Innovative Superintendent and General Manager Frank Dobie is honored by his peers for his lifelong contributions to the golf course maintenance profession.
This month Frank Dobie, Superintendent and General Manager of The Sharon Golf Club, Sharon Center, Ohio, received the 2011 Col. John Morley Distinguished Service Award from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) during the Golf Industry Show in Orlando.
The GCSAA hardly could have selected a more deserving winner. During a career that has spanned 57 years, Dobie has taken an innovative approach to his job. He conceived and implemented the first bunker-liner concept in 1967. He was a pioneer in sub-surface air movement technology. He helped to design the first double-row, fully automatic irrigation system in northern Ohio.
Sharing his knowledge with his fellow superintendents, however, has been as important to Dobie as devising ways to improve golf course maintenance practices. He has written dozens of educational articles about golf course management for regional and national publications, and is a frequent lecturer at national and regional conferences and seminars. He has mentored more than 30 turfgrass students, and organizes an annual winter roundtable discussion group for invited superintendents. He also is a co-founder and first president of the Penn State Turfgrass Alumni Association.
While Dobie has made a great career out of his efforts to better himself and his profession, he says one of the most rewarding aspects of his job is sharing his knowledge by “paying it forward.” While this is not the first time he has been recognized by his peers, naming him as the recipient of the prestigious Morley award has offered the industry another chance to pay Frank Dobie back for his lifelong contributions to the golf course maintenance field.
Dobie recently talked to C&RB about his distinguished career and what the Col. John Morley award means to him.
Q. How did you get into the golf course maintenance business?
A. When I was growing up, I worked on a golf course when I was in high school. After graduation I was going to be a mechanical engineer and go to Muskingum College in Ohio. But then a friend told me about Penn State’s turfgrass program. I liked being outside rather than inside, so I thought I would give it a try. After the first week, I knew that I was in the right place.
Q. What’s been the secret to your longevity as a superintendent?
A. Primarily, my boss, M.G. O’Neil. When he hired me, he was president of General Tire and Rubber Co. He wanted to establish a golf course that you could play anytime without tee times and without frills—where you could just go and play golf. He wanted to keep it as simple as possible. He hired me as superintendent and general manager, because he didn’t want to have to talk to more than one person. He was not one to micromanage.
Q. What has been the key to your success?
A. I don’t know if there’s any one single key. Basically, I followed the parameters that the club President set down. The longevity of my tenure has been directly related to the longevity of his tenure. He set out certain parameters and expectations, and I had to meet them.
One thing that differs with my situation is that, because of the arrangement between the President and myself, there are no committees. The Board of Directors simply sets policy. The politics that exist in most country clubs were eliminated. I just had to do my job, and I didn’t have to worry about politics.
Q. How have you mentored turf students through the years, and how rewarding has it been to see them become golf course superintendents?
A. We’ve had a number of turf students from Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State and Tennessee through the years. We only would take one student at a time, because I always felt that it was too much of a distraction to mentor more than one.
It’s a source of pride, of course, when they become superintendents, because you spent time with these young people in college and during their formative years. It’s like having another son or daughter, as the case may be. You want to see them succeed, and feel very proud when they do.
Q. How did you conceive and develop the first bunker liner in 1967?
A. That was kind of a quirky thing. We were renting an apartment in Akron, and it had an area that was landscaped. On that ground area, there was round silica gravel in a bed, like mulch. Underneath that silica gravel was some plastic. The gravel stayed nice and clean because of the plastic.
I had spent many, many years shoveling in bunkers after a rain or when they got dirty, because they were contaminated by soil. I realized that if you separate the sand from the soil, the bunker should never get dirty and contaminated. That was the basis of it.
When there’s a heavy rain, the water on the face of the bunker washes the sand down to the lower portion of the bunker and the soil gets mixed with the sand and contaminates it with clay and silt. It changes color, and it also starts plugging the pores so the bunker will not drain as readily. The sand is loose for a while, and players get a buried lie and they’re not happy.
So, the crux of the problem was contamination. If you could separate the sand and the soil, then you would not have contamination.
Q. Tell us about your pioneering efforts in sub-surface air movement technology.
A. That was an interesting thing. We had a green that was not behaving properly. I needed to get more oxygen in there. We hooked up a leaf blower and did a fabrication so it became like a suction machine, to evacuate gases underneath the green.
Marsh Benson at Augusta National and I were doing the same thing. We were both working on it at the same time and didn’t know it. They were more interested in forcing air through the ground to lower the temperature of the profile.
We worked strictly off suction. I wanted to move air from the top down to the profile.
Q. What was your role in designing the first double-row, fully automatic irrigation system in northern Ohio?
A. That was quite common in the Southwest and in Florida and not at all in Ohio, except for one golf course in Cincinnati. Our architect had designed a single-row coupler system. In 1965, I said, ‘There has to be better equipment and a better design out there.’ Russell Daniels in Georgia would have done the design, but he was booked up for the next year. We had a deadline to meet, but no way to get it done. So we went to a local engineering firm in Akron. We spent two months with them. They had electrical and hydraulic engineers, and I told them what I wanted.
