GCSAA in the 'Last Frontier'

The association supports turfgrass managers in the 49th state through the Great Alaskan Turfgrass Conference.


Filed to: Alaska, Education

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
David Phipps (left, with GCSAA member Amos Stephens and educators Bruce Clarke, Ph.D., and Lew Sharp) has been helping organize professional education opportunities for Alaska GCSAA members since 2012. Photos by David Phipps

Article one, section one of GCSAA’s bylaws reads, “Application for Membership: Effective July 1, 1997, all Class A and Class B applicants for membership residing in the United States, except Alaska, must be a member of an Affiliated Chapter.”

When I took on the role as GCSAA’s Northwest field staff representative, I knew that something needed to be done to bring professional development to GCSAA members in Alaska. Without a local chapter to provide education and networking, opportunities for advancement were limited. However, my first couple of visits to Alaska were, in fact, very educational. Discovering the extreme temperatures and length-of-day issues was mind-boggling to me. With only a few superintendents with a turfgrass education, it was evident that there was a need to bring in more learning opportunities.

Golf in Alaska 101

During my first visit in July 2012, I learned golf courses in Alaska did a robust business in the summer months. Anchorage Golf Club, for example, hosted over 9,100 rounds that June alone. But there were plenty of challenges, too. Getting equipment was a struggle, with many distributors uninterested in spending the resources to visit Alaskan golf courses. The availability of certain pesticides was also an issue. Manufacturers didn’t register their products in Alaska, feeling it wouldn’t be profitable for them. Labor can also be a challenge in Alaska, although some have used the J-1 visa program for seasonal labor.

I traveled to Alaska again in 2014, this time starting in Fairbanks, where I met George Howe, CGCS, from Chena Bend Golf Course. George was a 33-year GCSAA member at that time (41 years as of this writing) and Alaska’s only certified golf course superintendent. I was simply astounded at the quality of his golf course. My ignorance led me to believe that grass could not be grown at that latitude; boy, was I wrong.

However, that quality of turf doesn’t come without agronomic struggles that mirror the other issues I’ve mentioned. Turf loss is a certainty each spring as temperatures can reach minus 60 F during the winter months. The impressiveness of Chena Bend was a testament to Howe’s skills. Two other golf courses in town were also making a good go of it. Each course was unique in its way and served the golfers of Fairbanks well.

Ingenuity was the keyword to describe the two courses I visited in the Kenai Peninsula that same year. I saw how a golf course could make the most of limited resources, but also how they could get too much of a good thing. It was clear, for instance, that crews needed education on calibrating fertilizer applications. One individual tried to convince me that the 18-9-18 fertilizer he was using was mislabeled because it grew too much grass. When asked how much he was using, he said a bag per green once a month, and the average green was probably 2,500 square feet. That came out to almost 12 pounds of N per 1,000 acres per season!

By the end of my 2014 visit, I also discovered that one of the courses had started mowing under a quarter of an inch. The individual I spoke to told me that after attending the Conference and Trade Show in San Diego, he learned techniques that gave him confidence to push the limit in the challenging environment he managed.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Stephens talks to turfgrass researchers Fred Yelverton and Mike Richardson about growing conditions and issues at Settlers Bay Golf Club in Wasilla, Alaska.

Going to the next level

With two visits under my belt, it was time to bring some formal education to Alaska. In 2016, Rob Golembiewski, Ph.D., joined me in Alaska. Rob and I developed a close relationship while he was at Oregon State, and I convinced him to come up and be the educator for our first mini conference. Rob's topics included selecting the proper nitrogen source, the benefits of greens rolling and re-establishing greens through interseeding. Following the event, I received the following note from Mark Dolejsi, a 32-year GCSAA member who is now retired. His comments made it all worthwhile:

“Dave, it was a pleasure to meet you. I want to thank you for presenting the GCSAA training today at Settlers Bay Golf Course. I am extremely happy to see our organization take a proactive interest in Alaskan Golf. It is not the easiest thing to be a super in The Great Land as we are so far removed from resources of all kinds. We have a great group of people here who truly enjoy what they do. Some have larger budgets than others, but the efforts that they all put into the golf courses seem unlimited. I hope you enjoy the rest of your visit to Alaska, and I look forward to seeing you again.”

He continued:

“Dr. Rob, I would like to say that was one of the best GCSAA training sessions I have ever had. Your presentation was professional, educational and entertaining … not an easy task to accomplish. I would like to thank Bayer for sending you on a long road trip to see us.

