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Jon Scott
Jon Scott
Jon Scott (R) working on a current project in Cancun, Mexico, Aak Bal, with Nicklaus Design Associate, Chet Williams (L).
Jon Scott (R) working on a current project in Cancun, Mexico, Aak Bal, with Nicklaus Design Associate, Chet Williams (L).

Interview with Jon Scott - A Fascinating Career Devoted to the Golf Industry.

Posted on October 14, 2014 at 6:00 PM

Vice President of Agronomic Services at Nicklaus Design & President of Jon Scott Golf Consulting, LLC, Jon talks about his fascinating life and career, his relationship with Bernhard, those who encouraged and enthused him and he offers us some wise and wonderful pearls of wisdom.

I gather Jon that you have English roots?

“The Scott family came from a small town near Aylesbury, Bishopstone. My great, great grandfather immigrated to the US in 1850 to earn enough money to homestead and farm in southern Michigan. I don’t know how many English traditions and customs were passed down through the years, but when visiting the ancestral region some years back I felt very comfortable and at home.

I grew up in a rural area near the town of Scottville, Michigan, which is located about mid-way up the east coast of Lake Michigan. The town and our family are not connected by name, but it became synonymous with who I am as I have gone through life. The town had a population of 1000 and I knew everyone in it at one time – and they knew me. My father, Robert Scott, was the local postman and my grandparents owned a small sporting goods store so there was little I could do that wasn’t in full view of someone who could put me on the straight path. I was the eldest of three children with two sisters. My mother, Lois, was an accomplished commercial artist and sign painter and still does occasional portraits and landscape scenes at 84.”

When did you first decide on your career path and what led you there?

“When I graduated from high school, I did not know what I wanted to do career-wise. My first job was shoveling snow on the town sidewalks and it progressed to a summer with the city maintenance crew, a surveyor’s helper for the county, and finally a job with the county road maintenance operations. Thus, I was exposed to working outdoors and operating light and heavy equipment at an early age, something that probably cannot be done today. I actually drove my first farm tractor at the age of 5 so the adventure started very early. What I did know was I did not want to sit behind a desk in an office or be trapped in a factory all day and that feeling continues to this day.

My passion for sports centered on hunting, fishing, and baseball. I didn’t care much for football because it took too much time away from the fall hunting season. Baseball ran a bit into fishing, but the games were usually over before the big ones started to bite so they were compatible. Dad was a leading sportsman in the community and taught me all the right values and rules thereof. What I found out later is these were life’s lessons he was sharing with me.

I eventually decided to attend a regional university, Ferris State, located in central Michigan. Since it was only a couple of hours from home, I didn’t have to make the clean break with my family or my passions. Many weekends would see me hitchhiking back across the state to spend time in the woods and farm fields I knew so well. In the middle of my second year, I knew I would have to make a choice and I thought I wanted to be a fish and game biologist. There was only one school for that and it was Michigan State University, so I arranged a transfer.

On arrival at Michigan State, I found it impossible to make the change from a non-science background to one so highly immersed in chemistry, biology, and physical sciences. Being the practical person I am I started looking for alternatives that would still put me outside a building for my work and pay enough to live comfortably. No, it wasn’t golf at first sight. It was Park and Recreation Management. It was a good fit and I only had to go an extra term to get my degree. I liked the people and I liked the environment. With a successful internship from Dade County in Miami, Florida, I was on my way to a park manager’s job there in the early spring of 1972. Fortunately there were no “park” manager jobs available when I got there. Instead, I became the first golf course superintendent of a brand new golf course still under construction for the Dade County Parks Department on Key Biscayne. That was blind luck and I had a lot of learning to catch up on.”

Your career path? What or who motivated you on the way through?

“I have had so many mentors along the way they would fill a book in their own right. The first was of course my father and mother. Both told me repeatedly that I could be whatever I wanted to be and do whatever I wanted to do. You hear that often enough and you believe it. Not going to college was forbidden in our household. It simply was a matter of where and what. Had they not been so supportive both financially and morally, who knows where I would have ended up? Certainly both encouraged me to work in the outdoors and that narrowed my options a little.

My second major mentor was a college English professor, a certain Mr. Swonk. He also told me I could do anything, but stressed that I had a skill for writing that I should never lose sight of. I haven’t and it has taken me far.

