While some warned Chris Warrick to be wary of Highland Country Club in LaGrange, Ga., he saw the Donald Ross design as the gem it once was with plans to return it to its past glory.
He graduated from a respected college turfgrass program and had been an Assistant Golf Course Superintendent at some impressive facilities, working for some of the most respected agronomists in the industry.
So, when the golf course superintendent position opened at Highland Country Club in LaGrange, Ga., he was initially wary. The club, dripping with history—including relationships with Bobby Jones and Donald Ross—had fallen in stature and quality. His mentors had told him to go into his job interview with eyes wide open and his mind full of questions. This would be a big step if he were to take it—his first job as a Head Golf Course Superintendent.
“I was ready to be a golf course superintendent, thanks to my education and the superintendents I worked for in the past,” Warrick says. “But I did not want to be in a position where I could not be successful. So, I was not so sure I would take the job if offered.
“But once I got on the grounds of the club I was blown away,” he continues. “This is a beautiful piece of land with so much potential. It really is a diamond in the rough. So, after talking with them I felt it was the right move.”
Fast forward one year later and Warrick still has his zest for his job, despite the challenges of starting a family and serving in the Army Reserves. Much of that comes from his internal drive, but also from the response he is getting from club members.
“I believe one of the best tools a superintendent has is communication. I spent time with the club leaders and members, and we discussed goals and what steps were necessary to get there. They want this place to be of high quality and something that brings pride. As a superintendent, that is what you want to hear.”
Club + Resort Business: How did you decide to become a golf course superintendent?
Chris Warrick: I graduated from Bartlett High School in Memphis in 2010 and went to college at the University of Tennessee-Martin the next fall and spring. I was majoring in animal science, but took a break to go to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. My family has a history of military service, so I knew it was something I was always planning to do. Upon my return in 2012, I began to look for a job that could help support me while going to college. It just so happened that Jim Thomas, Superintendent at TPC Southwind in Memphis was a friend of my parents. I got a summer job and observed him in his work. I didn’t observe very well because I thought all he did was drive around in a golf cart. I asked him how he got to where he was and he said colleges have programs to teach you how to be a golf course superintendent.
Little did I know that UT-Martin had a turf program. The head of the turf program, Dr. Wes Totten would work the FedEx St. Jude’s Classic at Southwind every summer, so Jim paired me with him in the afternoons of the tournament. I had the opportunity to learn so much about the profession. That convinced me to change my major to turfgrass science. Obviously, I learned rather quickly that being a golf course superintendent does not mean you drive around in a golf cart all day!
C+RB: You are in the Army Reserves. Tell us about that experience.
CW: I have been in the Army Reserves for 11 years, starting in February of 2011. My family is what would be considered a military family. You can trace my family tree far back and you will find someone who served in the revolutionary war. I am a combat Engineer (12B) – also considered the Swiss Army Knife of the Army. Our job changes to adapt to the needs of the situation. My deployment to Afghanistan lasted six months where we performed missions looking for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) out of Bagram, Afghanistan. Overall, the deployment was quiet. The best part was we worked extensively with the Czech Republic’s Infantry soldiers running all our missions with them following behind us.
C+RB: What has your military training and experience taught you?
CW: I have learned a lot about leadership through the military. Especially when it comes to managing various personalities. You interact with people from all walks of life. In the army you all must work together to reach a goal. These management skills directly translate to being a superintendent. No matter where you go, your staff is usually a mix of rich, poor, foreign, young, or old and you need to be able to effectively reach and manage each person individually.
Balancing my Army career with this career is really a challenge. The only way I have been able to do it so far is by having a well-trained staff and a reliable crew foreman who can manage while I am away. Every superintendent knows that when you are away, you are still responsible for anything that happens, so it can be stressful. I spend a considerable amount of time planning to minimize the chance of something going wrong. I also spend a lot of extra time with each crew member to ensure they are well trained to prevent any mistakes. My obligation is one weekend a month and then a few weeks in the summer. I am scheduled to retire from the reserves in February 2023, but I could extend it if I want.
C+RB: What has it been like in your first Head Golf Course Superintendent role?
CW: This experience has been overall positive. The freedom to bring your ideas and structure to the golf course is exhilarating. Every day waking up and knowing that you are contributing to a golf course that is a piece of history is amazing. It is also exciting to navigate the challenges we face here. My problem-solving skills and creativity have been challenged here like nowhere else. I have come from clubs with an excess of everything. Budget, equipment, irrigation, you name it – I have always had it. Here we are currently very limited, and it takes a lot of creativity and planning to achieve results.
C+RB: What is the geography of the region in general and the course specifically?
CW: Our club is bordered by West Point Lake, a 27,000-acre manmade lake created by a dam. The golf course is set into a series of rocky hills that provide some very impressive elevation changes as the course winds through them. Regionally, we are located at the very bottom of the Appalachian Mountains, considered the Appalachian Plateaus. (LaGrange, Ga. is located in the west central part of the state approximately 15 miles from the Alabama state line).
C+RB: What other amenities are offered in addition to golf?
