During the three-and-a-half years that Doug Norwell worked as an assistant superintendent under the legendary Matt Shaffer at The Country Club outside Cleveland, he learned plenty about water management and conservation. He learned even more about how to work with people.
“He was interested in growing people and moving them on, not keeping people and holding them back,” Norwell says. “And that’s how I approach working with my assistants.”
Shaffer, of course, is the former the director of golf course operations at Merion Golf Club, where he hosted a handful of headline events, including the 2013 U.S. Open, before retiring in 2017. Norwell, meanwhile, is still out on the course almost every morning, deep into his 20th consecutive year as superintendent at the historic Camargo Club in suburban Cincinnati.
Approaching its centennial, the Seth Raynor-designed gem is considered among the top classic courses in the country, with a footprint of more than 349 acres — 285 of them devoted to the course, and another 64 or so to a recently renovated practice area and stables. Norwell, too, is interested in growing people and moving them on, evidenced by his five former assistants who are now in charge of courses of their own — four of them within 25 miles of Camargo — as well as by his recent addition of a third assistant superintendent.
“I was just getting spread thin with additional responsibilities and went to three assistants, which I think is a good number,” says Norwell, who recently added assistant Kevin Veeley to a crew of 27 that includes fellow assistants Josh Clock and Bill Jones. “It’s been great, too, because it takes a little pressure off everybody. I think we’re all finding that stress isn’t good for any of us.”
Norwell is candid and open on and off the course, and he minces no words whether discussing his personal life, his years in the industry, even perceived differences between, say, baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials. But on the brink of 50, he tells nobody to get off his lawn. Instead, he listens and adapts, shifting his crew to become more representative of the current crop.
“I think it’s important that we do change and adjust to the workforce that’s coming to us,” he says. “We have to meet them in the middle a little bit, and I think it’s helpful to have three assistants to keep people happy in their jobs. Happy workers are better workers. It does reduce the stress.”
Norwell has also reduced stress over the last year by adding products to his agronomic program, including Daconil Action and Secure Action fungicides, both from Syngenta, which he uses almost exclusively on greens — “on the finest, most intensively maintained turf,” he says, “where you need the best results.”
To combat dollar spot, which is manifesting more easily than ever thanks to Cincinnati heat indexes in the high 80s and low 90s that tend to stretch now into the middle of October, he introduced Posterity fungicide last fall, too. “And I was really pleased that, with the high disease we did have, we didn’t have many issues at all with dollar spot,” he says. “It gave me three weeks of control during heavy rains, high humidity, high heat.”
And unlike his early years at Camargo — even his first decade and change — Norwell has spotted more and more signs of nematodes on the course. “It’s something I hadn’t really paid a whole lot of attention to because we were all taught it was a Southern problem,” he says. “It’s no Southern problem anymore.”
When he spotted the thinning and discoloration that are so closely tied to nematodes, Norwell consulted Syngenta territory manager Gregg Schaner, who first steered him toward disease testing the turf. “We sent in a nematode test and it came back really high,” he says, “at which point we had to start some treatments.”
Working with Schaner to develop a plan of attack, Norwell ultimately introduced a pair of nematicides into his program, including Divanem. “This year, starting out,” he says, “we were able to control the population a lot better. The generations are closer and tighter together, so we started earlier and are doing a lot better. You just control them. No matter what anybody says, you’re just trying to manage nematodes.”
The migration of nematodes, the evolution of dollar spot, even the more extreme maintenance of turf in general are all newer developments during Norwell’s almost three decades in the industry — and his two decades working on the same course. “You just need every tool at your hands, you know?” he asks rhetorically.
Last winter, Norwell started to gather together some of his old assistants — one more tool, more metaphorical than literal — their aim not golf, but beer. The monthly meetings serve as a sort of informal reunion and a cleanse from the stresses of daily grinds.
Pat O’Brien worked under Norwell until 2004 and has been the grounds superintendent at Hyde Park Golf & Country Club in Cincinnati ever since. Jon Williams is still in Cincinnati, too, where he works as the course superintendent at Coldstream Country Club. Scott LesChander is now the grounds superintendent at Terrace Park Country Club in neighboring Milford, less than four miles door to door from Camargo. Joel Hanlon is the most distant: as the grounds superintendent at Four Bridges Country Club in Liberty Township north of downtown, he works a whopping 23 miles from Camargo. Only Mark Daniels ventured out of state: he’s the head greens superintendent at Wannamoisett Country Club in Providence, R.I.
“They’re all older,” Norwell says. “They’ve got kids, which is interesting. They’ve all had the same kinds of trials and tribulations — they all put up with me for years — and now they’re out with their own job. They can vent about me, or they can vent about whatever’s going on, and everybody’s a good sounding board. You start to feel like a parent to some extent.”
Beers, like a regular round of golf, are an excuse for gathering together and catching up. “They feel like they can open up because everybody has their back,” Norwell says, adding that his old protégés help keep him young. Like most folks approaching a half-century of life, he has a variety of new aches, but he weighs only 13 more pounds — 168 total — than he did when he arrived at Camargo back in 1999.
“I like the idea of getting fresh guys,” Norwell says. “They’re fresh, it keeps you fresh, it’s helpful. You look back at some of the great things in history — like the Hoover Dam. If they built a Hoover Dam today, I’d be tempted just to quit my job and go work on building that dam. You know what I mean? Just because you’re building something that’s going to leave a mark for a really long time. Because what we do every day disappears by the next day. We’re cutting grass. That’s 98 percent of our job, and by the next day, you’re starting over. So how can I do something to put into the people who work closely with me? Help get them jobs and move them out.”
Planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. A little legacy, he says, helping others who will help others … who will help others … who will help others …
“I mean, it’s the truth,” he says. “If they were going to build a giant Hoover Dam again, I would love to go work on the construction crew and be part of that. That would be something — to be part of something a lot bigger. And I think you can be a part of something a lot bigger by building into people around you.”
Don’t hold back. Grow and move forward, onward, upward. And maybe share some drinks with old friends.
Matt LaWell is GCI’s managing editor.