A Southern Transplant with a New York Heart
Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dave Hicks, superintendent at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Course at Cornell University. Dave will once again be hosting the CNYGCSA on June 21st in correlation with our annual Cornell Turf Research Day. Dave is the kind of guy who is so easy to talk to, I had far more fun interviewing him than I have playing his course, which isn’t nearly as kind to me as Dave was. We met on a day where he was working, and was also preparing to host the Dryden High School golf match later that afternoon, of which he is the head coach. He said it was a big match for the team, and was hoping to pull out a win.
Dave lives and breaths the game of golf. He was born and raised near Dallas, Texas, and began playing golf at a young age. He played the local Dallas municipal courses, and began working as a cart boy to be able to play golf free golf. When he was a little older, he switched departments and began working on the maintenance side of the business. At this time though, a career as a golf course superintendent was not his goal. He continued to play golf through high school and junior college, and eventually would enroll in the business program at North Texas State University, now known as the University of North Texas. After obtaining a degree in business management, he entered the work force. Dave ultimately determined that a career in the business world was not what he was after. He began to ask around on what the best course of action would be if he wanted to pursue a career in golf course management. He decided to enroll in the turf management program at Texas A&M University, where he received his associate’s degree in turf. After completion of the program at A&M, he and his wife Mary left Texas and moved to the Big Easy, New Orleans, LA, where Dave became the assistant superintendent at English Turn Golf and Country Club. English Turn is a Jack Nicklaus signature course that opened for play in 1988. After two and a half years as the assistant at English Turn, Dave was promoted to Superintendent. He would spend another 7 years there as the man in charge, before accepting his current position at the RTJ course at Cornell. Dave said that moving to New York was a tough decision to make, but he had heard good things about Ithaca, and he thought that the opportunity was a good one. He and Mary really enjoyed New Orleans, but together they decided that raising a family in Ithaca was what they wanted to do. It seems that they made the right decision, since they’ve now been here for 20 years and still love the area. Dave was even able to convince his parents to move to New York from Texas to be closer to the family and the grandchildren. Dave and Mary’s two children, Kate and Dean, are both recent college grads, Kate from West Virginia University, and Dean from Oneonta State.
The History Runs Deep at Cornell University
The Robert Trent Jones Golf Course at Cornell University is a 6,500 yard, par 72 layout. Located in the heart of Ithaca, the course holds a lot of history in regards to its famous designer. Jones was born in England and raised in Rochester, NY when he and his parents immigrated to the United States. He graduated from Cornell University in 1930. He is known as one of the first people to have gone to college specifically to become a golf course architect. However, at that time, colleges did not offer programs for golf course design like they do today. He developed his own curriculum, taking various courses in horticulture, landscape architecture, and engineering, among others. Jones was a pioneer in that sense, and many golf course designers have followed in his footsteps ever since.
The back 9 at Cornell was designed before the front 9 was, and Trent Jones is said to have designed it while he was a student, although it wasn’t built until 1941. After Jones returned from World War II, he would design the front nine, which was built in 1953. It is said that his experience overseas during the war is what contributed to some of the distinct design characteristics that are still seen on his golf courses today. The RTJ course at Cornell is a perfect example of this, as the differences between the back nine and front nine show the change is certain parts of his designs. For example, it is said that his famous “runway tees’, the very long and straight rectangular tees that are a distinct characteristic of so many of Trent Jones golf courses, is something that he thought up while serving in the war. The back nine at Cornell does not have that type of tee, yet the later designed front nine does.
The RTJ course is the home course to Cornell University’s golf team, and it is part of the athletic department of the school. For many years, it was only playable to people with an affiliation to the university. That has changed in recent years, and it is now open to the public as well.
As stated earlier, Dave Hicks has been the golf course superintendent for 20 years, and he informed me that he is the least tenured superintendent in the course’s history. That surprising fact is a testament to the loyalty of the university and its employees, although I would guess that Dave won’t be the least tenured forever. He seems to really enjoy working there, and the University enjoys having him there as well. Dave has a five man crew besides himself, and he couldn’t say enough good things about his staff and how important they are to his success at the club. He has a unique relationship with Dr. Frank Rossi, associate professor at Cornell and all around turf guru. Dr. Rossi and Dave collaborate on many ideas and projects, along with Rossi’s graduate students working on the Cornell turf plots and the golf course. In fact, while I was visiting Dave at the course, we ran into and spoke with one graduate student who was using a Parry Meter to test the greens for smoothness. In simple terms, the device looks like a small toy car on a stick, and is used in conjunction with an iPhone. The iPhone is placed on the device and an app is used to measure smoothness as it is walked across the green. This unique relationship that Dave, Dr. Rossi and his team share is beneficial to all involved. They are able to utilize each other to share knowledge and ideas, and execute plans together as well.
In addition to the golf course, the facilities also include a restaurant and golf shop that were both renovated recently, as well as a state of the art indoor practice facility that was built when the school decided to remodel the old squash courts. These, along with many of Cornell’s projects, are helped financially by alumni donations.
