GCSAA webinars elevate professional education options

Two decades after introducing online learning, GCSAA's platform continues to grow in exciting directions.


Filed to: gcsaa, Education

Tim Powers
Tim Powers, CGCS, from Poplar Creek Golf Course in San Mateo, Calif., has been a participant in GCSAA webinars for several years. Photo courtesy of Tim Powers

Roughly 1,200 miles separates Foran Hall from GCSAA headquarters in Lawrence, Kan.

Two decades ago, that distance took on new — and historic — meaning for GCSAA. Inside Room 338 at Foran Hall in Rutgers University’s Cook Campus in New Brunswick, N.J., Bruce Clarke, Ph.D., and Mike Agnew, Ph.D., huddled at Clarke’s office desk. They sat side by side, a computer in front of them, a clock within view. On March 13, 2002, the time finally had arrived for a new adventure for them, GCSAA and, really, the golf course management industry.

On that day 20 years ago, the inaugural GCSAA remote online webcast (what are now called webinars) was presented by Clarke and Agnew, a former senior field technical manager for Syngenta. The three-hour-plus seminar, “Dollar Spot and Anthracnose: Beyond the Basics,” was a timely topic.

“Anthracnose was rampant. People were losing their greens. People were losing their jobs because they couldn’t control the disease,” Clarke says. More than 40 golf courses across the U.S. participated in the webinar, as did superintendents in Canada and Ireland. They could hear Clarke and Agnew, see their slide presentation and ask questions.

Participant feedback made clear that it was a worthwhile and groundbreaking moment for GCSAA. Ninety-one percent of those who signed up responded that the webcast was good or excellent. One said, “This is exciting! I think the technology used this morning will enable all of us to be much more efficient with our time and enable us to participate more freely in such quality educational experiences.”

Delivering education in that manner has become a GCSAA standard.

“I think it was a neat idea,” says Clarke, professor emertius, turfgrass pathology, who retired in January after 40 years at Rutgers and was GCSAA’s Col. John Morley Distinguished Service Award recipient in 2014. “The focus was to provide applicable information for superintendents to do their job.”

A plan comes to fruition

Jake Tenopir, CGCS, was only 11 when GCSAA launched its webinars. He’s up to speed on them now.

“This industry is changing so much. If you look back 50 years ago, whether it’s moisture management or nematode management, all of it is evolving, and it’s definitely not slowing down,” says Tenopir, the director of golf course maintenance at The Polo Club of Boca Raton (Fla.) and a 12-year GCSAA member. “We educate our club members. If you’re not up to date with today’s trends, you can get caught in a pickle if you don’t have the answers for them.”

Despite the early rave reviews, GCSAA paused the webinar program’s ascension for much of 2002 and part of 2003. During that period, fiscal deliberations put some new programs on hold, says Dan Ward, who was then GCSAA’s senior manager for education. Finally, during an association board meeting in the fall of 2003, the decision was made to host regular webcasts starting in 2004. Myriad benefits, including earning education points and the economic benefits of allowing members to stay near home or work and do webcasts affordably, sold the board on the merits of webinars.

“We had the ability to reach our members, even as far away as places like southeast Asia. I had all the confidence in the world it was going to be a success and move the association forward,” says then-GCSAA president Jon Maddern, a 46-year GCSAA member who is now the director of agronomy at ClubCorp.

A slew of GCSAA education staff members had a hand in orchestrating webinars. Among those was Tracy Adair Derning, hired in 2004 as an IT specialist who taught computer-related webcasts. “Part of it was to make it easy for them (superintendents) to do it, make it easy for people not technologically inclined to use our platforms,” she says.

Another staff member still aboard as a webinar conductor is Lisa Wick, GCSAA senior manager for e-learning programs. She moderates webinars from her HQ office, with multiple computers going at once. Wick introduces webinar presenters to begin sessions and is there to answer questions via chat, assist with technical issues, etc.

Among past webinars that resonate with her is the March 2020 town hall meeting on the then-evolving COVID-19 pandemic featuring GCSAA CEO Rhett Evans. The program maxed out at 500 participants. Another memorable moment happened after a webinar ended, when she received feedback from Brian Youell, the GCSAA Class A superintendent at Uplands Golf Club in Victoria, British Columbia, who had suffered a serious brain injury on the job. “He said taking these webinars really made him feel he could go back to his job, that he could go back and participate. That was cool,” Wick says.

Ward, who was at GCSAA from 1997 to 2004, certainly thought the webinar idea was rather cool. “Sometimes bandwidth was horrible; we also had timing issues, when presenters almost had to say, ‘Over and out,’ before the next person talked so they weren’t stepping over each other. But I was big on progressive learning,” Ward says. “We had the best of the best instructors to work with. And we made it work.”

