After spending 33 years as the superintendent at Iowa State’s Veenker Memorial Golf Course and influencing the careers of hundreds — thousands? — of students who worked and/or studied there, John Newton, CGCS, was named the winner of the 2023 Col. John Morley Award. Photo by Kathryn Gamble
Maybe, just maybe, John Newton, CGCS, was asking the wrong question all these years.
Talk to just about any of the countless — and that’s not hyperbole; Newton himself can’t quite put a number to it — former employees/co-workers/trainees/mentees/students/extended family members whose lives he touched in more than
four decades of service to the golf industry, and just try to find one who hadn’t heard his catchphrase, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, more than once.
"What’s the worst thing that could happen?"
The query was meant to put a (usually) young, (nearly always) inexperienced crew member at ease, to ensure that whatever the outcome, the repercussions likely would be temporary and certainly not life-ending. And, heck, maybe the folks on both ends of
the question might learn a thing or two.
Now, five years into semi-retirement, Newton (or, as he’s widely known, “Newt” or “Papa Newt”) has had time to tally all the results, to reflect on outcomes good and bad, to come to the ultimate decision about what was, after
all, the worst thing that could happen.
“I guess maybe you have a major chemical leak, kill stuff,” Newton says after a moment’s pause. “But you make a mistake with a mower? That’s easily corrected.”
After giving it a little more thought, Newton comes up with a few more answers.
“Mistakes happen,” he says. “One person drove a greens mower into a lake. It was just wet that day, and he drove it right in the lake. I wasn’t really enthused about that. You know, the worst thing was when I had to fire somebody.
I never enjoyed that. If somebody didn’t show up to work or showed up late, I didn’t put up with that. I guess I just have a lot of patience. I’m not a yeller or a screamer. As long as someone’s motivation was to do the job
right, I’d accept that. I can accept mistakes, as long as they’re giving effort.”
Now, what if we flip that rhetorical and pose it to a young Newt, before he set off on an illustrious career that’s measured not only in rounds played and budgets met and conditions improved, but also in careers launched and friendships made and
lives touched and trajectories changed? What if, on the eve of that career, young Newt were to ask himself instead, “What’s the best thing that could happen?”
Could the answer to that have played out any better than the nearly 50-year career that culminated in Newton being recognized with the 2023 Col. John Morley Award, the highest award GCSAA gives to a superintendent member?
“The unique thing about my dad is, it’s not just his history, not just about all he’s done in the golf business,” says Mark Newton, CGCS, a 19-year association member and former superintendent who now works for Professional Turf
Products. “It’s about the people and relationships he’s built over the years. After being at Veenker (Memorial Golf Course in Ames, Iowa) for so long, so many people went through there. They’d graduate and move on, but whenever
they were back in town for a game or whatever, the first person they went to was him. He was their mentor, their father figure. He just treats people with respect and helps them achieve their goals no matter what.”
The younger Newton admits to bias, but in reading the definition of the Morley Award — “presented annually to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of the golf course superintendent’s profession”
that must be “significant in both substance and duration” — he can’t help but think of his dad.
“When (GCSAA President) Kevin Breen called to tell him he’d won, he was absolutely speechless,” Mark Newton says. “He didn’t even know he had been nominated. He was pretty shellshocked. But that’s who he is. He said,
‘Mark, I don’t deserve this award.’ I said, ‘Dad, that’s why you deserve it.’”
Newton staffed his Veenker Memorial crews almost exclusively with student workers. Photos courtesy of Mark Newton
Too slow for football
For the sake of the golf industry, maybe it’s a good thing John Newton wasn’t speedy.
A native of Spirit Lake, Iowa, Newton “loved” football and played through high school.
Trouble was, “I wasn’t very fast,” he says with a laugh. “I couldn’t run. In high school, if you played football, you had to run track. So I went out for golf. At that point in my young life, I fell in love with golf. That’s
when Jack Nicklaus and Arnie Palmer and Johnny Miller were playing. I loved playing golf, and I liked the maintenance that went on on a golf course, but I didn’t know I could make it a career.”
Newton toiled at the local Brooks Golf Club in Okoboji over the summers in the early 1970s and helped build a course in 1976. He headed off to Iowa State — after a quick stint at South Dakota State, where he “tried to play football”
and study pharmacy — in 1976.
“At that point, I was totally going to be a golf course superintendent,” says Newton, the son of a farmer who eventually left farming to pursue a career in real estate. “I wasn’t a great student, but I wanted to get a degree. I
was always a morning person, and that helped. And I was an outside person. I was tempted to try farming, but at that point it wasn’t a great career to get into. My vision was to become a golf course superintendent, whether that was after finishing
college or taking a job. At that point in my life, I wasn’t really that into school.”
