Hall of Fame greens superintendent

David Stone came under golf’s spell in the usual way for a young boy growing up in the early 1960s. He was a full-fledged member of Arnie’s Army, recruited by the swashbuckling Arnold Palmer, the everyman’s champion who always put on a show—whether he won major championships or lost them—drawing untold millions to the game in his wake.

But Stone was a bit different than the typical Palmer foot soldier. Yes, Palmer’s allure attracted him to golf, but Stone, who grew up on a farm 70 miles south of Nashville, Tenn., chose a different path to make his mark on the game, a path that would one day earn him honors and nationwide respect and recognition.
In his own way, Stone, the long-time greens superintendent at The Honors Course, has impacted the game as much as a major champion, and on April 11, he’ll be honored in a way that is unique to his profession. On that night, with his family, friends and protégés looking on, Stone will be inducted into the Tennessee Golf Hall of Fame, taking his place alongside such great Tennessee players as Cary Middlecoff and Lew Oehmig, club professionals as Harold Eller and Don Malarkey and Jack Lupton, The Honors Course chairman and Tennessee golf benefactor.
That a greens superintendent, typically a behind-the-scenes guy, will be so honored might be surprising to some, but not to anyone who knows Stone or is familiar with his work.
“David Stone is the Cary Middlecoff of superintendents,” said Dick Horton, executive director of the Tennessee Golf Association. “Cary was the greatest player Tennessee has ever produced, and David is the greatest superintendent.”
Little did a 12-year-old Stone know when he was pilfering stray Bermuda grass out of the bunkers at the Buford Ellington Course at Henry Horton State Park, where he began playing, how those blades of grass would shape the rest of his life. Stone was so captivated with the game that he built his own mini course on the family farm, complete with greens.
“Whenever I’d go to Henry Horton to play, if I saw a worker on the course, I’d always ask questions, how high they set their mowers, that kind of stuff,” Stone said. “Eventually I decided I needed to have a place to hit balls and putt, so I started building my own.
“I’d take plastic bags with me to the course, and when I saw Bermuda in the bunkers, I’d take it home with me. I planted it in these big pots. I had Bermuda spreading everywhere. That’s what I used for my greens.”
Before long the accomplishment of growing the perfect putting surface overtook the thrill of hitting a perfect tee shot. After high school Stone enrolled in the University of Tennessee’s turf grass management program, where he was one of only two students who aspired to enter the golf business. Stone absorbed all the knowledge he could, and after he earned his degree in 1971 he was on his way.
Stone’s first job was Crockett Springs in Nashville. It was there Stone learned an important lesson that impacts his work to this day—it doesn’t take a lot of money to be successful.
“We had anything but money,” Stone said. “One winter I was paid by the court just to maintain the course while it was going through bankruptcy. So I was accustomed to providing the best conditions without much money to work with. I learned that it might take money for some areas of a course, but greens don’t require much money. It’s just a lot of technique and know-how, being observant, really watching them closely.”
Stone’s reputation grew quickly. One day, a member at Knoxville’s Holston Hills Country Club played Crockett Springs and went back to his club raving about the greens. At the time, Holston Hills’ head professional also served as greens superintendent, a dual role that must have been difficult. The course, an original Donald Ross design, was in poor condition.
The member’s high praise about Stone’s work at Crockett Springs was all the endorsement the young superintendent needed. Stone was offered the job in Knoxville, and though it paid barely more than he was making, the financial instability at Crockett Springs made his choice clear.
It didn’t take Stone long to drastically improve the conditions at Holston Hills, and once again, word traveled fast. After just a year in Knoxville, Stone received another job offer, this from Richland Country Club in Nashville. For Stone, it was an opportunity to return home and make a lot more money. But after making a decision that spoke volumes about his character, Stone stayed at Holston Hills.
“I just felt like I couldn’t go somewhere and just give a one-year commitment,” Stone said. “It didn’t make economic sense for me to stay, but I went to Holston Hills to do a job, and it was going to take more than a year to get things straightened out. I stayed, and I’m glad I did.”
