DIRECTOR OF AGRONOMY
THE CLUB AT NEW SEABURY
Scott Nickerson is in his 29th season at New Seabury, a premier private golf community in Mashpee, MA and oversees two championship waterfront golf courses — The Ocean Course and The Dunes Course. He began his career in turf maintenance at Willowbend Golf Course, attended UMass, St. Lawrence University and the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, receiving a certificate in Turf Management and has been the lead agronomist at New Seabury since 1998.
He is a member of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) and the Golf Course Association of Cape Cod and a Board of Director for the local association as well as a Delegate to the National Association.
THE NICKERSON STORY —
We had a lot of land growing up so as a kid so I would spend hours in my backyard. My dad brought me a lot of golf balls home from a field adjacent to his place of employment so I started whacking the balls around and that eventually led to me building my own golf course. I used a variety of materials, whatever I could get my hands on, old gutters and various structures to create a combination of a mini-golf layout with longer holes and play areas. It was a full fledge operation and my own personal escape to play golf. I never imagined my backyard building would lay the groundwork for my eventual career path because I never aspired to be a superintendent or agronomist.
After college my father encouraged me to get a summer job at Willowbend. I took an entry level position as a laborer but after a short time, we squabbled over a pay raise of 50 cents — from $6 to 6.50 per hour — and I decided to leave. I then had an opportunity to play golf with Tom Colombo, the former superintendent at The Club of New Seabury, and he encouraged me to join the team and also to go back to school — winter turf school — and it gave me a broad perspective of the opportunities and reignited my passion for the game.
Over three decades, I worked my way up the ladder at New Seabury and ironically my first boss in the business, Chris Tufts — former superintendent at Willowbend — is now my Superintendent at the Ocean Course here. Chris once told me to always treat the people well on the way up because you never know when you need them on the way down. When I needed someone to help us out, I called Chris. We all kind of take care of each other in the industry and it’s been a life-long learning experience and fun adventure ever since.
You wake up in the morning — what’s the driving passion?
My passion and love for the game as well as being a people pleaser are the things that drive me every day. To be out on a golf course every day and to have an influence on our members’ experience keeps me motivated. I start each day riding around one of the most amazing properties and frankly that’s an office like no other. It feels like a slice of heaven.
I aim to please so I want everyone to be happy. An art form, where you visualize how things should be and how you can make it possible. Like all of my colleagues we strive for perfection and every day we want to get better. It’s all about presenting the best product for members. You can’t be in this business if you don’t have a passion for the game and I guess golf is my life, I eat, drink and breathe golf – whether I’m getting the course ready in the early part of the day,playing in the afternoon or talking to the members around the clubhouse.
Massachusetts was one of the last States to reopen golf courses — what’s been the impact on your activities on New Seabury given the Covid-19 realities?
The pandemic has impacted us substantially like most everyone. Our biggest challenge was keeping the property maintained while operating with a minimal staff and then on a moment’s notice have the courses ready when the Governor said go. We were fortunate enough to stay in communication with a number of local and regional golf associations and industry leaders so we were ready and able to ensure employees and golfers were protected.
We also took advantage of some down time and renovated our practice facility and driving range. Now that restrictions are opening up our tee sheets are filling up, especially since opening the new Ocean Course. Right now all leagues and tournaments have been cancelled through June and we will attempt to get some modified member-guest events off the ground but that is all to be determined.
Have your staffing numbers been impacted?
Yes we have had to adapt and adjust but there have been a few positives from this challenging time, too. Normally we bring our grounds crew and staff in around May, however, restrictions limited our staffing so we had help from our year round staffers. It was great to see Clubhouse guys like our Director of Golf, our Director of Membership and other staff out there mowing fairways. Really everyone came together as a team and that was a silver lining in all of this.
We also had most high school and college students out of school early, so they were lined up ready to work. We have brought people back in phases and still have some staffing to do but it has been an easy year to fill positions with every high school and college kid available in April. On the flip side, we have had to implement training and new safety precautions and procedures on the social distancing aspect so a lot more planning and logistics have been implemented.
What kind of level of course preparedness will golfers face this year?
