[Ed. This story appeared in the January 2018 issue of Golf Course Management magazine. In April 2019 it won the Gardner Award from TOCA, the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association. I’ve won a bunch of these over the years but the Gardners are new — a sort of Best in Show among all the annual winners apparently, so I figured it was worth sharing here. There’s a link herein to another profile I wrote about the same time for GCM, on Dr. Frank Rossi. That one came out pretty well, too, especially if a) you’re a fan of kunekune pigs; or b) you want to know why Bethpage Black has agronomic relevance outside this week’s PGA Championship.]
When Kevin Banks was a turfgrass management student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, it wasn’t uncommon for decorated or otherwise experienced golf course superintendents to drop in for guest lectures. When Jeff Carlson, CGCS, came by in 2005, Banks says he remembers thinking, “Wow, this guy is crazy!”
Frankly, that’s how most students in the midst of a traditional turf management education might have appraised Carlson’s work at the Vineyard Golf Club. When permits were being sought for building this golf course on environmentally sensitive Martha’s Vineyard in Edgartown, Mass., in 1998, developers were obliged to promise the local conservation commission that the prospective golf course would be managed in an entirely organic manner.
The Vineyard Golf Club opened for play in 2002, and Banks graduated in 2008. He would then apprentice at several traditional clubs before this story came full circle — Banks took over for Carlson as head golf course superintendent at the Vineyard Golf Club on April 1, 2015.
“I guess I’m the crazy one now,” the nine-year GCSAA member says.
Two-plus years into his tenure, Banks has more than warmed to the nonconforming aspects of his job, one of the few in golf course management that takes the organic approach from mere trend or direction to guiding principle.
“It’s definitely been a challenge, but I’ve also definitely become addicted to it,” Banks admits.
Just 31, Banks today finds himself at the crux of another nascent industry trend, a phenomenon where head superintendents hire and groom their replacements, having accepted another position at the same club. Carlson stepped aside in the spring of 2015, but he remains at the Vineyard Golf Club as property manager, where he oversees capital projects — a just-concluded Gil Hanse redesign, for example.
The idea of having the previous superintendent at the club — perhaps hovering, perhaps exerting undue or unwanted influence — may strike some as awkward. Not Banks, and here, the organic dictates governing turf management at the club intertwine with these issues of succession.
“Before I took this job, I knew who Jeff Carlson was. Almost everybody in New England and New York did too, and I’m sure that reputation extends even farther than that,” Banks says. “He has been the organic ambassador for my entire turfgrass career. Having him help manage the golf course with me my first season here was a really sensible transition. I knew it would be very different for me, at first, but Jeff knew exactly where to expect an outbreak. He knew where we would first see weed pressure, and all this input came with his very relaxed and calm presence.
“I will always thank him for being patient and mentoring me into a truly organic manager — something I take great pride in today,” Banks adds.
Can Banks imagine having taken on the organic learning curve without Carlson there, on-site?
“Not really,” he answers. “Jeff was very patient. My first year, the disease we encountered in certain areas maybe should not have happened. I believed moisture levels were adequate and acceptable enough to fight disease pressure. They weren’t. But Jeff sat back and let me learn from my mistakes, and watched me grow.
“From the beginning, I was talking to anyone and everyone to get my head around the issues. And I still do that.”
Banks says he frequently talks with colleagues, companies and researchers about the specific issues he faces. Frank Rossi, Ph.D., of Cornell University and recipient of GCSAA’s 2018 President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship, is “a great resource,” he adds.
“But the way I look at it, Jeff is my best researcher. As often as I do interact with all these organic contacts and their ideas, I still take most of them with a grain of salt. They can recommend what they think is right, but you must compare that to what I’m finding here on the ground and what I think is right — and to what Jeff thinks, because he’s done it.”