Newton, who married his high school junior prom date, Darla, in 1976, studied four years at the Ames, Iowa, school before graduating, a stint that probably was lengthened by the hours he was putting in at nearby Ames Golf and Country Club. The superintendent
at that time was Dick Stuntz, CGCS, an Iowa State grad who made Newton, who was just two years younger, his first hire.
“It was my first superintendent job, and I had no staff at all,” says Stuntz, another legendary turf figure and 45-year member of GCSAA. “There was a turfgrass adviser at Iowa State, and I was chatting with him. He said, ‘You need
to hire people. I’ve got this guy, John Newton. He’s hungry. You need to hire him.’ John came out and started shortly thereafter.”
Stuntz admits the job offer wasn’t the result of anything Newton did or said.
“My first impression was … well, he was kind of … he wasn’t all that outgoing. He was reserved. Shy, maybe; maybe a little intimidated by the whole situation,” Stuntz says. “But on the adviser’s advice, I hired
him, and, my gosh, he was just fantastic — a tremendous worker, and so dedicated to the business and the profession. He really checks all the boxes. He was such a hard worker, willing to work anytime, as long as you needed him. And his love
for the profession really sets him apart. He was somewhat of a reroute, since he went off to school in a different major before falling in love with this profession, coming to Iowa State and getting into turfgrass. He found out he wanted to do this
for his life’s work, and that makes all the difference.”
Whenever Iowa State was home during football season, the Newton tailgate was a popular place for family — in this case, clockwise from far left, Darla and John Newton; son Mark Newton; daughter Jeni Thompson; and grandsons Grant and Luke Thompson — as well as current and previous employees to gather.
‘An Iowa State guy, through and through’
Newton worked at Ames G&CC through his college years and joined the staff, essentially as Stuntz’s assistant, for two years before leaving to become head superintendent at Carroll (Iowa) Country Club after a recommendation from Stuntz. Newton
was there from 1981 to ’85, when he returned to Iowa State to take over at Veenker Memorial Golf Course, the course run and maintained by Newton’s alma mater.
“They couldn’t have hired a better person,” Stuntz says. “He’s just an Iowa State guy, through and through. It was just a great fit for him and for them.”
Or, as Mark Newton says, “The stars just aligned massively.”
John Newton oversaw Veenker — with all its benefits (like a steady supply of young labor) and challenges (like a steady supply of young labor) — for 33 years, and it would have been hard for anybody to go through Iowa State’s turfgrass
programs and not have crossed his path. In addition to maintaining the course with essentially all student labor, Newton ensured Veenker served as a living lab for ISU horticulture students.
“He was a tremendous supporter of our research programs,” says Nick Christians, Ph.D., an ISU professor of horticulture, 28-year GCSAA Educator member and, oh yeah, co-winner of the 2017 Col. John Morley Award. “And he was a great trainer
of interns. I have no idea how many interns he had. But he got a lot of guys excited about the field.”
Perhaps it’s worth noting Christians’ son, Timothy Christians, worked for Newton at Veenker. The younger Christians is the Class A superintendent at Makray Memorial Golf Club in the Chicago suburb of Barrington, Ill., and a 24-year association
“I think with him, it’s his ability to work with students, to be patient and teach things,” the elder Christians says. “It’s hard when something breaks, or something floods. He’d just say, ‘OK, we’ll fix
it.’ And they do.”
A Veenker Memorial reunion. From left, Darla Newton, clubhouse manager Tess Balsley, John Newton and current superintendent Tom Meier. Photo by Kathryn Gamble
‘Professor for the real world’
In many ways, Timothy Christians’ story is typical.
After all, he came by his turfgrass interest honestly, and many of the ISU students who filled out Newton’s job boards were turf students pursuing a job in the industry.
Take Chris Finnerty, for example. Finnerty, GCSAA Class A superintendent at Bogey Club and Log Cabin Club in St. Louis and a 22-year association member, was an “old man” of 29 with several years in the profession when he headed off to ISU
to get the degree to codify his choice.
Finnerty spent parts of three years working for Newton at Veenker.
“It was really unique for me, having worked for public and private courses for a number of different superintendents,” Finnerty says. “The whole way he operated the golf course with student labor just seemed like an extra challenge.
I’m impressed with the way he was able to get things done with that kind of staff. It was only Newt and a mechanic and maybe two assistants. The rest was students. And it wasn’t all turf students. There were some football players. And
you’re working around all these class schedules, and everybody’s schedule is different.”