Come to Cornell University to Find Out More
The CNYGCSA is lucky enough to be able to visit with Dave and Dr. Rossi year after year for our annual Turfgrass Research Day. We will meet at the Cornell Turf Research plots, and then tour the golf course on Wednesday June 21st beginning at 9 am. While, Dave wasn’t willing to give away the secrets on what would be discussed at this year’s meeting, he did say that we will once again be in for a great discussion and a great day. Be sure not to miss this great opportunity to learn about the latest in turf research, and also to experience this great Robert Trent Jones golf course for yourself.
About the author: Mike Tollner is the New York Branch Manager of Turf and Soil Diagnostics in Trumansburg, NY. He has been working in the golf business since 1994.
About The Man
Before we get too far along, we should clarify any confusion regarding how to pronounce Ash’s last name. Gough is a British word that is pronounced “goff”, which makes Ash’s career path even more fitting. It is well known and documented that “goff” and “gouf” were common ways to spell “golf” in Scotland in the early days of the sport. So think “golf”, but say “goff” next time you pronounce Ash’s last name.
When I sat down with Ash to learn all about him on a professional level, we also dove into some critical topics about his personal life. For example, I learned that after playing a round of golf, or after a long day of working on the course, his preferred beverage is one that has Stoli Vodka in it. In the winter months, Ash is an avid snowboarder. He enjoys taking day trips out to Gore Mountain, and also enjoys hitting the slopes in Vermont when he has the chance to get away. He is a sports fan as well, and likes to watch Syracuse basketball, even in a frustrating season like this year.
Now that we’ve gotten that cleared up, lets talk about how Ash got to where he is today. He was born in Springfield, Missouri, and lived there as a child. His family moved to the Chicago area, and then to Binghamton, NY, where he attended high school. After finishing high school, he and his high school sweetheart (and now wife) Brandi would move to the Lake Placid area to attend college. Ash and Brandi have known each other for 20 years, and have both carved out great careers for themselves in the golf business. Brandi is the general manager at Bellevue Country Club in Syracuse.
Ash first became interested in a career in golf course maintenance when he got a job on the grounds crew at Saranac Lake Golf Club working for the legendary Tony Barnes. Ash credits Tony with getting him interested in Turf Management, and says that the time he spent working at Saranac Lake was the best learning experience he has had. He still keeps in touch with Tony from time to time, and considers him to be his mentor. These types of relationships are so critical to a superintendent’s success, and Ash’s relationship with Tony is no different. Brandi took a job at Saranac Lake as well, where her club management career would begin. After almost 5 years at Saranac Lake, they decided to move to the Delhi area so Brandi could begin school in Delhi’s club management program. Ash took a short break from golf course maintenance during this time, but was still interested in the business. He had a brief, but flourishing career as a pizza delivery guy during their time in Delhi. When Brandi finished school at Delhi, the two moved to Syracuse, where Ash got a job at Radisson Greens Golf Club in Baldwinsville. He worked his way up from being the nighttime irrigation guy, to assistant superintendent. It was during this time that he attended the Cornell Short Course for Turf Management, and decided that he wanted to be a golf course superintendent. After completing the short course and receiving his certificate, Ash got the superintendent position at the former Caughdenoy Creek Golf Course in Central Square. He spent two years there as superintendent. After that, he moved on to Liverpool Golf Course, and then to Foxfire Golf Course in Baldwinsville where he was employed for four years before getting his current position at Beaver Meadows.
About The Course
Beaver Meadows is located about halfway between Syracuse and Oswego just outside of the village of Phoenix. It is an 18 hole private club that was founded in 1965, and opened for play in the spring of 1966. It is a par 72 layout that plays at just over 6000 yards from the white tees, but can play as long as 6800 yards from the tips, and the course sits on a 200 acre property. In 2001, the members contracted local golf course architect Barry Jordan to head of some major renovations to the course. This included replacement of greens and installing new ponds, among other things. It is located in a quiet, country setting, and its lightning fast greens are what Beaver Meadows is known best for. The CNYGCSA was lucky enough to be able to play the golf course last August during the Poa Annual Tournament. The course was in great shape, and Ash’s poa annua greens lived up to their reputation. Since Ash took over as superintendent at the end of 2014, he has embarked on an in house bunker renovation project, which is just over halfway complete at this point. He is also currently working on rebuilding some of the bridges on the course, and has begun a tree management program, focused on removal of unhealthy trees and opening the course up to allow for more sunlight and air flow to the turf. His main goal at Beaver Meadows is to continue to make improvements wherever possible, while providing his members with great course conditions at all times.
In addition to the golf course, Beaver Meadows also has a large pool, which is very popular among the members and their children in summer. They also have a great restaurant and bar area, also a popular spot to find the members when they aren’t out on the course.
To Sum It Up
Ash is a tireless worker, with a great vision for golf course conditions. His hands on approach and strong work ethic are what got him where he is today. The fast track he has taken to become president of the CNYGCSA is a perfect example of his work ethic. I think that all members of our association should be confident that Ash will help to head the CNYGCSA in a good direction over the next couple of years.
We hope you like this new feature of our website, please check back periodically to see when we update it again and feature another great superintendent!
About the Author: Mike Tollner is the Golf Course Superintendent at Radisson Greens Golf Club in Baldwinsville, NY. He has been a member of the CNYGCSA for 5 years, and has been working in the golf business since 1994.