I wanted something with a central control at the shop where we would be able to start greens, tees or fairways separately or in sequence. Up to this time, this was done from the field controllers.
The electrical engineer designed a cam system to create a syringe cycle that was separate from the other controls. We coined the phrase ‘syringe cycle.’ At that time, it didn’t exist in the industry. I wrote an article about it, and as time went on, irrigation companies picked up the term.
Q. What do you enjoy about writing and speaking about your profession?
A. I think it goes back to what I love about the profession. We all share information openly and freely with each other, no matter what part of the country you’re from or whether you know each other or not. There are no secrets. That’s what really interested me in getting into this business, and it has kept me interested.
We also have four-hour roundtable discussions once a year in November, and we vary the invitees every year.
Q. What are the benefits of the roundtable discussion among your peers?
A. If you’ve had a problem that year—technical, disease, finances or equipment—you get a chance to put it on the table, and you could get a number of different opinions on how to solve it. And chances are that somebody can solve the problem. It’s a great problem-solving forum.
Q. What are your favorite topics, and how have they changed through the years?
A. Inventions—from bunker liners to greens rollers. And I like to talk about the challenges that are not about growing grass. It’s all the things that you have to do as a superintendent to be successful, whether it’s communication or furthering your education
Q. How do you find time to oversee operations at The Sharon Golf Club as General Manager?
A. It’s all pretty simple. My day is split about 50-50 between inside and outside work. We have great personnel in place, and we have a lot of longevity with our staff. We’re not training new people every year. They’re capable, and they don’t need much oversight. They know what to do.
We only serve lunch, so we have a one-shift kitchen staff. For me to oversee that, I simply need to go out there and eat lunch. It’s no more complicated than that. I see how quickly the staff waits on the diners, and I eat lunch with different members every day. I see what they eat and what they like or don’t like. It’s common sense involved in food and beverage. The food is a necessary evil—something you have to do before you go out and play golf. We want to make it as simple as possible. A waiter comes and takes your drink order, and then you can just go to the buffet to get what you want to eat. The waiter comes back with your drink within a minute.
The key to our food and beverage is that it’s fast. They can eat as much or as little as they want, and they don’t have to wait. We try to break even every year on food and beverage. We don’t have a food minimum, and we don’t have a service charge. That was the parameter that was set up early on.
As far as the office is concerned, I have a great office manager. Val Bittner has been here since she was a teenager, and she’s been here more than 30 years. Our Golf Pro, Dwight Axtell, has been here 26 years. Our original restaurant manager was here for 41 years, but he passed away about a year-and-a-half ago. His successor was an understudy, and he’s been with us 15 years. My Assistant Superintendent on the golf course, David Willmott, was one of our turf students, and he’s been here 15 years, too. Not to mention our other Assistant, Norm Renner, and our Irrigation Tech, Ray Bailey, who each have more than 40 years.
The continuity is easy when you have longevity with people. If there’s any secret to our management style, it’s continuity.
Q. What inspired your inventive, innovative approach to your job?
A. An intelligent man once said, ‘If you want to know what to do, just look around and see what’s wanted and needed, and just do it.’
We have a talented equipment manager, Gary Bogdanski, who can build just about anything. I would give him the concept, and he would build it. It’s fun to create something from nothing to solve a problem.
Q. You’ve given a lot to your profession. What have you received in return?
A. I’ve enjoyed every day. I love going to work every day. A philosopher said, ‘If you have a passion for what you’re doing, you’ll never work a day in your life.’
When you share information and knowledge, it comes back to you. When I have a problem or a situation, all I have to do is pick up the phone, and I can call anybody in the business.
Q. What does it mean to you to win this award?
A. I’ve been doing this work all of my life, and I’ve loved every minute of it. Being acknowledged by my peers is like frosting on the cake.
Being from northern Ohio, it means a lot to me to win an award that is named for Colonel John Morley. I love history, and northern Ohio is the birthplace of the national golf course superintendents’ organization. In 1923 at Youngstown (Ohio) Country Club, where John Morley was the greenkeeper, a group of men founded the Cleveland District Greenkeeper’s Association. In 1926, those same men, plus others from Chicago and Philadelphia, founded the national organization. Colonel John Morley was the first president of the local group and the first president of the national group.
I love the history of the organization, and the genesis of it was very close to where I grew up. For me to win an award that acknowledges long service and is named after Colonel John Morley is quite an honor. Those guys who started the original organization got together to share knowledge for the good of the whole, and that same spirit has maintained itself through the years.
Q. What would you like for your legacy to be?
A. I think I just want to continue what’s been going on all these years—the free and open exchange of ideas for fellow superintendents.