UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Green, at least during the summertime, envelops State College. The mountains just beyond the roads, Old Main's lawn, the myriad T-shirts leftover from State Patty's Day -- they're all green. Green splashes so much of this town that the greenest and most lush part of the spectrum is likely to go unnoticed, this particular area being an acre or so on the northeastern edge of campus.
There, at the Penn State University's Center for Turfgrass Science, grasses grow in all sizes and shades. Patches of synthetic turf also have their place. Near the front, the shortest, most subtle kind of grass rises barely above the ground. This is the grass manicured for the greens of a golf course.
For years, Penn State has produced many graduates who eventually take care of some of the world's best golf courses, and the 113th U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in suburban Philadelphia this week further illuminates that connection. Matt Shaffer, a 1974 Penn State graduate, is director of golf course operations there. He maintains the course, continuing the circle of influence that has bound Merion and the Penn State turfgrass program.
At this point, you might equate the position of golf course manager/superintendent with Bill Murray's character from the movie "Caddyshack." In real life, Carl Spackler likely couldn't find such a job (unless a course needed someone who specializes in gopher extermination). In real life, the best managers must learn a mixture of agronomy and business management when they're in college. At Penn State, students can learn how to develop and manage turfgrass in a general way or for sports surfaces or with a focus on golf.
The significant stature of Penn State in the golfing realm has been demonstrated this year. In addition to Shaffer, the people in charge of taking care of the golf courses for the Masters -- Marsh Benson and Brad Owen at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia -- and the PGA Championship -- Jeff Corcoran at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. -- are graduates of Penn State. It is considered to be the first time alumni from the same school are superintendents at the three U.S. golf majors in the same year.
To understand how Penn State became synonymous with some of the world's best-kept golf courses, you must travel back to 1928, to Merion Golf Club. Around this time, heat and humidity depleted Philadelphia area golf courses. An invasion of Japanese beetles made the grass more prone to disease.
Joseph Valentine, an Italian immigrant who spent his teenage years in a monastery, was forced to cope with these problems as Merion's course superintendent. He came up with a proactive plan. Rather than eradicate a few bugs and bring temporary moisture to certain grasses while still facing the prospect of similar issues in the future, why not educate golf managers to build courses and use breeds of grass that wouldn't be as vulnerable to nature?
Such a lofty goal would require funding and organization. Along with the superintendent of the Reading Country Club and a higher-up for Toro -- the lawn-mower company -- in Philadelphia, Valentine traveled to State College. According to stories passed down through Penn State's turfgrass program, the three men entered Penn State president Ralph Hetzel's office, telling him the school should initiate a turfgrass program. He wanted Penn State to do for golf course superintendents what it had been doing for farmers since its inception.
John Kaminski, current director of Penn State's golf course turfgrass management program, is impressed by the boldness of this action: "If somebody came up from any industry and knocked on [current university president] Rodney Erickson's door, I'm sure he would say, 'Get the heck out of my office.' "
Though members of the state legislature with ties to Merion might have provided an extra push, Penn State ended up with $10,000 to start a turfgrass major, becoming one of the first universities to offer one.
The 80-plus years since have seen Penn State and its graduates involved with all kinds of courses and all kinds of grasses. Joe Duich, a Penn State alumnus from the 1950s and a retired professor, spent 10 years breeding grasses in hopes of finding a type less susceptible to weather and disease. His experiments led to a breed known as Penn A and Penn G. This type of grass is used on many high-end courses in the United States, including Merion. The royalties he and the university made from the sale of Penn A and Penn G helped the university build the current Center for Turfgrass Science, that expansive patch of green tucked away in the corner of campus.
Under a tree at the research center is a small stone engraved with a message dedicating the center to Valentine. The Merion Golf Club introduced Penn State to the golfing world, and Penn State continues to return the favor.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 Twitter @mdent05 First Published June 11, 2013 4:00 AM