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Grooming the grounds

Published 5/2/2012

Sullivan, Withhuhn tasked with upkeep of local golf courses.

By BRETT MARSHALL

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Laurie Sisk/Telegram Toby Withhuhn, above, is the superintendent for Buffalo Dunes Golf Course, and Casey Sullivan, left, is the superintendent for The Golf Club at Southwind. Together, they and their staffs help maintain the two golf courses and have them ready for play throughout the year.

Laurie Sisk/Telegram Toby Withhuhn, above, is the superintendent for Buffalo Dunes Golf Course, and Casey Sullivan, left, is the superintendent for The Golf Club at Southwind. Together, they and their staffs help maintain the two golf courses and have them ready for play throughout the year.

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Brad Nading/Telegram Jason Hill, Rockwall, Texas, sprays sand as he hits a greenside bunker shot in August 2011 on The Golf Club at Southwind's No. 9 hole during the first round of professional play in the Southwest Kansas Pro-Am.

Brad Nading/Telegram Jason Hill, Rockwall, Texas, sprays sand as he hits a greenside bunker shot in August 2011 on The Golf Club at Southwind's No. 9 hole during the first round of professional play in the Southwest Kansas Pro-Am.

bmarshall@gctelegram.com

The similarities between Toby Withhuhn and Casey Sullivan are many.

They both love the great outdoors. They both come from small western Kansas towns.

And while they don't spend a lot of time playing the game, golf has become a central focal point of their professional careers.

The two, who serve as the respective superintendents at Garden City's two golf courses — Buffalo Dunes Golf Course and The Golf Club at Southwind — are quite at home in their own "back yards."

Most of the time, when they receive accolades for their work on the two "Gems of the Sandhills" they usually come in August, when the courses play host to the annual Southwest Kansas Pro-Am, now part of the Adams Pro Golf Tour.

But each would tell you that their job is more than the few weeks of the hot, windy, Kansas summer when the Pro-Am rolls into town with more than one hundred young professionals.

"Our seasons are quite different, and as a result, we have a wide variety of things we do during the year," said Withhuhn, who has been at the Dunes for nine years, the last four as the head superintendent and only the second person to be in that position since the course was built in 1976. "Early spring, we're trying to get everything as healthy as you can in preparation for the warm summer."

Withhuhn was raised in Bazine, a tiny community near Ness City, about halfway between Dodge City and Hays. Sullivan was born and raised in Lakin, situated 23 miles west of Garden City on U.S. Highway 50.

"Many people think the hot weather is the biggest issue we face," Sullivan said, "but really the biggest thing we have to deal with is the wind. The irrigation system was not built to handle the wind and how it blows the water all over the place. We have to make many adjustments for that, and it presents a lot of problems and challenges."

Both Withhuhn and Sullivan keep care of their courses with spartan crews — Withhuhn with just four year-round employees while Sullivan has seven who work the entire 12 months. Their maintenance staffs grow to between 11 and 17 in the summer months when they employ high school and/or college students.

Days are long and nights can even be part of the work schedule for the two "supers."

"When you're the head superintendent, you worry about everything and you worry all the time," Sullivan said. "You've got all the heartaches. But I love what I do. We've got tremendous people out here, and that's what I enjoy most about the job."

From early spring fertilizing, mowing grass that grows fast when the nights are cool and days are warm, the two outdoor lovers go about their business with tender care of the land they oversee.

"Things can change really fast around here, so you've got to be on your guard all the time," Withhuhn said. "Especially with the greens. They can go from healthy to extremely dry in just a matter of hours. The summer just has a different set of challenges. You go from perfect and healthy to just trying to keep everything alive."

For the few weeks preceding the annual Pro-Am, or any other major event the two courses might host (2012 Class 6A boys state championship at Buffalo Dunes, 2012 High Plains Amateur at The Golf Club at Southwind), Withhuhn and Sullivan change their maintenance practices slowly, but surely.

"In some cases, we're talking three to six weeks in advance that we start lowering the mower heights," Sullivan said of both the fairways, greens and roughs at Southwind. "You can't take them all the way down quickly or you'll kill the grass. It's not like mowing your yard or mowing the football or baseball field grass. You're talking hundredths of an inch, even thousandths of an inch."

Once the busy summer months of golfing wind down and school begins in late August and people finish summer vacations, the fall is used to fertilize and prepare the courses for the slowdown of the winter months.

Yet, in western Kansas, if there is no snow and the temperature rises above 40 degrees and there is minimal freezing, the course are open to the golfers.

"Both Toby and I have different issues, we have different grasses, but the challenges remain the same," Sullivan said. "We try to make sure the traffic damage is minimal, and we do our best to have the courses ready for the cold weather and put them to bed as best we can."

Withhuhn agrees that the four seasons of weather forces he and Sullivan to change with those seasons.

"You can't do the same thing in October that you do in June or July," Withhuhn said. "It's ever-changing. But that's what I like about the job. No two days are the same. It's not monotonous. There's pretty much something new every day it seems like."

Sullivan concurs with his colleague to the south.

"I've got a big back yard, and when I bring my kids out here, it's a pretty good deal," Sullivan said.

"Watching them have fun. I see it from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. and the days always change. You're always seeing something different it seems like."

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