Penn State turfgrass program hits trifecta of major U.S. golf events

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- "Trifecta" is a term usually associated with horse racing. But the turfgrass program in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences hit a trifecta of sorts this year in the world of professional golf.

Graduates of Penn State's turfgrass programs -- the largest turfgrass curriculum in the country -- will oversee the courses hosting all three major U.S. tournaments in 2013:

-- The Masters was played in April at Georgia's Augusta National Golf Club, where Penn Staters Marsh Benson and Brad Owen are senior director of golf course operations and superintendent, respectively.

-- The U.S. Open, scheduled for June 13-16, will be held at Merion Golf Club near Philadelphia, Pa., which is managed by alumnus Matt Shaffer.

-- The PGA Championship, slated for Aug. 8-11, will be played at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. Penn State graduate Jeff Corcoran is the Oak Hill superintendent.

For the first time, alumni from the same school are responsible for the tees, greens, fairways and roughs for all three U.S. major golf tournaments in the same year — a professional trifecta.

It is the first time alumni from the same school are responsible for the tees, greens, fairways and roughs for all three U.S. majors in the same year. In fact, by the time these three tournaments have been held, Penn State will have educated course superintendents associated with 10 of the 16 major championships dating back to 2008.

Another first for the program also is a personal trifecta for another Penn State alumnus. Paul Latshaw is the only superintendent to host all three U.S.-based majors during his career.

In addition, last fall's Ryder Cup -- pitting a team of the best Americans against their European counterparts -- was played at Medinah Country Club near Chicago, where Penn State alumnus Curtis Tyrrell is director of golf course operations.

"We have graduates at top courses all over the world, many as superintendents," said John Kaminski, associate professor of turfgrass science and director of the Golf Course Turfgrass Management program. "And many of them give back by hiring our graduates and providing internships for our current students."

At this end of this season, Penn State will have educated course superintendents associated with 10 of the 16 major golf championships dating back to 2008.

Kaminski noted that several current and former Penn State turfgrass students will be on staff at U.S. Open venue Merion Golf Club this summer, giving them a hands-on experience of a lifetime. But, he explained, Penn State turfgrass and Merion have a shared history longer than the legendary course's 628-yard, par-5 fourth hole.

Longtime Merion superintendent Joseph Valentine, who managed the course from 1918 until he retired in 1962, early in his tenure witnessed several difficult years for growing turfgrass. In 1927, for instance, the Japanese beetle caused widespread damage throughout the Northeast, and it was a hot, humid summer with many turfgrass diseases.

In 1928, Valentine and two colleagues travelled to Penn State President Ralph Hetzel's office and encouraged him to initiate a turfgrass program that could provide the burgeoning golf industry with the best science-based advice. Hetzel agreed to assign an agronomy faculty member to turfgrass on a half-time basis, and Penn State's turfgrass program was born.

"We have graduates at top courses all over the world, many as superintendents ... [and] several turfgrass varieties developed at Penn State are grown on courses around the world. We like to say that the sun never sets on Penn State turfgrass or Penn State turfgrass graduates." 

– John Kaminski, director,
Golf Course Turfgrass Management program

The fledgling program got a boost in 1932, when a committee led by Valentine persuaded the Pennsylvania General Assembly to appropriate $10,000 -- a large amount for that era -- for Penn State turfgrass research.

From those beginnings, the program grew by leaps and bounds, today serving about 150 students in the two-year golf course turfgrass management program and the four-year turfgrass science major, and hundreds more via online courses through Penn State's World Campus. Since its launch in 1957, the two-year program has graduated more than 1,600 students, and its current job-placement rate is virtually 100 percent, according to Kaminski.

Most of Penn State's turfgrass research takes place at a 17-acre campus facility named for the program's early advocate: the Joseph Valentine Turfgrass Research Center. There, scientists conduct studies on management practices and evaluate turf varieties for factors such as hardiness, disease resistance, drought tolerance and other factors.

"Several turfgrass varieties developed at Penn State are grown on courses around the world," said Kaminski. "We like to say that the sun never sets on Penn State turfgrass or Penn State turfgrass graduates."

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Last Updated June 13, 2013