Stone couldn’t have known it then, but his decision to stay at Holston Hills would one day lead to the job of a lifetime.
Stone remembers well a hot July Saturday in 1982. Holston Hills professional John Wylie called him and asked if he wanted to play golf with P.B. Dye, son of the noted golf course architect. Dye was helping his father with a project in Ooltewah, Tenn., near Chattanooga, but heavy rains had shut down operations for a couple of days. Seizing the opportunity to play some golf, Dye set up a game at Holston Hills, a course he had heard a lot about.
“We had a great day,” Stone said. “We talked about The Honors, but not that much. P.B. said they’d had somebody in mind for the superintendents job, so I thought that was the last I’d hear of it.”
Stone was wrong. Once again, word of mouth would help spread his reputation as a grass-growing genius. Young Dye was so impressed with the conditions at Holston Hills he went back to his father and couldn’t stop talking about Stone. A call was placed to Stone, but he wasn’t sure what to think, or how to proceed.
“I didn’t know much about the course,” Stone said. “I didn’t know who Jack Lupton was. I really didn’t think I’d be that interested. But I wanted to meet Pete Dye, so I went.”
Stone’s opinion of the project changed as soon as he set foot on the property. “You could see what was going on right away,” Stone said. “This wasn’t going to be a small-time operation. The course was going to be special.”
Stone was eventually offered the superintendent’s job, but he was conflicted. He liked Holston Hills, enjoyed being close to his beloved University of Tennessee football team and wasn’t sure he was ready to leave Knoxville. So in negotiating with Lupton for compensation, Stone set the stakes higher than he thought Lupton would be willing to go. His request didn’t involve money.
A few years before, Stone had played Atlanta’s famed Peachtree Golf Club and noticed that the greens superintendent lived on the course.
“I thought that was a neat situation,” Stone said. “So I told Mr. Lupton, ‘I won’t consider the job unless you build me a house on the property.’ I figured that would be the end of it, that I’d never hear from them again.”
Stone was wrong. A couple of days later, Pete Dye called.
“He told me Mr. Lupton wanted to see me,” Stone said. “So I went back down there. Jack said, ‘I think it’s an excellent idea for you to have a house on the property.’ ”
The deal was done. Lupton built Stone a home just inside the front gate of The Honors. Stoned took occupancy in 1983 and has lived there since, all of a minute’s drive by golf cart to his office in the course’s maintenance building.
Stone’s reputation has grown exponentially, right along with the course he has maintained and readied for such prestigious tournaments as the 1991 United States Amateur, the 1994 Curtis Cup, the 1996 NCAA Men’s Championships and the 2005 U.S. Mid-Amateur. The Honors has turned up since its inception on various rankings of the world’s top golf courses. Stone, who won the USGA’s Green Section Award for lifetime achievement in 1995, is a big reason for that.
“To watch what he’s done with such a demanding job as The Honors Course has been truly amazing,” Horton said. “And the fact that he’s been their one and only superintendent. That in and of itself tells you a lot about David.”
Stone has done his job with the same down-home, simplistic, budget-conscious approach he learned at Crockett Springs, which is to say he doesn’t reach very far into Lupton’s wallet to keep The Honors’ in top condition.
Stone’s method of maintaining some of the world’s greatest putting surfaces is impressive in its simplicity. His tool of choice is a pocketknife.
“I discovered working on the crew at Crockett Springs, even before I became superintendent, that if we let the greens go without water too long we ended up with these hard spots,” Stone said. “They wouldn’t hold [shots] and we couldn’t get them to take water again. I learned how to feel with a knife blade the firmness that would hold a golf shot without being overly wet, but not so firm that they start to cause problems by not taking water.
“Daily checking is the mainstay of our program to this day. We check with a knife blade and we have a ratings system for the firmness of the greens and the moisture. We do all of our watering based on that. We make minute changes or big changes, whatever is needed. It all depends on that knife.”
