John Turnour ('01) is head groundskeeper for Major League Baseball's Washington Nationals.

Keepin’ it Green

July 14, 2010

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As the summer sun bears down on the lush grasses blanketing some of our nation’s top athletic facilities, it’s NC State graduates who are getting the call in hopes of keeping what’s green from turning brown – saving their bosses considerable green of their own in the process.

Last month, Kevin Robinson (’92) was named superintendent of the world-renowned Pinehurst No. 2, the fabled Donald Ross-designed course located about an hour’s drive from campus. Even the most casual golf fan knows of #2 – which will host the 2014 men’s and women’s U.S. Open Championships – something Robinson says drives him to pursue daily perfection as he watches over what Ross himself deemed “the fairest test of championship golf.”

“It’s a dream come true to work on No. 2,” Robinson said. “It’s one of those courses you always hope to have an opportunity to work on. It’s a big challenge, but I can’t wait to get started.”

Robinson first worked at Pinehurst as a grounds volunteer in 1991 while pursuing his turf management degree at NC State, starting full-time at the heralded resort upon graduation the next year. In his 18 years at Pinehurst, Robinson has served as the Superintendent of four courses. He ran No. 3 and No. 5 in 1998 and 1999 and spent the last 11 years as the Superintendent on No. 6 and No. 7.

A few hours north of campus, fans of the Washington Nationals baseball club get a first-hand look at the efforts of John Turnour (’01) and Mike Hrivnak (’05), as they preside over 12-hour field-prep days at the 41,546-seat Nationals Park.

“It’s definitely not a traditional, come-in-an-hour-before-games kind of job,” said Turnour who, as head groundskeeper, manages a staff that includes Hrivnak, two seasonal full-time employees, five interns and a team of 9-12 game-night workers. “We’re responsible for taking care of the field and all the maintenance that goes with it, and keeping everything up to player and organizational expectations.”

Every eye in baseball was on Nationals Park on June 8, as major-league phenom Stephen Strasburg took the ball for Washington in his major-league debut, striking out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates in seven innings of work. And although the atmosphere was electric, Turnour, who came to the Nationals this year after assistant-groundskeeper stints with Baltimore, Philadelphia and San Diego, said for his staff, it was no different than any other game.

“This is a high-maintenance, high-performance turf, and we go into every game with the mindset of making sure the playability conditions are at their best,” he said. “It was a great night and there was a lot of good energy here at the ballpark, but it was just another day for us.”

While pursuing their degrees in turf management, Robinson and Turnour both apprenticed under NC State assistant director of outdoor athletic facilities Ray Brincefield, gaining invaluable, hands-on experience in maintaining the university’s athletic fields.

Hrivnak credits the Durham Bulls’  Jimmy Simpson and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kevin Robinson – also NC State grads – as his mentors in the field.

“The whole program is pretty amazing to go through – it’s consistently one of the top-rated programs in the country,” Turnour said. “The actual studies, classrooms, labs and professors are all top-notch.

“Between the program, and working with Ray, it’s honestly what I owe my career to,” he said. “The amount of things I was able to see, learn about and do there is priceless.”

Kevin Robinson ('92) is superintendent of Pinehurst's legendary #2 golf course.

And, as it seems, so are NC State turf-management graduates – fans of a number of other area universities have them to thank for how well their own teams’ turf holds up, too.

Brincefield counts a number of area turf gurus – including the aforementioned Robinson and Simpson, South Carolina’s Clark Cox, ECU’s Joey Perry and Eric Holland, whose Precision Turf, LLC serves both the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, among those who learned their trade at NC State.

Today’s NC State turfgrass students even have the opportunity to learn at the university’s newest “living lab,” the Lonnie Poole Golf Course, which opened last year on Centennial Campus.

“The development and education that NC State students are getting out of the turfgrass curriculum is second to none,” Brincefield said. “So, we’re taking the best turfgrass students in the country and putting them in what we feel is one of the best working environments, and they’re coming out so far ahead of other students and makes them very attractive to prospective employers.

Turnour, a Massachusetts native who came to NC State in pursuit of a landscape architecture degree, found his passion for turf management after spending his post-freshman-year summer working on a golf course. As he looks out over the two-acre Nationals Park each night, his decision remains one that he’s more satisfied with than ever before.

“Without a doubt, NC State opened up my eyes to a lot of things,” he said. “I’ve met some of the most influential people in my life and my career during my time at NC State.

“Without their guidance, I wouldn’t be where I am at now,” Turnour said. “It was exactly the right decision, and I’d do it all over again.”

Photo: ® Pinehurst, LLC. All rights reserved.