A dynamic turfgrass advocate

Chris Carson has a storied career as a superintendent and has supported the industry in myriad ways.


Chris Carson in a red sweater standing outside
Industry stalwart Chris Carson is a standout in New Jersey, having been a longtime superintendent and supporter of university research to grow the industry. Photo by Mark De Hanes

Sometimes, the story writes itself.

In this case, the subject of this story certainly can write. Yet when turning the tables on him to tell his story, well, there’s ample fodder to come up with the words to capture Chris Carson. He is: a prolific writer (a record three Leo Feser Awards, presented annually to the author of the best superintendent-written article in GCM); a prominent member in the industry and in his region (including past president of the GCSA of New Jersey); an athlete (letterman as a collegiate high jumper).

To Roch Gaussoin, Ph.D., one word might best describe Carson: dynamic.

“It’s his dedication to the cause,” says Gaussoin, a professor with expertise in turf and landscape systems at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Some superintendents transition to something else, go work for a company or a city or start a business. He stayed with golf. He’s a really good superintendent, and he’s been a strong advocate for universities. From students to research efforts, they’ve been built up. Chris is instrumental in it.”

Nevertheless, Carson isn’t exactly comfortable with kudos. He isn’t perfect, he admits, and, if you don’t believe him, he’ll tell you. He prefers to shine the spotlight on others. “I absolutely made mistakes in my career. Usually our course was in excellent shape, but I had my troubles as well,” says Carson, a 38-year GCSAA Retired member who spent 36 years at Echo Lake Country Club in Westfield, N.J. “I fell in love with the business by cutting greens. I’m not unique.”

Chris Carson with Russ Harris and Maureen Sharples
Carson is flanked by past GCSA of New Jersey president Russ Harris, left, and executive director Maureen Sharples. Photos courtesy of Chris Carson

(New) Jersey boy

So, this is where Carson developed a passion for writing.

Verona, N.J., is where Carson was reared, and he grew up in a wordsmith’s home. His father, Hamilton Carson, was editor/writer of a trade magazine called Happi, designed for the household and personal products industry. “I learned the correct use of words is important, powerful. Dad was a funny man with a very accurate vocabulary,” Carson says. “I do it for fun.”

He also made money babysitting. The gig resulted in so much more. Carson babysat for his neighbor, Ed Nickelsen, superintendent at Montclair (N.J.) Golf Club. That connection would pay off when Carson went to Rutgers University. “After my freshman year of college, I needed a job. He (Nickelsen) hooked me up with (superintendent) Dick Grant at Essex County (N.J.) Country Club. I made $2.90 an hour,” Carson says.

Carson was hooked by the daily happenings. Nothing would be the same from that point forward. “My sophomore year, I remember the first day of spring. The early morning smell. That day I had a microbiology lab. I was smearing bacteria on a plate in a three-hour class. I knew then I had no interest working inside,” Carson says. “I walked across campus to the office of Dr. (Ralph) Engel, introduced myself, said I wanted to be a superintendent.”

Engel, a Rutgers icon in the turfgrass program, was the appropriate contact. “I was 19 years old and made a life decision,” Carson says.

Carson landed his first superintendent job at Tara Greens Family Golf Center in Somerset, N.J. He had three months remaining before he graduated from Rutgers when he took the reins. He puts on no airs about the opportunity. “I knew nothing and quickly learned I knew nothing,” Carson says. “I worked hard. I’ve got to learn from somebody, so I visited Nickelsen. He was looking for an assistant.”

Carson spent three years under Nickelsen before accepting a superintendent position, this time North Hempstead Country Club on Long Island. That first year he was 10% under budget. “I did it with hard work,” he says, “and I tell the students at Rutgers that coming under budget in my first season was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made, as it set myself up for a reduced budget going forward.”

Carson’s next — and last — stop would work out for the rest of his career.

Chris Carson and Bruce Clarke at a conference
Carson with Rutgers University’s Bruce Clarke, Ph.D., emeritus, who has worked for decades with Carson to propel the university’s union with golf.