And yet …
“I never saw him get worked up about anything except Iowa State football,” Finnerty says. “He’s very patient. I never saw him get mad. He always tried to work with them and train them. He definitely could have just said, ‘Go
weedeat.’ But he tried to get everybody to learn. He was trying to further their education, to give them that real-world education. He was like the professor for the real world.”
Ahren Wonderlich is a different story. He enrolled at ISU to study exercise science.
“I had no intentions of getting into the superintendent side of things, or even golf in general,” Wonderlich says. “I grew up with an agriculture background, and I always liked the ag side of things, but I wasn’t going to pursue
it in college. One of my friends said, ‘Hey, ever give any thought to a summer job at Veenker?’ I said, ‘No, but I’m not opposed to it.’’’
Wonderlich spent parts of four years working for Newton at Veenker. Today he’s the Class A superintendent at Lost Rail Golf Club in Gretna, Neb., and a 21-year association member.
“He’s the sole reason why I do what I do today,” Wonderlich says. “Newt took me under his wings and coached me along. Without John, there’s no way I’d be where I am today. No question.”
Similarly, Elliott Dowling headed off to ISU undecided on a major. On a whim and looking for a summer job, he saw a notice on a job board for an opening at Veenker.
“It was a pull-off-the-number-type deal,” he recalls. “Flexible hours, working outside. I thought, ‘That’s perfect.’”
Eventually, Newton pulled him aside for “the talk.”
“I remember the day,” Dowling says. “You know, it was a summer job for me. I was string-trimming, getting a tan. For me, it was fun. I was surrounded by turf students. (Newton) said, ‘You know, everybody here is going into this
for a career.’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘We all want to do this for a living.’”
Ultimately, Dowling did, too. A 19-year association member, Dowling served six years as a superintendent and has been a USGA Green Section agronomist for a decade.
And here’s the thing: Stories like Christians’ and Finnerty’s and Wonderlich’s and Dowling’s aren’t the exception. With Newt, they’re the rule.
Even Newton’s mind boggles trying to calculate the number of golf industry careers — not just superintendents and assistant superintendents, but distributors and sellers and researchers — he helped launch.
“I’m trying to think,” he says. “That’s a big number. Probably over 100, 150, and that’s just golf course superintendents. Now, if you’re talking about all the people who went through there, it’d probably
be 1,000 or 1,200. That’s probably a low number. It’s probably approaching 2,000. That’s just a lot of people.”
John, left, and Mark Newton sit on a dock enjoying the sunset in Red Lake, Ontario, prior to the start of a weeklong fishing trip in August 2022. Photo courtesy of Mark Newton
‘A great golf course’
Perhaps lost in all the talk of Newton as a master mentor is the fact that he was a pretty fair superintendent, too.
“He brought that golf course a long way from when he took over,” Stuntz says. “He regrassed everything, rebuilt tees. It went from being an average-condition-type public golf course to something that was really special.”
“He was one of the best grass growers I know,” added Wonderlich. “And Ames, Iowa, isn’t an easy place to grow grass. You get it all, but that was a phenomenal product, a great golf course. He converted it to bentgrass after my
time, because he wanted to take Veenker to the next level, but the ryegrass prior to that was always top-notch. Whenever we talked about a ryegrass grower, his name always came up.”
Whatever the project, whether regrassing or renovating or overhauling an irrigation system, it was usually undertaken mostly in-house with those student workers.
“When I was there, we did an irrigation renovation,” Wonderlich says. “The trenching was contracted out, but everything else was in-house. I mean, here I am, a student on this very valuable project. That was a wonderful experience, a
great learning experience.”
Oh, did we mention the flooding?
Ioway Creek, a tributary of the South Skunk River, meanders through Veenker Memorial GC, and on several occasions during Newton’s tenure, it flooded the course.
“I don’t know how many times the river came out of its banks,” Wonderlich says. “There were times he’d tell us to be on standby, that we might need to move the shop if the river comes up.”
Newton, of course, remembers. He ticks off the years: 1990, ’96, ’98 and 2000 were “minor” flooding events; 1993 and 2010 were the worst ones.
“Mother Nature kicked our butts all the time,” he says. “For some reason, we had two 500-year floods in 15 years. We had 8 feet of water in the shop. It takes a lot of character to keep those people rolling and cleaning up. We were only
paying kids $4, $5 an hour at the time, and the kids were in the muck for two weeks. But I felt like we grew as a group. We all wanted to get the golf course back in shape. My young crew came through with flying colors. It really created camaraderie.
It created great relationships. We were all in this together. Let’s get this done.”
