Who is Stephen Kay?
Stephen Kay is synonymous with great golf course design. A golf course architect with 30 years of experience, Kay has designed 20 new courses that have received national attention. He's also renovated and restored 250 more worldwide.
Courses Designed by Kay:
• The Links of North Dakota (Williston, ND)
*Ranked among the "top 100 in the country" by Golfweek and Golf Digest
• The Architects Club
*Listed as one of the best 10 new courses in Links Magazine and Sports Illustrated in 2001
• Scotland Run
• McCullough's Emerald Links (Atlantic City, NJ)
• The Links at Union Vale (Poughkeepsie, NY)
• And over a dozen others
Kayís Top Tips to Become a Successful Superintendent:
2. Vent your drainage.
3. Donít fall in love with your own ideas. Be open-mindedly stubborn.
4. Spike, spike, spike.
5. Learn how to interview.
6. Start at the bottom and plan to work your way up.
Becoming a Teacher
Kay started his career working for an established architect in Michigan, who also happened to teach turf courses at Michigan State and the University of Michigan. The firm was so busy that Kay soon found himself working not only on their golf course projects, but also picking up the slack in the classroom for his boss – and really enjoying it.
"The last year I was there, he was so busy working on a project in California, I taught his classes for eight out of ten weeks of the course," said Kay.
When Kay moved back to his home state of New Jersey, he hoped to continue teaching at Rutgers.
"It was the fall of 1984, and I was speaking at a conference. Ned [Lipman, Director of the Rutgers Professional Golf Turf Management School] was there and he came up to me afterward and said, 'You were really good. I liked how you presented the information. Have you ever taught in college? Would you be interested in teaching in the Rutgers program?'
"And that's how it started," said Kay.
The Rutgers Reputation
Over the 25 years that Kay has been teaching, the Rutgers Professional Golf Turf Management School has really become a world-class program.
"Probably 20 years ago, people would just say about the Rutgers program, 'It's okay, it's convenient.'"
But now, Kay hears people talking very highly about it. "People say, 'It's a top 5 program in the country.'"
"We [Rutgers] are definitely top notch."
The Most Important Lessons of Turf School
Stephen Kay teaches turf students from a bunker.
Today, Kay teaches Golf Design History and Principles, Construction 1 and 2 and Surveying.
The most important things that he wants his students to remember are to vent their drainage ("Like when you open a can; if you don't put holes in the top, a vacuum will occur. It's the same thing with drainage," he explained.) and to hire an architect when they start doing construction work on their course.
"Lots of superintendents play architect and sometimes they lose their job over that. It either ends up costing more than they thought it was going to cost so they go way over budget or it just doesn't turn out well."
It's important to have the right skill set for the task at hand. As Kay pointed out, "If you're sick, you go to a doctor."
What Makes a Successful Superintendent?
Kay oversees students practicing golf course surveying techniques.
"Number one is being able to listen. Then you need to know how to grow grass. And you should not fall in love with your idea of how to do something. You should be open-mindedly stubborn," Kay said, reflecting a big-picture view.
But hard-core technical skills are still equally important. According to Kay, one of the lost arts of being a great superintendent is spiking, although it seems to be making a comeback. Spiking is a a cultural practice in which the turf is pierced with thousands of small holes to improve water flow, oxygen exchange and to alleviate compaction.
"You've got to constantly be spiking or breaking through the thatch area to get air moving. If not, a lot of important things could stop happening," he said.
Kay recounted a conversation on a visit to Scotland. "The superintendent of St. Andrews asked me why we have such a problem with moss on our greens [in the U.S.]. He pointed out that, if anything, moss should be a problem in Scotland, with all the humidity and fog. Then he answered his own question: 'We spike our greens in 2 directions twice a week.'"
Kay knows the importance of spiking but says that not everyone is aware of it. "I get out to between 250 and 300 golf courses each year and for the ones who spike, they tell me, 'Wow, what an improvement. The more I do it, the better my greens are!'"
And the final advice for those who want to become superintendents? Kay tells them to learn how to give good interviews and plan to work their way up.
"Be an assistant at a top 100 club first. If you are an assistant at a top 100 club you'll get the superintendent job you want."
Courses Renovated by Kay:
• Seawane Club
(Long Island, NY)
• Hartford Golf Club
• Woodland Golf Club
• Llanerch Country Club (Philadelphia, PA)
• Forsgate Country Club (Monroe, NJ)
• Lakewood Country Club (Cleveland, OH)
• Torresdale Frankford Country Club (Philadelphia, PA)
• And over 200 others
Before & After:
Country Club Hole #5:
Before Kay's Renovations
Country Club Hole #5:
After Kay's Renovations