Echo Lake it is

The moment that truly shaped and defined Carson’s career has much to do with his second interview at Echo Lake CC. Known as “Mr. Echo Lake,” Everson Pearsall was a Westfield native and an American fighter pilot for the famed Flying Tigers, who were tasked to protect China from Japan in World War II. Later club president, he and Carson met for the interview that carved Carson’s path at the private facility. Pearsall was a staunch supporter of all employees at Echo Lake, yet Carson had been advised that the superintendent who was stepping down had come under fire, but Pearsall stood by him. It led to what arguably is the turning point of Carson’s interview.

“When asked by the search committee chairman what I would do first on the course, I told him that ‘the course is solid. … you are fortunate that you haven’t gotten rid of a bad superintendent. You’ve lost a good one.’ I looked over and saw Mr. Pearsall had a look of steely support on his face, and I realized that I had just said something that was going to help me get the job,” Carson says. “It was one of those key moments that present themselves from time to time that shape lives.”

In February 1986, the Carson era was launched at Echo Lake. It didn’t take long for him to encounter his first major challenge. A serious goosegrass issue on the greens was a test. “We used an experimental chemical product (Acclaim) — that and manually removing, on our hands and knees with a screwdriver, pulling out individual plants. Tens of thousands,” he says. “You’ve got to get things more playable. There’s no choice. You’ve got to get the job done. Superintendents get the job done.”

Carson’s next — and last — stop would work out for the rest of his career.

Chris Carson and Dave Schell at Rutgers Turf Field Day
Rutgers Turf Field Day with Carson and BASF representative and fellow NJTA board member Dave Schell. Photos courtesy of Shaun Berry

Two years later, Carson was among area superintendents whose greens were dying. Initially, the superintendents were at a loss to comprehend, and their jobs were at risk. The culprit? Summer patch. A partnership between GCSANJ and Rutgers turfgrass pathologist Bruce Clarke, Ph.D., quickly led to the fungus being identified and cures employed, reasons why that turfgrass program is near and dear to him. “It’s the importance of proactively supporting them,” says Carson, adding that the New Jersey Turfgrass Foundation’s Rutgers Golf Tournament to benefit research draws supporters nationwide.

Echo Lake CC hosted two USGA championships, first the USGA Boys Amateur in 1994 and Girls Amateur in 2002. To Carson, that’s just fine. “I never aspired to do a U.S. Open or TV golf. I just didn’t,” he says. “I knew what was right for me at an early age.”

A famed major championship venue, Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., is three miles from Echo Lake. Its presence made Carson ponder his situation, whether being located at a place of Baltusrol’s stature, or wherever it might be, should be on his radar. “Once, a big job opened up. I asked myself, ‘Do I want that job?’ The answer was eye-opening,” he says. “I had a lot of good things going for me that I didn’t want to change, (like) time with family (wife of 44 years, Carol, and children David, Lydia and Andrew). Instead of seeking a bigger job, I got more involved with my assistants, challenges around the golf course, teaching and writing. There’s a lot to be said about being happy.”

About that writing thing: David Oatis deserves a nod for inspiring Carson. Oatis, who for more than 31 years oversaw the USGA Northeast Region Green Section, was intrigued how Carson managed his budget and asked if he’d write an article on it. In the March/April 1999 issue of USGA’s Green Section Record, Carson wrote, “Your Budget is a Sales Tool!” Today, Carson has written nearly two dozen articles, including for GCM, and he continues to noodle on topics for future stories. Oatis, who has a consulting business, says, “He had a brilliant way of presenting it (budget), presenting its value, and not just with line items, and he showed how his staff was important to the operations. I didn’t know he was going to be that good of a writer. He turned out to be a great writer.”

Chris Carson with Steve Weisser and Rees Jones at Echo Lake Country Club
Carson, left, with architect Steve Weisser (center) and architect (and past GCSAA Old Tom Morris Award recipent) Rees Jones on. No. 17 at Echo Lake Country Club during a full course renovation.