Following him I credit a former Superintendent of Parks for Dade County, Robert Scharbert. Bob saw something in me that caused him to find a job for me when I returned after graduation. He asked me “Jon, do you know anything about golf?” I replied that I had played it a few times with my buddies back home. “Fine, he said, I have a job for you.” And my career began. The county golf course superintendent, Maury Gasgoine also took me under his wing and made sure I didn’t kill anything we couldn’t grow back. Likewise, the course mechanic, Sylvester Jeffries, taught me how to operate and maintain the various pieces of golf course equipment, including the importance of sharp reels, blades, and bedknifes.

My first job taught me half of what I didn’t know. I say half because my real education in turf management began two jobs later in near Washington, DC. My second mentor was a self-taught superintendent named Freddy Michael at Aventura Golf Club, now Turnberry Isle in North Miami, Florida. Freddy was a mountain man from North Carolina who hired me as an assistant after Key Biscayne was opened. My management education started right there. Since neither he nor I had much of a technical background we focused on crew management, scheduling, and maintenance operations. Freddy was a natural and I learned a lot from him.

Then came a reality check with my next job at Montclair Country Club in Dumfries, Virginia. Growing grass in Northern Virginia was not as easy as it was in Miami. Thank God for my next mentor, Jim Faubion, Club Corporation of America’s head agronomist. Not only did he have the patience of Job, but he also was a great inspiration. I liked what he did and wanted to do it. I set my sights right then and there on becoming Jim Faubion. I wanted to know as much as I could learn about being a superintendent and share it with others. I wanted to be a consulting agronomist. A few years of short courses at Virginia Tech University and I was one step closer to my goal. It took stints at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, Sea Pines at Hilton Head, Grand Traverse Resort in Traverse City, Michigan, and finally Valhalla in Louisville, Kentucky before I was deemed ready. In 1987 I joined Jack Nicklaus’ agronomy staff and never looked back.

I also owe a great deal to the man I replaced on the Nicklaus agronomy team. I also ended up replacing him on his passing when he was head of PGA TOUR Agronomy. His name is synonymous with professionalism, leadership, and humility. Allan MacCurrach was not only a mentor, he was my friend. I spent enough time being consulted by Allan when I was a superintendent to know I wanted to work like he did. Both Jim Faubion and Allan had a lot in common. They were quiet, unassuming, and highly talented. There was no ego, no self righteousness, and no agenda. They simply wanted to help me succeed and they took pleasure when I did, not credit. This was how it is done, and I have modeled my work after theirs in all respects.

During my time with Nicklaus Agronomy, I worked under Ed Etchells, Jack’s long time head agronomist. Ed taught me the business of consulting as well as the substance. A good leader sets the goals and gets out of the way. That was Ed. Keep him informed, do a good job, and make money for the department in the process. Ed is still one of the best in the business and it was my fortune to have worked for him. After 9 years, though, it was time to move on. When the Tour came to ask I accepted with Jack’s blessing.

After 9 years with the PGA TOUR, I decided to return to work with Jack Nicklaus to finish out my career. I missed golf course development and the excitement of working for someone as passionate about quality as I was. The TOUR was a fantastic experience and one that I would not trade for anything. But, it just wore me down. As Jack has said many times since, I am that much better an agronomist than I was before I left him. I have now worked in almost every region of the world, met many people, seen many things. My success is based on that so I cannot leave out Jack Nicklaus as a consummate mentor. He IS the reason I am where I am today.”

There must be so many special moments in your career. Are there any that particularly stand out?

“When you have had a career as long and varied as I have, there are special people at every turn. I am remiss to start naming them for fear that those not named will be offended. Obviously, my mentors all qualify, notwithstanding Jack Nicklaus. I have also had the pleasure of working with Pete Dye, an experience I would have liked more of. Conversations with Tom Watson, Don January, Miller Barber, Tom Weiskopf, Sam Sneed, Tom Kite, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer are just a few that come to mind. And there was that young kid from California named Tiger. He and I sat and talked for 15 minutes once before the entourages spotted us. I learned how to talk to Players by working for Jack and it did me well during my time at the Tour. I’ve met countless dignitaries and famous people in my travels, and they all have one thing in common – golf. It puts us on equal ground, though due respect is never forgotten. I feel comfortable conversing with them and they know it. None of this would be possible without golf. I can’t imagine any other sport that has such a wide appeal.

