An Interview With Westhaven Golf Course Superintendent Richard Pavlasek

For many people in our communities, warmer spring weather is the cue to dust off their golf clubs. But though golf season is kicking off, growing the perfect turf grass is a year-round task.

Just ask Richard Pavlasek, CGCS – the certified golf course superintendent at Southern Land Company community Westhaven Golf Club in Franklin, TN. He spoke with Insights about the science of grass farming and the type of problems he has to solve to get the course ready for tee time, rain or shine.

Insights: In your own words, how would you describe what you do?

RP: “I like to joke around with people and tell them that I am a grass farmer, but really I’m a professional golf course superintendent. The golf course is ever-evolving and changing. It’s a living, breathing organism that is constantly moving, shrinking and swelling. I take care of golf courses, but really, my staff and I intensively maintain turfgrass at a very high level to provide a great product for our members and guests to play on.”

In what way is the maintenance you do “intensive?”

“There’s a lot of things that happen on the golf course throughout the year that the membership doesn’t know about it.  We start by performing soil and tissue tests on a regular basis. The real science comes into play when we’re evaluating our soil samples and determining the agricultural and chemical products we put into the turf and the timing of these applications. We employ a number of cultural practices such as grooming, brushing, top-dressing, aerification and fertility applications and this is where the intensity comes into play with regards to agronomics. Both of my Assistant Superintendents and myself are college-educated with degrees in turfgrass management.”

Is there a difference between turfgrass and regular grass for your lawn?

“Not necessarily in species of turfgrass, but in maintenance and cultural practices. Usually home lawns are maintained at a much taller height than golf course turf.  Generally, the taller your grass gets, the deeper the root system, and inversely proportionate, the shorter your grass gets, the shorter your root system goes. As you take the top down, the bottom comes up. On some of our turf, the grass is being mowed at 1/10th of an inch. That means the plant doesn’t have much surface to photosynthesize. This is usually very stressful on the turf. One of the first things that most people do to solve a stress problem is to raise the mowing height. But unlike on your lawn, you can’t raise mowing heights on putting greens very high without golfers complaining.”

How do you solve the problem without changing the height of the grass?

“When talking about putting greens, good cultural practices and air movement are really critical in maintaining quality turfgrass on putting surfaces. Bentgrass needs all the help it can get with regards to air movement in July and August when our greens are really struggling. We are currently evaluating installing fans for our putting greens on the golf course and hope to be starting the project soon.”

Was it tough to convince your boss that you needed to add fans for the grass?

“It has been an interesting educational process. We have talked to the owner about what we need to do and have discussed the justification and documentation about it. Usually show and tell is the best sales tool, and in July and August, it is pretty clear.”

So much work goes into maintaining a golf course, but it’s so much space to manage. How do you make sure every part of it is ready for early-morning games every day?

“First, you start with a good plan, then a morning drive and observation. From there, you plan out the rest of the day and work from your plan. Unfortunately, you just never know what you’re going to come into in the morning. I’ve had cars driven across greens, where kids want to be smart and do donuts on the greens or fairways, then we have to communicate to our membership why there is a delayed opening or a certain hole that might be unplayable. It’s Communication 101. I just believe that when anything happens, you have to get in front of it and let everyone know what is taking place.”