Still going, still mowing
Newton’s not done yet.
Though he (and his signature ISU football tailgate bus) retired from Veenker, he still can be found on a golf course.
In an interesting twist, his immediate replacement at Veenker — Thad Kintigh, CGCS — is now the superintendent at Briarwood Golf Course in Ankeny, Iowa, which is just a short bike or golf cart ride from Newton’s home.
“When he retired, I remember he said he’d maybe take a year or two off,” says Kintigh, a 29-year association member. “That same year, he was working at Briarwood, mowing fairways. He still works a few days a week, mowing greens
or fairways. He plays golf. He’s a member here, but he has a paid position for me a few days a week. He still cares. He still shows up and wants to do a good job.”
Like so many others who went through the ISU program, Kintigh worked a stint for Newton at Veenker.
“It’s a funny thing. My first couple of weeks (as superintendent) at Veenker, John stopped by,” he says. “I didn’t remember him at all, but he remembered me. I remember he came back and helped with my first irrigation blowout
at Veenker. It was a 19-degree day, and he was out there helping. He’d stop in a couple of times a year, because he cared about Veenker. He cared about the course.”
Kintigh says he worked less than a semester at Veenker as a student, though he did go on to follow the Veenker pipeline to what was then Alvamar Country Club in Lawrence, Kan., where Stuntz was in charge.
“Veenker was close, and I needed to make a little money,” Kintigh says. “The first part of that semester, I showed up regularly. Then it started to get cold, and it was all of that fall prep work — seeding and tree work. At that
point, it didn’t seem fun. I was cold. I didn’t stick it out. I don’t think I even gave notice. I just stopped showing up like a normal college student, like what happened to me every year when I was there.”
Kintigh appreciates now the way their lives have intertwined.
“It’s gone full-circle,” he said. “I worked there for him, but I’ve only really gotten to know John the last three or four years. It’s been great to get to know him. He’s always willing to work, always a very
patient person. There’s nothing really bad that can be said about him. He’s just a good guy, always in a good mood. He’s living the good life now, working a little, playing golf. His golfing group is called The Geezers. There’s
12 to 15 of them who play multiple days a week.”
Kintigh was among the first in whom Newt confided when he learned he was the winner of the 2023 Morley Award.
“He came to me grinning ear to ear,” Kintigh recalls. “He said, ‘You’ll never guess.’ He was beyond thrilled, like a little kid on Christmas Day.”
Imagine, then, how he’ll feel come February in Orlando, when he’s presented his award at the GCSAA Conference and Trade Show. Sure to be in attendance — in addition to his immediate family of wife, Darla; their three children, Mark and
David Newton and Jeni Thompson; and their five grandchildren — will be the dozens, if not hundreds, of chips off the ol’ Newt.
“It’s a big deal to me,” John Newton says. “I’m very humbled by it. Nobody would expect it. I’m still overwhelmed by it. But I am real excited to go to Orlando and see everybody. The spotlight part of it … I’ll
do it. I’m not that excited to be on stage. I’m more excited to see the guys. That will be the best part for me.”
Pat Gradoville, CGCS-Retired, was the first of many youngsters who were introduced to the golf industry by John Newton and eventually chose to make their way in it.
When Newton took his first head superintendent job in 1981 at Carroll (Iowa) Country Club, he met with a Carroll CC board member.
“My dad was on the board at Carroll, and John said he needed help on the golf course. Dad comes home and says, ‘Get out there and help him,’” Gradoville recalls with a laugh. “I was 16 years old. I started the next day. He
probably wanted me to start that day. I went out, and the rest is history.”
Gradoville says he was still in high school at the time and was considering heading off to Iowa State to study accounting. Newton couldn’t argue with the destination, only the field of study.
“He said, ‘You seem to like it on the golf course. You should think about being a superintendent,’” Gradoville says. “I enrolled in the horticulture/turfgrass management program. The next year, John moved over to the Iowa
State course, when I was a sophomore in college, so I started working at the golf course before, during and after class. We’ve remained good friends ever since.
“He is 100% to blame.”
The last is said with a good-natured chuckle. A 38-year association member, Gradoville has had a long career in golf course management and was co-founder of Gradoville & Hertzing Management Group, an agronomic, pre-construction and project-management
consulting company in the Western U.S. He proudly calls Newton a mentor and friend and fondly recalls the importance Newton placed on participation at the chapter and national association levels.
“He taught me early on how important it was to give back,” Gradoville says. “He was a great mentor, a great teacher. When I look back, I see how he molded my career and gave me the foundation to be successful.”
Andrew Hartsock is GCM's managing editor.