Perhaps it all became clear to me the day I walked the fairway side by side with a former governor of Michigan, Jim Blanchard. I was superintendent at Grand Traverse Resort’s The Bear and this was the grand opening round with Jack, his son Jackie, and about 2,000 spectators. What do you say to a governor, I thought? We talked golf. He was a high handicapper and so was I. Immediately we had something in common. We were in awe of Jack Nicklaus.

My last years with the TOUR were the most satisfying from an accomplishment standpoint. When I started out, the agronomy department was struggling for resources. Allan had just passed on after an extended illness and the staff of 3 was trying to cover all bases. It just couldn’t be done. Over the next 7 years, we were able to build to a staff of 9, including me, and cover all of the three Tour divisions plus the World Golf Championships, wall to wall. We proved to the Players and the Rules staff the value of agronomy partnership and things really started coming together the last two years I was there.  My successor, Cal Roth, has been able to get even more resources based on the model we put together and I am happy to say that the US PGA TOUR is as strong and healthy as ever. I watch week after week and hardly see a blade of grass out of place. This is a testament to the individual superintendents and the agronomists who work with them. I am extremely proud of that.

My accomplishments with Jack Nicklaus are less visible. We work entirely in the background supporting our design staff and embodying Jack’s philosophies. In short, we make sure things work. We work closely with the client’s team to insure that the quality is built in from the start so that the course can be sustainable in the long run. I have worked on some really great golf courses.”

How have you dealt with the stress of the job, or maybe you don’t feel stress at all?

“Stress is part of the work we do. It becomes your partner, for better or worse. Controlling it is a very personal thing. What works for others does not work for me and vice-versa. I had to give up all of the outdoor sports of my youth, and almost the same with golf. There just wasn’t time. So, instead I read books on ancient history. I mean real ancient, like pre-history. It takes my mind away to other worlds in other times and the stress slides away. I also fly my Cessna 172 airplane when I can. Nothing makes you forget about your troubles faster than a lift-off. From then until I land, there is no thought of golf courses other than to see them from 2,000 ft. Now that I am slowing down a little, I plan to re-discover some of my earlier loves of the outdoors.”

Can you give me one word to describe your career so far?

“Adventure. Nothing else would come close to describing it.”

Your relationship with Stephen Bernhard, when did you first meet and come across Bernhard Grinders?

“It is hard for me to remember when I first met Stephen. I saw my first Dual Express grinder back in 1985 when I was still at Grand Traverse Resort. A Ransomes salesman brought one by as a demonstration unit and I immediately saw that it was superior to anything I had seen or worked before. It was a few years later when I became a Nicklaus agronomist that we were able to start recommending it as part of our equipment list and I am sure that is when Stephen and I first became acquainted, probably at a regional turf show. Our friendship really came together after I came to the PGA TOUR and started involving Bernhard with the host tournament courses. Stephen and Cal Roth had already formed a relationship with the Tournament Players Clubs and it was natural to extend this to the various tour stops. Stephen was most generous of his time and his resources and thus became an indispensible member of our team. The biggest hurdle was getting the course mechanics to allow Bernhard into their domain, but once on board they earned the respect of everyone from the superintendent on down.”

“The energy that goes into keeping blades sharp pales against the cost of not doing so. It ought to be law.”

“I became a believer of Stephen’s sharpening philosophy quite quickly. I, like most of the American superintendents, had learned the relief-grind, backlap routine early in my career. All Stephen had to do was show me the same results (or better) and leave backlapping behind, and I was sold. Probably the best example of the Bernhard difference was at the inaugural American Express Championship at Harding Park in San Francisco. Like most municipal operations, reel grinding was done at the central maintenance shop and let’s say quality was not a motivating factor. I knew that in order for us to pull off the event, we needed help from Stephen and he did not even hesitate to comply. We had one of his top technicians on site for the entire week leading up to and through the event. Consequently we were able to run 12 ½ ft. on the Stimpmeter at a height of 3.4 mm on bentgrass greens. This was at a time when it was vogue to brag about sub 2.5 heights. It started me on a crusade that continues to this day. Why cut lower than you have to in order to achieve a speed goal? I want the bragging to be about how high one can cut and not how low. We have it backwards in this industry. The energy that goes into keeping blades sharp pales against the cost of not doing so. It ought to be law.”

How is the Nicklaus Design emphasis on sustainable and environmentally sound golf courses going generally in the industry?

