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June 2024

Augusta in Alaska

Will Magnolias Grow on the Frozen tundra?

By Harvey Silverman

Chance meetings are sometimes the most remarkable.

With a few hours to kill in arguably the country’s worst airport, Orlando International, I treated myself to a day pass to the United Club. Heck, for 59 dollars, I’d get some food, something to drink, and a relatively quiet and comfortable place to await my flight back to San Francisco. Orlando’s United Club is not very big, so I found a good spot with power nearby in the kids’ section amongst the puzzles, legos, and coloring books. You’re never too old for some Mickey Mouse.

Also, there were NGCOA members from Settlers Bay Golf Course in Wasilla, Alaska, Amos Stephens and Vicky Urbina, along with their young son. I recognized Amos because each year, he stands and introduces himself at Jeff Hoag’s “Masterminds of Golf” pre-Golf Business Conference session as “the guy from Alaska” and asks intelligent questions, seeking advice from other members.

And there we’d be, in the warm climes of Orlando, and I imagine the thought bubbles popping up from folks in the room: “Alaska? Is the season, like, six weeks? Do they have to chase polar bears off the property? Are there more mushers than golfers in the state? Are the greens oil and sand?”

Meeting with Amos and Vicky in the United Club cleared my thought bubble that pops up every year Amos rises. They trek further than any other NGCOA member in a quest for knowledge and advice, searching for ways to improve their business and guest experiences. They illustrate that the value derived from NGCOA membership and the annual Golf Business Conference far exceeds the cost of attending.

A missed flight thanks to overwhelmed MCO security made our chance meeting happen.
And Amos and Vicky weren’t heading home from Orlando – they were heading to Phoenix for the 2024 GCSAA Conference and Trade Show. Amos is a Class A GCSAA Superintendent and General Manager. Vicky is the Director of Hospitality and Events Coordinator. Their quest for knowledge must be a sizable line item in their budget.

Wasilla, AK boasts a population of less than 10,000, and is about an hour’s drive north of Anchorage. It’s a 75-hour drive, or 10-hour flight, to Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center, nearly five thousand miles. The course is an 18-hole championship-length golf layout about five degrees latitude below the Arctic Circle and just about the latitude (60 degrees north) where permafrost can start. That makes Amos’s greenskeeping results even more remarkable.

Settlers Bay’s tagline, reputation, and claim to fame is, “Alaska’s Best Putting Greens.” And I thought, how good do they have to be? I mean, come on, it’s Alaska, not Florida.
And then Amos and Vicky pulled up some images and videos of how the greens survive the brutal winters and what they look like when uncovered in the spring. What they showed me gave wings to this article. But if pictures are worth a thousand words, these are worth multiples of that. Their pride was palpable, and deserved.

Amos arrived in Alaska fresh out of the University of Kentucky, learning and believing that Bentgrass was the best option to survive long, cold winters. However, in Alaska, all the golf courses in the Anchorage market were growing poa trivialis. That’s not what he just spent hard-earned dollars to learn to grow. But he let the ball roll, as it were, as the Assistant Superintendent and dutifully followed orders.

In 2002, Amos began experimenting with solid impermeable covers, showing mixed results with the poa turf – some surviving and too much not. The covers were lost in a massive 2005 winter storm. Promoted to Superintendent in 2005, Amos quickly transitioned to Bentgrass greens, planting the Penn series G6/A4 variety.  He believed the transition would give Settlers a fighting chance to endure 180 days of snow and ice with or without covers.
The GCSAA Conferences and trade shows were vital to stay on the cutting edge of the new concept of solid impermeable turf covers. Slowly, the condition of the greens improved each year; it was not perfect, but it was better. 

Then, the winter of 2019 arrived, and Settlers lost it all. “We received an inch of rain on top of six inches of snow in mid-November, forming a solid inch-layer of ice for the entire winter directly on the putting greens with no way to remove it due to low sun angles and all the variables of an Alaska winter,” Amos recalls. “The greens were lost. When you have a unique selling proposition that reads ‘Home to Alaska’s Best Putting Greens,’ you are committed to ensuring that is the case. Taking until July to produce a respectable putting surface is not how our business model works. We need greens in April.” 

So Amos vowed not to go through another experience like 2019 again. He learned new information from the GCSAA and NGCOA members on using solid covers and dove in head first. The greens are covered and vented, providing gas exchange and insulation to protect them from the winter’s wrath. Each green, averaging 3,500-5,500 square feet, has three air inlets that connect to backpack blowers turned on for ten minutes each week. Click here for a short video of the blowers in action, and check out the sun angle. That’s high noon in Wasilla in January. 

The results? You be the judge.

Amos goes on to say, “Having the confidence that we can provide a quality product year over year allows us to be aggressive with our marketing and pricing to maximize the short season we operate in. The basics of economics are in play. Quality products are in increased demand, and those demands allow for prices to move. When I first arrived, we expected that golf would be on greens from June 21 through the first of October. We now play golf on putting greens in April, a solid two months sooner, by maintaining the playing surface alive during that 180 days of snow and ice. (Note: Settlers Bay opened for play on April 26).

He adds, “Education is important, and if you are afraid of the cost of training an employee because they are going to leave, how much does it cost you if you never train them and they never leave?” 

Vicky Urbina and Amos Stephens are 11% partners in the business who joined up over a decade ago. Amos recruited Vicky to join the golf shop team in the summer when school was out. She had never played golf but was captivated by the beauty of the course and the warmth of its staff, friends, and patrons.

“From the beginning, I envisioned the golf facility as more than just a place for golf,” Vicky remarked. “I saw its potential to serve as a community engagement and outreach hub.”
A great example is the recently hosted First Green education program for elementary-aged children. The golf course was turned into a laboratory for fourth graders, who got hands-on experience in outdoor learning stations, including lessons on wildlife habitat, soil science, environmental sustainability, mathematics, water conservation, water quality, career exploration, and more.

Vicky was a teacher who values continued education and the power of learning from others’ experiences, embracing continuous growth. That’s precisely what draws her to events like the NGCOA and GCSAA conferences. “In those conference rooms,” Vicky says, “I get to soak in the challenges and victories of other golf owner-operators, picking up insights and great ideas that we can apply back at Settlers Bay. Thanks to the inspiration from these gatherings, my team and I have gradually transformed our space. We’ve expanded beyond just golf, creating a platform for events, a restaurant, and a welcoming space that enhances the golfing experience and invites our community to join in the fun and festivities.”

Amos adds, “Alaska is not the innovator of golf operations; we must be willing to listen to our peers, find solutions that will work for us, and introduce those concepts to our facility. NGCOA and GCSAA give us the chance to do just that.”

We can look forward to Amos and Vicky attending Golf Business Conference 2025 in January. Amos will be the guy at Jeff Hoag’s event to stand, identify himself as “the guy from Alaska,” and ask at least one intelligent question about golf operations. Maybe Vicky will, too. Everyone attending will have a chance to respond, educate, and maybe ask them questions. I think they have a lot to share.

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