Josh Smith
Golf Course Superintendent at the
Elk River Club, North Carolina

By Bill F. Hensley

BANNER ELK, NC—Each morning at 6 a.m. from April through October, Josh Smith parks his motorcycle, fastens a two-way radio and a cell phone to his belt, jumps in a golf cart and heads to his workplace, a 125- acre garden spot of lush green grass surrounded by stately trees and beautiful wildflowers.

The Elk River Clubhouse area is beautifully landscaped

In the morning darkness, the tall, youthful-looking man gives directions to his staff of 19, telling them the work priorities of the day. Though he is an astute businessman, a talented and knowledgeable professional, his attire—golf shirt, shorts, hiking boots—denotes that he is a workingman.

The maintenance routine includes the mowing of 35 acres of fairways, cutting 19 greens, a large putting green, 74 tees, and raking 54 bunkers. These daily chores might also include fertilizer and weed control applications, laying sod, seeding, trimming plants or picking up limbs. There is never a lack of something to do.

Smith is the highly regarded Golf Course Superintendent at the Elk River Club, and is one of the best. It is his job to make the course, designed by golfing great Jack Nicklaus, immaculate, providing a thick green carpet of grass to play on and to enhance the area’s immense beauty. His success is evident.

“There is always a quest for perfection in this business,” he explained, “and it is our job to reach that goal.”
Smith, who grew up in Banner Elk, has been in the golf maintenance business since he graduated from Lees-McRae College with a Biology degree in 1981. For two years, he worked on the maintenance staff at the Linville Golf Club. That’s where he decided to make the industry a career.

Holes 14 (above) and 15 (below) are great examples of Josh's care of the Elk River Golf Club.

“I knew almost immediately that this is what I wanted to do for a living,” he commented. “It can be hard, demanding work with a lot of pressure, but it is most rewarding. Be assured, my staff is proud of what they have helped create, and it is satisfying when members and guests make complimentary remarks.”

Knowing that he needed further education in turf grass management, Smith accepted an internship at Elk River in 1984 and then received a degree in that subject from Catawba Valley Community College a year later. After graduation he accepted a position on the staff at Linville Ridge for one season.

He joined the Elk River staff as a spray technician in 1986 before becoming the assistant superintendent at Grandfather Golf and Country Club for two years. He returned to Elk River as assistant in 1989 and took over the top job in 2001.

“I had learned from the best at Linville, Grandfather, Linville Ridge and Elk River,” he remarked, “I had great mentors such as George Cook, Steve Sheets and Monty Melton along the way.”

Smith and his staff put in 50-hour weeks during the peak season from May through October. The crew is reduced to five during the winter months when the course is closed.

And why is Elk River always a showplace that is in pristine condition?

“Because we work at it,” Smith, 49, said proudly. “Our workers are intelligent and dedicated. The saying in the business is that it takes money and manpower to keep a golf course in the best possible condition. That’s true, but it also takes people who know what to do and care how the golf course looks.”

Smith said that adequate equipment is also a necessity. At Elk River, he has a small army of rolling stock including three fairway and 12 greens mowers, 15 carts, four tractors, three rough-cutting units, two 300-gallon sprayers, one pickup truck and one dump truck.

“We have a full-time mechanic just to keep everything in working order,” he said.

Many golfers have said the #17 hole at Elk River Golf Club is one of the hardest holes in North Carolina courses.

Despite the money, manpower and equipment, the weather plays a key role in proper golf course maintenance.
“We live and die with the weather,” Smith smiled. “It seems like it always rains too much or too little. And when rain isn’t a problem it can be high winds, freezing temperatures, a fungus to fight or a disease to overcome. Mother Nature can be awfully unpredictable.”

The Elk River Club has a state-of-the-art energy and water efficient irrigation system to help maintain sufficient watering of the championship course.

The maintenance staff went through one of its toughest tasks in the winter of 2004 when hurricane-like rain flooded the course, dumping 32 inches in a nine-day period. The course was closed for nearly a year for major reconstructive work. It was necessary to rebuild every green, renovate all bunkers, repave cart paths, repair or rebuild four bridges, and install sod on ten acres of fairways. “It was a huge undertaking,” Smith said, “but we reopened in September of 2005.”
Because of his expertise, Smith is asked to join the maintenance staff at the Augusta National Golf Club each year during the Masters Tournament where he helps with course conditioning. The Augusta superintendent is Brad Owen, a Banner Elk native and longtime friend.

During the off-season from November until March, Smith enjoys some time off with his family and a week at Sunset Beach. But there winter renovation projects, educational seminars to attend, planning for the coming year, equipment to keep in order, paper work and personnel matters.

“But I wouldn’t trade places with anyone,” he said. “In addition to the many challenges we face daily, being out in the open air is hard to beat.”

Entrance to Elk River Club

Don Osteen, chairman of the Elk River Greens Committee, said “it is a pleasure working with Josh and his staff. His attention to detail and fine-tuning has resulted in the course’s long tenure among the state’s top ten courses. His dedication has ensured our members a beautifully maintained course. We are fortunate to have him.”

The friendly, almost shy 6-foot-6 Smith was born in Brazil where his father was serving as a Presbyterian missionary. The family moved to Banner Elk when he was seven, and he attended Avery County High School where he played basketball.

He is married to the former Lisa Franklin of Plumtree, and the couple has two daughters.

Maggie, 20, is a student at Carson Newman College and Mason, 18, attends Gardner Webb College.

Members often ask Smith to explain and help solve a grass problem they are having at their residence, but they seldom ask him to join them for a round of golf.

“It’s not that they are unfriendly,” he said with a laugh. “Not at all. They know I am not a golfer. I got into the game from a maintenance perspective rather than a golfing prospective. But I do go out to the practice range now and then to hit a few balls just to see if I can. But I would rather ride my motorcycle. Besides, they don’t pay me to play golf. They pay me so they can play golf.”

And so they do, and they are thankful. Just ask anyone who has ever played the great Elk River course.

“It is one of the best maintained course I have ever played,” said former N. C. State basketball star Lou Pucillo of Raleigh, a member of the North Carolina golf course rating panel. “It’s as good as it gets.”

And so it is. And Josh Smith may take a bow...........


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