“Nicklaus Design is Jack Nicklaus. Jack is a conservative mid-westerner that does not believe in wasting anything, let alone a client’s investment. That investment depends on the environment to be successful and therefore it must be protected. Our golf courses have always been sensitive to that credo. Early on, it was just doing the right thing. Then, when the Audubon Certified Sanctuary program came along, Jack embraced it. When people started talking about water shortages, we were already reducing the size of the irrigated turf area and insisting on state of the art irrigation systems. We made sure that adequate drainage was installed, that the greens were built to USGA Specifications, that soils were amended or capped if necessary, and the right grasses were selected.  Agronomy has always been an integral part of the course design process. From the beginnings of his design firm in the early 1970’s to now, Jack has had agronomy support for his designs. That translates into sustainability, and I feel that Jack has been a leader in that philosophy during his entire design career.”

Do you feel that all designers have now followed the lead and adopted this valuable format and would you say that attitudes have changed?

“I am not able to speak for other golf course designers on the subject of sustainability. I know that those I have worked with welcome my support and those of other agronomists they may have worked with. They want to do it right but the resources are not always there to do so. We strive to give the best course that the client resources can provide and take care not to over-design beyond those means. I have to believe that any designer in a plaid coat does the same.”

Would you say that using grinders has helped reduce the use of chemicals, fertilizers and water as the plant is kept healthy and disease free?

“I can’t say that any designer thinks about blade sharpening as a part of the course’s sustainability index, but it is there nonetheless. There is no doubt that sharp blades put less stress on the grass allowing the turf to be healthier, use less water, require less fertility, and the superintendent/greenkeeper to be more conservative on pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide applications. It is an irrefutable fact backed by research. Thus, a designer can feel more comfortable working with design concepts that may push the envelope a little bit and still be economical to maintain.”

What are the most important lessons you learned in your career?

“First and foremost, always position yourself where you can take advantage of an opportunity. Never expect that it will be handed to you outright. You first have to be ready and then recognize it when it comes. Too many people fail one or the other or both.

Never forget the value of mentors and role models. They are the ones who you want to be like. Seek them out, listen, learn, and practice. It follows to never turn down an opportunity to mentor someone else. The benefit goes both ways.

Be prepared to sacrifice. Not everyone is and they find this profession extremely difficult. I don’t condone this requirement, but I have learned to accept it for what it is.

Learn from your mistakes rather than lament them. In this business you must kill grass to know how it happens. The key is to do it differently next time.

When considering something new, use Jon Scott’s Rule of 3’s. First, does it do any harm? If you don’t know, test it. Second, does it do any good? Again, test it to find out. Third, and perhaps most importantly, is it worth the cost? What is the return potential? You may not be concerned about this, but your boss will.

Be consistent, be fair. Nothing is worse than a leader who is constantly changing directions and arbitrarily assigning praise and discipline. A steady hand at the tiller will get you to port.

Arrive early, stay late. I’m sorry, but I can’t agree with the philosophy of a golf course running itself. It doesn’t.

Always keep learning. When you think you know it all, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Give back. You have been the recipient of someone’s giving to you. Return the favor.

Don’t chase success, earn it. When you do it will find you.”

What are your plans for the future, Jon?

“I am beginning to slow down. For some that know me, that would be returning to a normal pace. One reason Stephen and I became friends is we seemed to have the same drive to teach and share to help others reach their full potential. That takes a lot of energy. For now, I am reducing my travel schedule and focusing on other things that I have left behind. I am still working, of course, and have traveled almost every week this summer to prove it. But, it will be a little less this year, a little less next year, and so on until I decide to hang up my soil probe once and for all. I will ease my way into retirement and even I don’t know how slowly.”

Having worked in such a high profile job do you think you may write a book?

“It is amazing how many people ask me that question. I am flattered but also humbled that my story would be of interest to anyone. I always answer the question the same way, when I have time.  Perhaps that time is now coming?”

Are you a golfer?

“I love the game of golf but have never developed a game worth talking about. I am one of those 2-4 time a year golfers that everyone in the industry is trying to figure out how to get me more into the game. Quite easy really, I just need more time.”

Are your family close by?

“When I first moved to Florida we had our family with us consisting of my wife Anne, step-son Tom, and daughter Brenda. Another stepson, Joel, started his career in golf course maintenance about then and the other two kids soon followed their own dreams. That left Anne and I as empty nesters in West Palm Beach, Florida and we decided when I turned 65 to move back to Michigan where the bulk of the family is located. We came to Traverse City in May and are very glad to be back.”