awards: Member of Tennessee Turfgrass Association Board of Directors.
COURSE & GROUNDS PROFILE
Montgomery Bell Golf Course
Staff: 10 fulltime and part-time employees
Other Staff Members: Marcus Kelly, mechanic; Agronomy staff members: Joe Pernell, Mike Carter, George Harvell, Brad Story, Mike Massey, Jerry Durdin
Irrigation System: Mostly Rain Bird; about 400 heads
Water Source and Usage: Lake Creech Hollow; low water usage, primarily on greens
Equipment: Owns equipment, which
includes Jacobsen electric greens mowers, Toro fairway mowers
Technology: LED lights in buildings; electric mowers
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules:
Aerifies once a year in June; no overseeding
Duties and Responsibilities: Oversee all maintenance and agronomy operations on the golf course, including upkeep of greens, fairways, tees, bunkers, rough, native areas, irrigation, and range, including range ball pickup