No doubt he’s been active. Carson was president of the Tri-State Turf Research Foundation and the New Jersey Turfgrass Association, where he was inducted into the NJTA Hall of Fame (Carson has been integral in the evolution of the New Jersey Green Expo turf and landscape conference, where he has served as chairman for two decades). 

Obviously, Carson was immersed in numerous causes in his field, but  Clarke points to one momentous occasion that he calls a “landmark change” at Rutgers. The Ralph Geiger Turfgrass Education Center, which opened in 1999. was a pivotal advancement for the green industry. The center has a laboratory, classrooms and computers, all designed to aid accurate and timely diagnoses of plant-health problems for residents of New Jersey and for golf courses and sports fields nationwide.

“He (Carson) was instrumental serving on the committee, generating funds through fundraisers. Chris is a hard worker, caring, thorough, really a team player. He’s one of Rutgers’ top turfgrass supporters, and I don’t take that lightly,” says Clarke, emeritus in the department of plant biology at Rutgers. “He’s very direct, understands academia. He’s a liaison for the industry and the university. And, as a writer, he has a good perspective on how to phrase things so it’s applicable to the end user. Whether it’s writing or presentations, he knows how to communicate to his audience, knows how to read the audience.”

Chris Carson with a girls high school varsity team during a game
It wasn’t on a golf course, but the Westfield (N.J.) High school girls varsity team in which Carson (top right) served as a volunteer assistant coach won a state championship on a goal with 8 seconds remaining in 2021. Photo courtesy of Chris Carson

Look at him now

He simply goes by “Carson” to Sutton Factor.

Carson has been a volunteer high school soccer coach for two decades, including for the Westfield High School girls team on which Factor was goalkeeper. “Every time Carson would come to practice, it’d be a lighthearted environment. He’s a fun spirit to be around, and he does have that golf vibe when he wore those Polos,” Factor says.

In 2021, that Westfield team capped a spectacular season by winning the Group 4 state championship on a goal with 8 seconds left. “Greatest sports moment in my life,” says Carson, who felt a sense of poetic justice because, as a high school senior playing for the Verona Hillbillies, his team lost in the state final (he went on to be captain of the Cook College club team and also was on Rutgers’ track and field team as a high jumper, earning a letter, and he had a best jump of 6 feet, 6 inches). “Coaching is pure joy. Surrounding yourself with 22 hard-working players is the fountain of youth.”

Carson retired in late 2022 at Echo Lake CC, where he was named superintendent emeritus and groomed nine-year GCSAA superintendent Brian Kahl. “The best moments for me were helping assistants grow and move on,” says Carson, who had more than a dozen do so. “Brian deserved it. He saved my bacon on a lot of occasions.”

Kahl says, “It was a very seamless transition. He’s a very inclusive boss. Being part of the decision-making, especially budgetary — he didn’t give me a piece of paper and say, ‘Go do this.’ I was always challenged by his questions, like, ‘How many labor hours are being put into this, how much does it cost?’ He gave you motivation to dig in deeper about running a business. He was extremely gracious how he handed over the keys to the kingdom, so to speak, and he was genuinely proud I was going to be the one to take over for him. His legacy is in very good standing.”

Carson retired from the club but doesn’t stand still. He teaches 50 classroom hours per semester at the Rutgers Professional Golf Turf Management School on subjects such as how to shake a hand and network, budgeting and planning, and how to win a job interview. During the GCSAA Golf Conference and Trade Show in Phoenix this year, he teamed with Rutgers’ Bingru Huang, Ph.D., on a presentation titled “Turfgrass Science Behind a Career of Mistakes as a Superintendent.”

And if anybody in the industry approached him to ask for advice on his or her journey, make no mistake: Carson — who received the Feser Award for writing in 2000, 2007 and 2017 — has a word or two. “The best advice I think I can offer is, ‘Don’t let other people define what success means to you.’ Beyond that, it gets complicated according to situations,” Carson says, “but continue to educate yourself. Grow your network. Remember that an interview is not about what you have done, but what you will do.”

Howard Richman (hrichman@gcsaa.org) is GCM’s associate editor.