We are committed to providing a safe environment for golfers and have provided new guidelines and procedures. A host of changes were made from flag sticks staying in the hole and using a pool noodle [or PVC pipe] that sits at the bottom of the cup and keeps the ball from going to the bottom to sanitizing stations in place of ball washers. We’ve removed rakes from bunkers and water stations and have instituted one person per golf cart — unless it’s a family member living in the same household.
We are sanitizing carts before and after rounds and logging date & time of sanitizing actions. And we have removed sand bottles, towels, tees, scorecards and pencils from the carts. Golfers are to remain at least 6-10 feet apart and we have spread out tee times by 15 minutes to help control golfers on putting greens, driving range and short game. These are just some of the many changes we are incorporating in what is now the new normal of golf operating procedures.
The Ocean Course is a William Mitchell design and was just updated by architect Bruce Hepner. What was the main emphasis on his involvement?
Having an esteemed architect like Bruce on site for our course renovations has been a bonus for sure. He listened to our concerns, identified the required areas of improvement and offered solutions. We were on the same page from day one with the vision and his onsite presence and efficiency was tremendous, allowing us to tweak and modify as needed in no time. Our communication was constant.
With the Ocean Course we accentuated the natural ocean views, enhanced the ambiance, play ability and maintainability of the course. With Bruce we developed a plan to accomplish aesthetic enhancements, new drainage, design variety and a full bunker renovation. We achieved all we set out to accomplish and the members are more than satisfied.
What’s the biggest misunderstanding golfers have on what a course superintendent does?
It’s common to be labeled as a grass cutter because we mow the turf but it’s so much more than that. We are now tasked with multiple responsibilities and we need to be knowledgeable in so many aspects of agronomy. One day we’re viewed as the resident scientist because our work encompasses an understanding of plant genetics and physiology, weather, meteorology, soil science and pest control. Managing a staff of 30-50 people daily requires juggling numerous jobs and responsibilities.
We have to look at year-round planning like aeration and other scheduled maintenance issues. Then there are weather elements and we just have to plan, adjust and adapt. The diversity of the job makes it a constant challenge and also makes every day different which keeps things interesting and makes it fun.
Given your answer — how do you seek to alleviate that?
Communication is one of the most important aspects of a superintendent’s job and I can attest to the fact that over the last six to seven years, members have approached me and want to know how and why we’re doing what we’re doing. They have an invested interest in the courses and our work so I’ll stay around the Clubhouse on weekends and answer questions.
I have an open line — phone, text or meetups — and they can always reach out. We don’t have a Greens Committee so the communication is direct. The more you’re willing to share and communicate the more receptive they are. Our members want a great golf course, so if they’re asking questions and pointing something out, we can learn from them as much as they can learn from me.
What’s the best way you recommend for golfers to provide meaningful feedback on their golf experience?
At a private club like New Seabury, members have numerous ways to get in touch but I like to make my presence felt on weekend mornings and late afternoons. I have made some good connections and relationships with our members. I don’t think anyone complains just to complain; it’s generally something that bothers them and my goal is to make 650 members happy. Their feedback is important and I take advantage of that. There have been years when conditions weren’t at the stellar level they are today but you have to be out there too for those uncomfortable moments. We need the good and bad feedback. We need it all to do our jobs well.
The Cape Cod area is a major golf hub — given your involvement and awareness of the broader area — how do you view this year’s golf season playing out?
With 45 golf courses on Cape Cod it is a popular activity and a big part of our region’s financial stability. There’s no doubt our area will be effected but hopefully we can bounce back from it. We recently hosted eight local superintendents here to play the renovated Ocean Course to discuss the different year we’re all facing. We’re in the same boat and are forced to tighten our budgets and operate our program under new operating procedures. We discussed best practices and how we can all learn from it and each other. The good news is golf is a safe social distancing recreational alternative.
If you could change one thing in golf unilaterally — what would it be and why?
Perhaps take a step back and rethink the importance of distance. The evolution of the golf ball and advancements in club technology has clearly changed the game more than I prefer. Distance has become so important it’s diminished the necessary skill set a golfer needs to fully understand and play the game of golf and it’s also made many golf courses obsolete.
I have an old school mentality. I don’t think the whole game should be about distance it should be about a variety of factors. Perhaps the Tour can restrict or modify equipment that would restore the game the way it was meant to be played. You have 14 clubs for a reason you should have to use them.
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