CW: Our club offers tennis, a pool, an event lawn, and high-end dinner and catered event services. We host several local high school tournaments and Georgia State Golf Association junior golf events. Outside of that, we have very few non-member sponsored events as the club wants to maintain the privacy for its members. Non-golf events are limited to the local chapters of Rotary Club and Local Lions Club meetings at the clubhouse.
C+RB: Who is your clientele?
CW: Our club is oriented as a family first, private country club for LaGrange. Our membership is made up of business owners, upper-management, and government officials (local and state). The majority of our membership is local, many of which were born and raised on this golf course. Some even have ties to the creation of this course in 1922. We have a resident who has been a member here since the 1930s and is our unofficial course historian. His nickname is Sweet Pea. We do offer an out-of-town membership, as well.
C+RB: What makes the golf course fun to play? What makes it challenging?
CW: This is a traditional Donald Ross on the back nine—crowned fairways, Donald Ross style bunkers, and teacup greens. This is a shot-shapers golf course, as well. Long hitters struggle here. You have to think your way through this course or you can get into a lot of trouble fast. The front nine is built to reflect the Donald Ross style, as well. This course’s defense is its layout winding through the hills with nature surrounding all sides. Elevation and direction changes leave many landing zones blind from the tee box, forcing you to gamble with long drives or take a safe lay-up. The greens have great undulation in them creating challenging putts and chips from all angles. (The front nine was designed and added by Joe Finger in 1972. It was originally the back nine, but the layout was flipped approximately four years ago).
C+RB: What is your biggest agronomic challenge?
CW: Currently, we have big Irrigation issues. The front nine irrigation was installed in the 1980s, and the back nine was installed in the 1970s. It is almost completely useless now. Past superintendents have had to make decisions to manipulate the system in order to support the greens and currently I have no irrigation for my fairways and tees.
Aside from irrigation, the biggest challenge agronomically is implementing cultural practices. For decades, this course has gone without or has just had the bare minimum – and it shows. Bringing back the cultural practices in stages so as to not overwhelm the budget or membership is going to be difficult. Every step in the right direction is going to pay dividends in the long run.
C+RB: What weather challenges exist?
CW: Due to limitations of our irrigation system, I have had to refocus on how we apply chemicals and fertilizers. I do not have the ability to water any fertilizers that are not on the greens. Because of this, I have switched applying the majority of our applications as a foliar spray. Using various nozzles and spray patterns, I can ensure nutrients or pesticides reach the appropriate destination.
I also must time my applications based on weather. Does this product need to be watered in? Is the rain coming going to be a slow steady rain or is it going to drop 2 inches in an hour? It is always a gamble, but with technology developing the way it does, I can usually make a good, educated guess.
On the other hand, we have extended periods of drought. To adjust for this, I have to take advantage of the rainy seasons and grow the turf as healthy as possible to sustain the droughts. It can become a constant battle of growth and recovery. Sometimes you must accept that there are things beyond your control. Currently, I am working with irrigation architects to develop a plan to get us a new irrigation system which would be life changing for this golf course.
Super in the Spotlight
Current Position: Golf Course Superintendent, Highland Country Club, LaGrange, Ga.
Years at Highland CC: One (began May 2021)
Years in Golf Course Maintenance Business: 11
Previous Employment History:
Equipment Operator, TPC Sugarloaf, Atlanta, Ga., 2011;
Assistant in Training, TPC Southwind, Memphis, Tenn., 2013-2016;
Second Assistant Superintendent, TPC Sugarloaf, Atlanta, Ga., 2016-2018;
First Assistant Superintendent, Grey Oaks Golf Course, 2018-2020;
First Assistant, Audubon Country Club, Naples, Fla., 2020-2021
Education & Training:
University of Tennessee at Martin, Bachelor’s in Plant and Soil Science with a focus in golf course and landscape management, 2016.
Golf Course Profile
Highland Country Club
Year Opened: 1922
Ownership: Member-owned Private
Golf Course Type (Parkland, Links, Prairie): Heathland Course (an area of open uncultivated land with characteristic vegetation of heather, gorse, and coarse grasses)
Course Designer (Renovation/Redesign):
1922 Donald Ross (back 9) 1972 Joe Finger (front 9)
No. of Holes: 18
Yardage: Back Tees – 6,546 yards;
Forward Tees – 5,156 yards
Golf Season: May-September (Membership participation revolves around college football season—located between Auburn University and the University of Georgia)
Annual Rounds: 12,000
Grasses – Tees, Fairways, Roughs: Tifway 419 Fairways/ Roughs and Mix of Tifway 419 and Emerald Zoysia Tees
Grasses – Greens: Miniverde Bermundagrass
Water Features: Two Lakes – one lake on hole No. 2 and one lake that comes into play on holes No. 16, No. 17 and No. 8. A creek that flows the length of hole No. 9 and borders No. 18.
Bunkers: 52 Bunkers
Course + Grounds Operations Profile
Staff Size: Four during winter up to eight during the summer
Water Source and Usage: Currently use two 1-acre lakes on property, but a new irrigation system will utilize West Point Lake in a water-share design.
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules: There is a two-day closure in June to aerify greens, with the rest of the course done as possible.
Upcoming Capital Projects: Planning for an irrigation system renovation. This past January, rebuilt the only bridge on property and recently the exterior of the clubhouse was renovated.