Fall 2023

Natural Selections

Dillon Nelson carrying a GPS device on a golf course.
Dillon Nelson, a student in the Turfgrass Apprenticeship Program and an assistant in training at The Lido, one of Sand Valley’s golf courses near Nekoosa, Wis., uses a GPS device to digitally plot a future walking path between holes. Photos by Michael P. King


Emerging from the tree line onto The Lido golf course is like walking into a different world. Sand stretches over rolling hills where green grass parts the sea of beige. No trees interrupt the sight lines, and water hazards glimmer in the distance. First-time visitors may feel dwarfed by the vast surroundings, but Dillon Nelson is coming to know these 850 acres better than his own backyard.

Nelson has worked on the grounds of The Lido at Sand Valley Resort in Nekoosa, Wisconsin, since 2021. At that time, construction was still ongoing at the course — a re-creation of a famed Long Island club of the same name that was demolished for a military base during World War II. In fall 2022, as the opening of The Lido neared, Nelson entered the UW–Madison Turfgrass Apprenticeship Program (TAP) to both expand and fine-tune his turfgrass expertise.

“Everything we were taught was useful, and we dove into everything — maintenance practices, disease and weed management, budgeting, irrigation, equipment training,” Nelson says. “We learned so much in so little time, and it’s so beneficial for me and the golf course.”

The two-part TAP curriculum consists of a 12-week bootcamp and a field-based apprenticeship. The program was started by Paul Koch BS’05, MS’07, PhD’12, professor and extension specialist in the plant pathology department, and Doug Soldat BS’01, MS’03, professor and extension specialist in soil science, as part of UW–Madison’s Farm and Industry Short Course. Their aim is to train newcomers to the field as well as those already working in turfgrass management who want to increase their knowledge.

“The material we provide for students is specialized for turfgrass,” Koch says. “We offer the classroom section in the winter, so students can continue to work in the spring and summer. TAP costs less and takes less time than a liberal arts degree. It’s a supercharged amount of training in a short period to help students advance their turfgrass management careers.”

Plant pathology associate professor Paul Koch works with Turfgrass Apprenticeship Program students on turf species identification at D.C. Smith Greenhouse on the UW campus.

The turfgrass industry is an important contributor to Wisconsin’s economy: Golf alone provides an annual economic impact of $2.4 billion. Koch and Soldat have seen a lot of interest in TAP from employers and turfgrass associations looking for more qualified managers who can reinforce the industry. Many associations have even sponsored TAP grow students. A total of $13,000 in financial aid was available to students this past year thanks to donations from organizations such as the Wisconsin Turfgrass Association, the Wisconsin Golf Course Superintendents Association, the Wisconsin Sod Producers Association, and the Wisconsin Sports Turf Managers Association, which provided a scholarship for Nelson.

Two other strong supporters of the program are Rob Duhm, director of agronomy at Sand Valley, and Jimmy Humston, superintendent of The Lido. For them, the trained managers coming out of the program are invaluable to the resort. In fact, five students who earned certificates from TAP have worked at or currently help manage courses at Sand Valley.

“Through the program, people find out this is a career and get started on their journey in the turfgrass field,” Duhm says. “We need around 40 individuals on every course at Sand Valley — and we have five courses — just to get through each day, and we want to bring knowledgeable students from the program here.”

Humston adds, “The program springboards people who decide they want to do this job. They come back from the program more prepared and ready to take on more responsibility.”

TAP grew from five students to 19 in its first two years, and Koch and Soldat have been impressed by their dedication, excitement, and appreciation for the program’s format. During the boot camp, students attend “shop talks” to learn directly from superintendents and equipment maintenance experts. Then they complete their internship in the spring. Students can earn two certificates in the program — one for the boot camp and the other for the internship.

To develop internship requirements, Koch and Soldat worked with golf course managers, sod growers, and landscapers to create an extensive inventory of skills that would demonstrate competency in the turfgrass field.

“We now have lists of tasks for each type of internship,” Soldat says. “For a golf course internship, you might have tasks in many areas, such as financial management, record keeping, and guest relations. Students have to complete a certain percentage of tasks to get their second certificate.”

Students who finish the program take their expertise to positions at golf courses, lawn care companies, sports complexes, and sod farms or other areas of turfgrass management. Nelson now has a full-time position at The Lido, which opened in May. He’s excited to see golfers enjoy the course and looks forward to using all that he’s learned to maintain and improve it — from the tees to the greens to the bunkers.

And just how many bunkers are out there?

“One hundred forty,” Nelson says (without missing a beat) as he heads back onto the otherworldly course. “And eighty-three and a half mowable acres.”

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