Before I met Nelson Caron, my only frame of reference for a golf course superintendent was Carl Spackler, Bill Murray’s bucket-hatted, combat-boot-wearing character from the movie “Caddyshack.” I never imagined real-life golf course superintendents actually spent their days chasing dancing gophers or caddying for the Dalai Lama; I just didn’t know what else to think.
As it turns out, Nelson and Carl Spackler couldn’t be more different. Where Carl’s makeshift office was little more than a cluttered maintenance shed, Nelson’s office offers subtle clues about the man himself. Sitting on the floor in front of the room’s only desk are several pairs of shoes in various stages of dirtiness, each a quiet testimony to the requirements of the job. A framed flag from the Augusta National Golf Course hangs on one wall, a prized possession for one of the handful of golf course managers worldwide invited to Augusta each year to help care for the golf course during The Masters Tournament. And tacked to the wall next to the door is a photo Nelson took on his first day of work at The Ford Plantation. It shows the golf course looking worse for wear and bears a caption that provides instant perspective: It Could Be Worse.
When Nelson came to The Ford Plantation a decade ago, the celebrated golf course was not aging gracefully. Infrastructure was failing, and as a result, the club could lose several days of play after just a couple of inches of rain. Such is the case when a golf course is built on former rice fields, which are purposely designed to flood.
To address the immediate challenges, Nelson collaborated with the original designer of the golf course, the legendary Pete Dye. At the time, Nelson and Dye had a working relationship that already went back several years.
“I was expecting somebody really well-presented, like in a suit and tie and fancy shoes,” Nelson says when asked about the first time he met Pete Dye. “But when we got to the airport to pick this guy up, he came out in a pair of jeans, tennis shoes, and just a regular old pullover. For luggage, he had this leather bag that he had literally written his name on, and it just said “Pete Dye” on it. He’d just written with a black permanent marker across the face of his luggage. That’s just how Mr. Dye was.”
Nelson and Dye would go on to develop a strong working relationship, and when Nelson was being considered for the job at The Ford Plantation, he phoned Pete Dye and asked him to call The Ford Plantation on his behalf.
“The first time [Mr. Dye] called, he called the old golf pro here whose name was C.W. Canfield,” Nelson recalls. “And, no joke, he called C.W. and C.W. picked up the phone and Mr. Dye said, ‘Is this C.W. Canfield?’ and C.W. said yes. He said, ‘This is Pete Dye,’ and C.W. hung up on him because he didn’t believe it was Pete Dye. That’s a true story.”
“So Mr. Dye called back and C.W. said hello. Then Mr. Dye said, ‘This is P-E-T-E-D-Y-E, Pete Dye; don’t hang up on me.’ And then I guess the rest is history as far as me getting to The Ford Plantation.”
The Road to The Ford Plantation
Nelson grew up in Durham, NC on a black Angus cattle farm. His father, who later became a scientist of international renown, often joked that he spent his life trying to get off the farm while Nelson spent his life trying to get back on it. When Nelson was 14-years-old, a neighbor offered him a summer job at a local country club.
“When I went to work at this golf course, they were doing a renovation project—so they were replacing all the grass,” says Nelson. “They started planting the grass, and then during summer months—during the hot months—you could see it growing dramatically every day. This particular kind of grass, Bermudagrass, it spreads over the landscape and—I don’t know—I just found it fascinating. I still do.”
That summer, Nelson filled a trash bag with big hunks of Bermudagrass sod and took them home to his family’s farm. He spread the sod in his father’s yard, watered and cared for it, and by the end of the summer, they had one heck of a yard. Nelson was hooked.
After high school, Nelson went to North Carolina State and obtained a degree in Agronomy with a focus on Turfgrass Management. Following college, he spent four years as an assistant superintendent at a golf course in Virginia, which is where he first met Pete Dye. Next, Nelson spent another four years at a Pete Dye design golf course in Tennessee, where he had the opportunity to work with Dye on a number of course renovation projects. Then, in 2008, an opportunity presented itself at The Ford Plantation.
Retouching a Masterpiece
When Nelson first came to The Ford Plantation, the biggest problem with the golf course was drainage. “I was hired to come in and fix it,” says Nelson. “And ‘fix it’ meaning that I didn’t know, nor did the members know, at the time that we were going to need to really start from scratch and blow it up and kind of start over.”
Nelson spent a year assessing the drainage issues with the golf course. During that time, Pete Dye came and spent a day at The Ford Plantation with Nelson. Dye provided insight into how the course was originally designed, which allowed the grounds crew, under Nelson’s leadership, to make some adjustments that greatly improved the condition of the golf course.
“That picture there behind you,” Nelson says referring to the photo tacked to the wall by the door. “That’s my first day at work. That’s been up there for ten years now. That’s what the place looked like when we got here, and we got to figure out how to fix this thing. I had no idea the depths that it would take to get it to where it is today. It’s a huge success story demonstrating the will of the membership at The Ford Plantation to make the investment to do what needed to be done.”
