John Newton wins GCSAA 2023 Col. John Morley Award

This pinnacle GCSAA award recognizes a significant contribution to the advancement of the golf course superintendent’s profession.


John Newton
Photo by Kathryn Gamble

John Newton, CGCS, Retired, who served as superintendent of Veenker Memorial Golf Course at Iowa State University (ISU) for 33 years, will receive the 2023 Col. John Morley Award from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA).

In 2021 the Col. John Morley Award was elevated to a pinnacle level alongside GCSAA’s other pinnacle recognition, the Old Tom Morris Award. While the Old Tom Morris Award is granted to those outside the GCSAA membership who have helped mold the welfare of the game, the Col. John Morley Award is presented annually to an individual who is, or has been, a GCSAA Class A or B superintendent member and has made a significant contribution to the advancement of the golf course superintendent's profession. The contribution must be significant in both substance and duration.

Newton, a 40-year GCSAA member, is an Okoboji, Iowa native who loved football in high school but found his athletic abilities better aligned with the game of golf.

“While I played both football and golf in high school, I found that I loved being involved with the maintenance that went on at a golf course, but I didn’t know I could make it a career,” Newton said.

He spent his summers in the early 1970s working at Brooks Golf Club in Okojobi and helped build a course in 1976. Following a brief period at South Dakota State University, where he gave football another shot, and studied pharmacy, Newton returned to his home state to attend Iowa State University. From there, he switched gears back to golf and realized becoming a golf course superintendent was what he was most passionate about.

“I was always a morning person and enjoyed being outdoors,” Newton said. “My vision was to become a golf course superintendent, whether that was after finishing college or taking a job.”

Newton worked at nearby Ames Golf and Country Club while completing his degree at Iowa State – he was the first hire of Iowa State grad and 45-year GCSAA member Dick Stuntz, CGCS. Despite being a bit shy and reserved upon starting the job, Newton was a hard worker who was dedicated to the profession. He worked there for two years before accepting the head superintendent position at Carroll (Iowa) Country Club after a recommendation from Stuntz.

He worked at Carroll Country Club from 1981 to 1985 before returning to his alma mater. Newton spent 33 years at Veenker Memorial Golf Course at ISU and became a tremendous supporter of Iowa State’s turfgrass programs, ensuring Veenker served as a living lab for ISU horticulture students.

During Newton’s tenure, he worked with countless ISU turfgrass students pursuing a career in the industry, operating the golf course with mostly student labor and only a few fulltime team members. But it wasn’t all turfgrass students – there were also some football players in the mix.

His patience was commendable, and only got worked up over Iowa State football. Thanks to Newton’s guidance, the ISU students who worked for him at Veenker gained real-world experience in turfgrass management setting them up for success in the future.

The number of golf industry careers Newton influenced, from superintendents to researchers, is well over 100, but the number of people whose lives he impacted throughout his career is near 2,000.

While he may not have led some of the more higher profile facilities, the impact he has had on the golf course superintendent profession has been clearly high profile. The words “selfless”, “humble”, and “mentor” are often used to describe John. Over the years he has worked hard to elevate his Assistants working to move them to Superintendent positions causing him to have to train a new Assistant but benefiting the individual.

“Throughout his career and beyond, John has exemplified the characteristics that the Morley Award represents,” GCSAA CEO Rhett Evans said. “His passion for the turfgrass management profession, successful track record of mentoring the next generation of superintendents, and consistent delivery of outstanding golf course conditions perfectly aligns with the spirit and criteria of this pinnacle GCSAA award.  The impact John has made on our members, the communities he has served, and the industry is far-reaching, and GCSAA is thrilled to recognize his accomplishments.

Although he is semi-retired, Newton can still be found on the golf course when he’s not busy being “Papa Newt” to his five grandchildren, whom he enjoys spending time with alongside his wife of 46 years, Darla. They have three children: David Newton, Jeni Thompson and Mark Newton, who is a 16-year GCSAA member and account executive for Professional Turf Products.

“It’s a big deal to me,” Newton said. “I’m very humbled by it, and I’m still overwhelmed by it.”

Newton will formally receive the award Feb. 8 as part of the Sunrise Ceremony (formerly the Opening Session) of the 2023 GCSAA Conference and Trade Show in Orlando.

Read more about Newton and his career in the forthcoming January 2023 issue of GCM magazine.