Bruce Clarke and Mike Agnew
Bruce Clarke, Ph.D., (left) and Mike Agnew, Ph.D., were among the pioneers in GCSAA’s webinar program. They delivered the very first one 20 years ago. Photo by Matt Sweatlock

Lunch and learn

As she dined on chicken-and-rice leftovers, Jean Esposito, CGCS, devoured pertinent information for her operations.

Superintendent and owner of Hinckley (Ohio) Golf Course, Esposito spent lunch one day this past July taking in the webinar “Factors That Affect Pesticide Fate & Behavior on the Golf Course” by Travis Gannon, Ph.D., from North Carolina State University. Esposito joined in from her home off the 17th hole at Hinckley GC. “It takes me a little time to set up. I’m not tech savvy. I have my nieces help me with anything tech,” says Esposito, a 45-year GCSAA member.

When the webinar ended, she made the short trip back to work with a sense of “mission accomplished” from the lunch-hour experience. “My father (Donald Krush, who was a superintendent) said to me years ago if you get one thing out of something, it was worth it. I got a couple things out of it (webinar), so I’m happy,” Esposito says.

This wasn’t a lunch meeting, but Michael Morris, CGCS Retired, and Thom Nikolai, Ph.D., from Michigan State University, did seat themselves at Morris’ dining room table on Bellows Avenue in Frankfort, Mich., to lead GCSAA’s second webinar in 2004. Using Morris’ Gateway computer, they followed up Clarke and Agnew’s “Anthracnose and You,” the first of 2004, with “Taking Control of Green Speed Part I: Finding the Best Green Speed for Your Golf Course.”

Morris, a 37-year GCSAA member who in those days oversaw Crystal Downs Country Club in Frankfort, says, “Thom drove up from East Lansing. We did it on a weekday afternoon. It was a unique experience. I think people were generally excited about it. We reached a real broad audience. The technology was cumbersome, but it worked. It took a team, and they (GCSAA education department) made it easy for us. I thought it was progressive for GCSAA to deliver technology in that way.”

It continues to be of service to folks like Theodore Chapin, the assistant superintendent at The Preserve Sporting Club in Wyoming, R.I. The five-year GCSAA member is a webinar fan. “Time is limited in this industry, but I’ve done a bunch of them. Honestly, it’s a no-brainer,” Chapin says.

Lisa Wick
Lisa Wick, GCSAA’s senior manager for e-learning programs, was overseeing this live webinar in August. Photo by Roger Billings

A tradition grows

Reached by phone one morning this summer, Tim Powers, CGCS, mentioned a webinar was on his afternoon to-do list. This wasn’t a first.

“I’ve done them. A lot,” says Powers, superintendent at Poplar Creek Golf Course in San Mateo, Calif., and a 35-year member of GCSAA. “Even though I’ve been in this (business) awhile, I can still pick up things here and there. Sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh, maybe we should try this.’ To talk to and listen to people from all parts of the world about a new way to do things never hurts.”

The numbers indicate webinars matter. In 2021, total participation for live and on-demand webinars totaled 15,452. In 2011, the total was 3,493. From 2005-2021, more than 110,000 participants took GCSAA webinars, including industry partner webinars, which began in 2014. Education points for successful completion of webinars that can last 15 minutes up to 90 minutes range from 0.03 to 0.20 points. When all of this took off in 2004, it cost members $30 and non-members $45 per webinar. Thanks to Syngenta sponsoring the webinar series, the webinars have been free of charge for over a decade.

“Our commitment to the industry goes beyond our product portfolio,” says Stephanie Schwenke, Syngenta’s turf market manager. “Syngenta has been a proud partner and supporter of the GCSAA educational webinars for years, and we remain dedicated to providing free educational webinars as a GCSAA member benefit.”

Today, webinars can be accessed through desktop or laptop computers, on tablets and via smart phones. Some webinars have been translated to Spanish. And, occasionally, past webinars available on demand have been updated. For example, Aaron Patton, Ph.D., professor of turf and weed science and turf Extension specialist at Purdue University, updated a webinar he did on calibrating sprayers and selecting the correct nozzles several years after the first one. And just last year, Clarke and Agnew revived the anthracnose topic for a webinar.

Twenty years since the duo played critical roles in this webinar journey, their initial overall hopes have exceeded expectations. “At first, we didn’t have all the right tools to work with. Now, the tools are there,” says Agnew, who retired in June from Syngenta and, with his wife. Nancy, has started Agnew Agronomic and Horticultural Solutions. “We always thought it would be nothing but good.”

If anything, you might even call it an industry game-changer.

“You used to have to go to the library or go to a meeting or read an article in GCM,” Clarke says. “I think online search engines and webinars were the vehicles to bring cutting-edge information to superintendents immediately.”

Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.