Despite the improvement in the condition of the golf course, it was clear the adjustments were only temporary fixes. A long-term plan was needed to ensure the golf course Pete Dye affectionately referred to as his “Finest Southern Links” would be around for generations to come.
“We put a big package together for the membership and presented the state of their golf course,” Nelson recalls. “It took a lot of meetings, but they finally agreed to fix it. And when they did, of course, Mr. Dye was heavily involved in the construction.
“[Mr. Dye and I] talked about The Ford Plantation,” says Nelson, “and how lucky he was because he got to come back to The Ford Plantation—meaning he got a second chance at The Ford Plantation to make some changes artistically. To have a second chance at a work of art is pretty rare, so he really enjoyed coming back here and making the changes that we made.”
Following its renovation, the golf course at The Ford Plantation was named one of the “Best New Golf Courses in America” by Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, and Links Magazine named it “Best Renovation (Private) 2014.” In the years since, Golfweek named The Ford Plantation to its “Top 100 Best Residential Courses” in both 2016 and 2017.
Conservation Goes State-of-the-Art
Today, the renovated course at The Ford Plantation stands at the crossroads of playability, industry-leading conservation practices, and state-of-the-art technology. The course was certified in 2016 as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary due in large part to its water conservation practices and implementation of precision agriculture.
“Golf courses have long been painted with the wrong brush,” says Nelson. “I think when you dig down into what golf courses are actually doing today, they’re not your grandfather’s golf courses anymore because, quite frankly, we’re not your grandfather’s superintendents. You don’t take agronomy courses at NC State or Clemson or Texas A&M and not take conservation classes. Half the curriculum is about conservation. It has to be because otherwise, we’re not going to have anything left to work on.”
To conserve water, The Ford Plantation uses high-tech, in-ground moisture sensors located all over the golf course. These networked sensors measure the moisture level in the soil and provide updates every five minutes. This data is accessible to the grounds crew at The Ford Plantation almost anywhere there is an Internet connection via computers, tablet devices, and smartphones. This moisture data gets paired with smart watering technology that allows the grounds crew to select the individual irrigation heads necessary to apply just the right amount of water and only where it is needed.
The result is a win-win for both members and the environment.
According to Nelson, “The whole idea behind a lot of Mr. Dye’s golf course designs is you want to keep the grass as healthy as possible, but you also want to keep it as firm as possible. So if you can go without watering it for extended periods of time that means the ground will be firmer, the ball will bounce higher and roll faster, and the game will be more fun.”
In addition to its water management program, The Ford Plantation in one of less than two dozen clubs in the country that practices precision agriculture, which has allowed the club to reduce its overall fertilizer use by more than 35 percent.
Nelson explains, “Our technology allows us to take soil samples of the entire 140-acre golf course on a 20-yard grid. Each soil sample gets bagged, tagged with its GPS location, and sent to a lab. The lab does the analysis sends us the results, which we can put into a software program. The program will populate a spatial map that shows what nutrients are needed in that specific location.”
The Ford Plantation then uses state-of-the-art fertilizer equipment that can distribute fertilizer at variable rates. Each section of the grid gets only the amount and mix of nutrients it needs. That’s precision agriculture.
Nelson has come a long way from growing Bermudagrass on his family’s farm in North Carolina.
Today Nelson is considered a leader in the golf industry, a result of his hard work and pursuit of more sustainable golf course management practices. He’s been on the lecture circuit for eight years talking about precision agriculture and the environmental management systems employed at The Ford Plantation. He speaks at important meetings of environmentalists including the Environmental Protection Agency and Environmental Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
“I go to those meetings representing the golf industry as a whole,“ Nelson says with pride. “I’ve been fortunate that the golf industry has put me in that position. I’m happy to do it because I’m pretty passionate about the environment and environmental conservation in particular.”
Nelson works with the Georgia Superintendents Association in a government relations role at the state board level trying to protect the interests of the game of golf itself and of the members who join golf clubs. Sometimes that means meeting with regulators about new regulations that affect clubs, and other times it means educating people on environmental enhancements that golf courses are doing or what golf courses provide.
Nelson is also trying to create opportunities for others to follow in his footsteps. He partnered with the members at The Ford Plantation to create The Pete Dye Scholarship, which was designed to provide scholarships to students pursuing agronomy degrees. Now in its ninth year, the scholarship is expanding to offer college tuition assistance for both employees of The Ford Plantation and their children.
When asked why he stays at The Ford Plantation, Nelson’s response is immediate. “It’s an easy, easy answer. The truth is the members keep you here, the people you work for. That’s what keeps you here. These people respect what you do for a living. They give you the resources to do it. And they expect results, they hold you accountable, but so many of my peers just don’t have the luxury to work in the environment that I do. These folks have been really good to me, so they would be hard to leave.”
I conclude my time with Nelson with a final question. I can’t help but wonder if he has a favorite golf movie. He smiles, “Yeah, ‘Caddyshack,’ of course. I love it.”
Maybe there’s a little bit of Carl Spackler in Nelson after all.