That will make a great chapter in Stone’s book some day.
Suffice it to say Stone’s system travels well. More than 20 future head superintendents have passed through his program at The Honors, including many now working in Chattanooga. And by extension, the assistants of those superintendents have learned Stone’s way of doing business.
“There’s a reason we all have great greens in Chattanooga,” said Wes Gilbert, the superintendent at WindStone Golf Club who satisfied his college internship requirement by working at The Honors. “We all grow greens like David’s taught us to.”
“All the golfers in Chattanooga have been the beneficiaries of David’s influence,” said Scott Wicker, a former Stone assistant and the superintendent at Black Creek Club. “Quite a few of the [Chattanooga area] superintendents worked for David at one time or another. That was where we went to school. … I’m not sure if there’s a more influential person in [Tennessee] golf, in any facet of the game. Golf in Chattanooga is about the best deal going, with great conditions everywhere. A lot of that is David’s influence.”
None of Stone’s protégés was surprised when the Tennessee Golf Foundation announced Stone had been elected to the hall of fame.
“I knew it was just a matter of time,” said Jeff Hollister, another former Stone assistant and superintendent at Chattanooga Golf and Country Club. “David’s taught so much to a lot of us, and even today he’s willing to share everything he has. Superintendents, no matter where they work, or how much money their courses spend, know that David will always given them a straight answer and would never lead them down a wrong path. In that way he’s been so influential.”
Stone goes out of his way to cultivate relationships with other superintendents. “I’ve been lucky to have had great people working for me,” he said. “And I’ve learned a lot from them, too. I’ve never tried to hide anything I know or do here at The Honors. It’s all about making the game better. That’s what we all want.”
Largely because of Stone’s influence, Chattanooga’s superintendents are a close-knit group. “We’ve all got one another on speed dial,” Wicker said. Once a month during golf season, the superintendents get together to play and share ideas. In March, 14 of them traveled to Atlanta’s Settindown Creek, where they were joined by Courtney Young, yet another Stone disciple, for a day of golf and fellowship.
“It’s about fun for us,” Stone said. “But it’s also about getting better. We’ve played at courses from the top of the [budget] spectrum to the bottom. But everywhere you go, you can learn something.”
Stone has never stopped learning. His turf grass testing center and sod farm located by The Honors’ maintenance building—Horton calls it Ooltewah Country Club—allows Stone to study the merits of the latest putting and fairway surfaces and experiment with various chemicals.
Captivated by the variety of birds that call The Honors home, Stone has cultivated them and learned as much as he could, even joining the Chattanooga chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. The local bird watchers annually take one of their field trips at The Honors. “They tell me it’s become their most popular site for a field trip,” said Stone, who has hand-raised numerous orphaned birds during his time at The Honors.
Stone is also a student of golf. Ten years ago he committed to playing better, with a goal of breaking 90 from The Honors’ green tees. He reached his goal after taking lessons, reading books, watching The Golf Channel and experimenting. “Just sifting through a lot of good and bad information,” he said. Wes Gilbert, among others, occasionally seeks help from Stone, a short-game wizard.
One of these days, Stone says, he might even sit down to put all he’s learned in print. There’s a file on his computer titled “Book,” and one can only imagine the wisdom it contains. In typical modest fashion, Stone wonders whether he’s collected anything anyone can use.
“If I feel like there’s enough good information in there, after I retire, I might could do a book,” he said.
At 57, Stone is a long way from retirement. His upcoming induction into the Tennessee Golf Hall of Fame has only increased his love for the game, and the job he unwittingly set himself up for those many years ago as he plucked public course Bermuda grass to build his own greens.
“[The hall of fame] is just such an awesome honor,” Stone said. “You look at the names of the people who are in there … it just humbles you. A lot of people who have worked with me over the years, and who I’ve learned from, made this possible. I’ve been so fortunate to have worked at The Honors. I’ve never stopped being intrigued by the challenges here. And I never will.”