First Green is planting seeds for future career paths

Schools and golf courses are collaborating to offer GCSAA program that allows students to receive hands-on, on-course STEM curriculum learning

PHOENIX, Arizona — Not all seeds planted on a golf course lead solely to grass growth. Some can bloom into new careers. That’s one long-term goal of the GCSAA’s First Green, an environmental outreach program where golf courses serve as hands-on learning labs for grade school and high school students on a field trip.

The existing curriculum, focusing on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — was greatly enhanced on Wednesday during the GCSAA Conference and Trade Show with a $1 million donation from the Family Charitable Gift Fund of former Toro CEO Michael J. Hoffman and his wife Tamara Rae Hoffman. The money will be used to add art to the curriculum.

The First Green program started during the late 1990s in the Pacific Northwest before the GCSAA took the program nationwide in 2018. Since then, almost 12,000 students around the country have participated in 225 field trips to golf courses.

“The sense of community afterwards was that we were one,” says Janemarie McKay, a teacher who worked with superintendent Alan Fitzgerald at Ledgerock Golf Club in Mohnton, Pennsylvania, on multiple First Green field trips. “It was no longer, that’s a golf club and we were a school district. It became collaborative. We wanted our students to learn about what do these people do on a golf course. I think that was a huge takeaway. You plant the seeds when these kids are young, and then they may choose it as field to work in later in life.”

Since 2018, the First Green outreach program has allowed golf courses to teach STEM curriculum to grade school and high school students through hands-on learning labs.

Fitzgerald set up interactive stations around the course, from cutting cups on a green to searching for organisms inside a creek, and even had drones greet the students once as they arrived at Ledgerock. “It’s been very rewarding,” he says of the program.

“We all know that having an experience where you can touch and feel and actively be a part of classroom subjects coming to life, what better place than the golf course to do that,” says GCSAA CEO Rhett Evans. “That’s the beauty of this program. Plus, superintendents can say to the older kids that if you want a summer job, or want to be part of the crew, here’s my card. We have had major success with getting members of school sports teams, or kids in the biology club, to become staff members. The practicality of this is real and it’s working.”

Another demographic seen as a tremendous growth target for the golf industry is women, and that extends to employment as superintendents. While the current number of females in that job around the country is miniscule, efforts are underway to change that.

Kimberly Gard, a California-based territory manager for Syngenta, has been a key driver behind that process. She worked with Olympic Club superintendent Troy Flanagan to recruit female volunteers working on the grounds crew during the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open.

“Some women there were the only female superintendent in their entire state,” she says. “Others didn’t even know other women did the job. When we all got together there it was so powerful and impactful.” That initial get together has been carried forward to subsequent tournaments.

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Education and networking events for women have increased as well, including a panel session held Wednesday at the GCSAA Conference sponsored by Leading Ladies in Turf, as well as the GCSAA Women in Leadership Academy that debuted last year. “Breaking the Turfgrass Ceiling,” a 2022 mini-series on YouTube.com, also shined a light on women in the industry.

“Events like those provide a sense of community. I can relate to other women in a different way than I do with men,” says Bri Kenny, manager of environmental science for Troon, the Arizona-based golf and golf hospitality-related management company. “I now communicate with more female colleagues, and have more female friends, which has been very helpful professionally and personally. The network of women in the industry is getting stronger every day.”

“When there’s another woman, or women, at a course, you just relax a little bit and feel a little more comfortable,” adds Kenny. “Plus, the women are pretty good at getting the guys in line. We’ll make fun of them if we’re doing the job better than they are, and that’s motivation for them to work harder.”

The ultimate goal is not only to recruit more women to the industry, but also to retain them.

“Last year I believe the amount of female GCSAA members increased by 24 percent from the previous year,” Gard says. “That’s not all superintendents (which currently number less than 50 overall in the U.S.), but that growth is still a positive sign. The challenge is that there are jobs out there, but we just don’t have enough women in the pipeline yet.” 

Bob Farren
Bob Farren.

> Bob Farren, director of golf course management at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club in North Carolina since 2001, has been named the recipient of the 2024 USGA Green Section Award.

Under Farren’s leadership, agronomic efforts at Pinehurst have included reducing more than 40 acres of irrigated turf in favor of signature sandscapes that feature native wiregrass, converting greens and fairways to more drought-tolerant turfgrasses, eliminating resource-intensive overseeding throughout the property, and championing training for his team.

He was also a principal founding partner of the Greenkeeper Apprenticeship Program, launched in the Pinehurst area last year with the USGA and Sandhills Community College, to provide education and mentorship for golf course maintenance workers.