Very few companies ever take the time to visit The Great Land and those that do are well appreciated. The topics you covered today were excellent. I truly enjoyed the segment on greens rolling. I also appreciated the information on newer fertilizer formulations.

“Thanks for sharing with us today. I look forward to the next time we meet.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Richardson presented to GCSAA members at the Great Alaskan Turfgrass Conference earlier this year.

Growing and connecting

Our second mini conference in September 2018, we held our second mini conference was sponsored by Alaska Mill & Feed, a local fertilizer and pesticide distributor. This time I convinced convince some distributors from the Lower 48 to join us. Jason Otto and Jeff Schwab from Wilbur Ellis presented on biostimulants, and Ed Price with The Andersons discussed carbon usage. The local superintendents found a speaker from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks to cover precision applications using GPS (including his experience finding remains of the space shuttle Columbia, which is a story in itself). From GCSAA, Scott Hollister, the director of the association’s publications department and editor-in-chief of GCM,  presented on building community through technology and social media, and how to take advantage of a GCSAA membership.

I returned in September 2019 to finalize Alaska’s statewide best management practices with a few of the superintendent. This led to the publication of their document, contributing to GCSAA’s goal of having all 50 states with published BMPs by 2020.

After a year off in 2020 because of the pandemic, we were able to resume our mini conferences in 2021. Bruce Clarke, Ph.D. from Rutgers, told me that he needed Alaska to complete his 50-state speaking engagement goal, so I just had to make that happen. We held the conference in November, where the weather was different than what I’d encountered during my previous July tips. Temperatures hovered around  minus 10 F. Regardless, the weather was clear, and Clarke provided two great presentations. Lew Sharp from Tee2Green filled in the rest of the education on interseeding, which the group found extremely useful  in advance of the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur, coming Anchorage Golf Course the following season.

I returned to Alaska to volunteer for that USGA championship where I saw the results of the previous winter's education put into action. Mike Stern, an 18-year GCSAA member took the information on interseeding and variety selection and used it to provide championship putting surfaces for the event at Anchorage Golf Course.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
18-year GCSAA member Michael Stern got a chance to show Yelverton and Richardson around his office at Anchorage Golf Course during their 2023 visit. Photos by David Phipps

Current events

This year I had two willing speakers. Mike Richardson, Ph.D., from the University of Arkansas, and Fred Yelverton, Ph.D., from N.C. State, volunteered to lead the conference. Other than passing through the airport on previous trips to Asia, this was the first time for both of them in the state. I asked the members their most pressing issues. The common denominators were growth regulators and Poa annua control.

Alaska is a unique growing environment. Typically a cool-season turfgrass growth curve shows two peaks, with a valley in the heat of the summer. A warm-season growth curve has a single peak in the middle of the summer. In Alaska, the growth curve mimics that of a warm-season turfgrass, with a single peak in the middle of the season. That means the turfgrass actively grows throughout the season, and the proper use of growth regulators can be useful.

When I asked Richardson and Yelverton to present, both needed a minute to wrap their heads around it. With 22 hours of daylight at the peak of the season, you would think that the growing degree days measurement would be off the chart. Surprisingly, it was the opposite. Even in the peak of the season, the sun’s path is still low, so the amount of direct radiation is reduced. Here, shade becomes a problem if not managed.

Another interesting fact about Poa is there are no perennial biotypes to be found. It is a true annual which means it is a prolific seed head producer. The struggle is trying to establish bentgrass in the spring and competing with the Poa seed bank. Poa generally pops first, but then the timing of Proxy applications becomes critical to allow the bentgrass to establish. Yelverton and Richardson's presentations complimented each other and tied the two subjects of growth regulation and Poa control perfectly.

The visit was a success for everyone. Richardson and Yelverton told me they learned so much out of what they were asked to teach, and in doing so, they brought information to the Alaska members which they will be able to use.&

Turfgrass quality continues to increase in Alaska, and I couldn’t be prouder of the efforts and the willingness of the superintendents to learn from the education GCSAA has been able to bring to them over the years.

David Phipps (dphipps@gcsaa.org) is GCSAA’s Northwest field staff representative. A former superintendent with more than 20 years of golf course management experience, Phipps can be found on X (formerly Twitter) at @GCSAA_NW.