You probably don't recognize the name, but Anthony L. Williams is a superstar in golf. Not as a result of displaying his talents on the field of play, but by preparing those fields of play.
The 53-year-old Williams, Director of Golf Course Maintenance and Landscaping Operations at Four Seasons Golf & Sports Club in the Dallas suburb of Irving, is the 2017 National Private Course and Overall winner in the Environmental Leaders in Golf Awards, a program co-sponsored each year by Golf Digest and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.
Williams is now a Triple Crown winner, tying him with Timothy Kelly, who as superintendent at Village Links near Chicago won the National Public award three years in a row in the mid-1990s. But Williams is the first to win in three different categories: Resort in 2005 while at PineIsle Resort on Lake Lanier in Georgia, Public in 2006 while superintendent at Stone Mountain Golf Club near Atlanta and this year in the Private category. He was also the Overall Winner in 2006, which ties him with Christopher S. Gray Sr. (now golf marketing manager with Lebanon Turf) as the only two-time grand champions in the 26-year history of the ELGAs.
What's even more impressive is that Williams has now won twice in his first season at a new job. He was hired for the Four Seasons position in late 2016 and started work the first week of January, 2017, less than six months before the club's TPC Four Seasons Course hosted its final Byron Nelson Classic on the PGA Tour. (After 35 years at the Four Seasons facility, the tournament is moving to Trinity Forest Golf Club in south Dallas beginning in 2018.)
In one of his first meetings with staff, Williams expressed the desire to build upon the work of his predecessors, former superintendent Scott Abernathy and, before him, John Cunningham, to elevate the Four Seasons 36-hole complex to award-winning status. He met his goal in less than a year's time.
The secret to his sustainability success is meshing environmental programs with business savvy. Williams calls it "environomics," a term he coined back in the early 1980s, when he was president of his local Future Farmers of America chapter at Newton County Comprehensive High School in Georgia. "You can't have true sustainability without a financial component," he says.
Williams is a meticulous data cruncher and record keeper, and his ELGA application was replete with facts and figures. His Integrated Pest Management policies, which include an onsite lab to microscopically examine turf tissues, cut back on pesticides and fungicides, saving $28,450 this season. Benefiting from a new environmentally-friendly turf center, which opened a few months before his arrival, and new irrigation pumps, the Four Seasons maintenance operation realized a savings of $14,250 in utility expenses over the previous year. Waste recycling efforts saved $3,338 in 2017. In total, Williams reported that the programs he introduced and adopted at Four Seasons saved the club a total of $98,398.
For an 1,800-member club with an annual maintenance budget in excess of $4 million, 98 thousand and change might sound insignificant, but Williams feels it's important that every club understand how sustainability measures can benefit a bottom line. "Even if it's just reallocating resources, it's important," he says. "We were able to free up some funds to address cart-path replacement, which hadn't previously been in the budget."
The business end of his Environomics might be the hardest for some small clubs to embrace. In Williams's view, you sometimes have to spend money to save money, and save the environment.
At Four Seasons, it's particularly apparent in his water management program. It's a big property, 296 acres, with 256 of that being maintained turf: bent grass greens and 419 Bermuda fairways and rough. Unlike most courses hailed for their sustainability, his two layouts – TPC Four Seasons and Cottonwood Valley (pictured below) - don't look parched or brown around the edges (except, of course, in winter, when the Bermuda is dormant. The courses are still playable, though, so Four Seasons is aptly named.)
There are 40 acres of out-of-play areas of native grasses and wildflowers, but even they have irrigation heads that are occasionally used. "We can't ever let this place dry out," Williams says, "because our underlying soil is black gumbo, which will shift and break irrigation pipe and damage drainage."
So the key is to use water sparingly, efficiently and often by hand, especially on the greens and surrounds. Soon after he arrived, Williams established two-man watering teams, one man handling a hose, the other a soil probe, checking and rechecking for the precise moisture content in each green.
He began by providing 20 hours of training to the teams on everything: how to read a 3-inch probe and a 12-inch probe, how to recalibrate each when needed, how to apply water efficiently via hoses, how to mist to simply cool the temperature of a green. Then he had the teams study each green complex to learn how each differs from another. A small green with a single ingress-egress point will experience more stress than a larger green with multiple access points. A hilltop green might have more air movement, but a shaded green might stay cooler certain times of the day.
The teams, which adopted names based on characters from the movie "Top Gun," (Team Maverick, Team Iceman and the like) spent 750 hours this past summer hand-watering greens and other portions of both courses. They'd make four or five runs throughout a course each day, checking and rechecking moisture and temperatures, adding water if needed.
It's that intensive hand maintenance that seems at first glance to be a budget buster for most clubs. But it's essential, says Williams, if one wants to save both water and turf.
"On bent grass in North Texas, if you're not hand-watering the way we hand-water," Williams says, "you won't have turf. The stresses are too great. We're vigilant. It's a down-to-the-ounce science. We measure constantly, making adjustments. If you just turn on overhead irrigation, well, too much water and it's dead. Not enough water and it's dead. We're committed to finding the exact amount of water that is right for each green site."
Much of the labor costs are offset by savings in irrigation, Williams adds. They used 74 million gallons of water on each course this season, down 20% from the previous year. All the irrigation is recycled water, drawn from canals that run through the courses. "We still pay for that water," he says, "so we're excited when we don't have to pay for what we don't use."
His figures show that the Four Seasons water bill this year was $38,000 less than last year.
Back in 2006, when he was at Stone Mountain, Williams began presenting an annual Golden Hose Award to the employee he felt did the best job of hand-watering that year. He brought the idea with him to Four Seasons, and will award it to the two-team that his staff deems most deserving. It won't be an easy decision, he says.
His office in the turf center glitters with plaques and trophies. Besides all those ELGAs, there are the 2010 GCSAA President's Award for Environmental Stewardship, the 2015 GCSAA Excellence in Governmental Relations Award, several Superintendent of the Year awards, Grounds Manager of the Year plaques and even one for Environmental Communicator of the Year. There's also a couple of First Place trophies from the College of Martial Arts. A 9th degree Black Belt, Williams is a 2001 inductee into the Martial Arts Hall of Fame.
As he proudly points out the various awards, Williams casually mentions that he'd underwent emergency open heart surgery back in 2014, just weeks after his wife had experienced a near-fatal heart attack. Both he and his wife have fully recovered, but it seems pertinent to ask: was that behind the sense of urgency he had in earning an ELGA this year?
Not at all, Williams replies. The urgency was because the awards program will be changing in 2018, replacing the public-private-resort categories with ones focused on specific environmental components. "This was my last chance to win the Triple Crown," Williams said. "Thanks to everyone at Four Seasons, we just made it."
2017 ENVIRONMENTAL LEADERS IN GOLF AWARDS:
Overall winner/National Private Course winner: Anthony L. Williams, Director of Golf Course Maintenance and Landscaping Operations, Four Seasons Golf & Sports Club, Irving, Texas
National Public Course winner: Jay Neunsinger, Boundary Oak Golf Course, Walnut Creek, Calif.
National Resort Course winner: Scott Main, Mauna Kea Resort Golf Course, Kohala Coast, Hawaii