Whether behind the wheel or on foot, Frank Dobie can navigate The Sharon Golf Club in Sharon Center, Ohio, like nobody else. He has been on-site since day one in 1964. Come November, after 56 years, Dobie will retire from his role as senior agronomist and general manager. Photo by Kyle Kresge/TRG Multimedia
A beige, ranch-style home next to the main entrance at The Sharon Golf Club houses Frank and Penny Dobie.
That seems as appropriate as appropriate gets — and it certainly requires a rather short golf cart commute for what has developed into an extraordinarily long union between Frank Dobie and the club in Sharon Center, Ohio, where he serves as general manager and senior agronomist. You’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who has seniority in Dobie fashion — anywhere, in any profession.
“He is a rarity. It’s a miracle to hold on to a job 20, 25 years,” says Bruce Williams, CGCS, president of GCSAA in 1996. “What he has done ... I don’t think it will ever happen again.”
The definition of longevity: Dobie. In 1964, the same year the Beatles debuted on live TV in the U.S., Dobie launched a career that, in time, would reach rock star status. His presence at The Sharon GC is a remarkable streak — this marks 56 years for Dobie.
Dobie’s sensational voyage stretches well beyond Ohio borders and is littered with innovations, achievements and accolades. He’s a pioneer, a president and a Hall of Famer. He has received numerous honors, including GCSAA’s Col. John Morley Distinguished Service Award. He has given countless lectures and authored articles.
Editor’s note: Fifty-plus years in the industry will leave one with quite the wealth of knowledge. Frank Dobie shares firsthand advice on converting greens and fairways from Poa to bentgrass and communicating with your course’s stakeholders about the often tough topic of removing trees.
Retired Ohio-based superintendent Terry Bonar is convinced Dobie was the perfect fit at The Sharon GC. “The job was never too much for him. No one could have done it better,” Bonar says.
Dobie, a 62-year GCSAA member who is 80, says he’s had the time of his life. Now, though, the time is near to conclude what can only be described as an astounding run for one of the longest-tenured superintendents in association history. Dobie has announced that he will retire Nov. 1.
Where does the time go?
“You know the old saying, ‘Time flies when you’re having fun’? Well, that’s been the story of my life,” Dobie says.
Makings of the man
David Franklin Dobie was born June 15, 1940, in Lakeland, Ohio. Naturally, he lived near three public golf courses in North Olmsted, Ohio. The day he turned 14, Dobie received a work permit to be a laborer at Homelinks Golf Club in Olmsted Falls, Ohio. Dobie says head greenkeeper Charlie Smith told him in his second year, “You’d make a good greenkeeper someday.”
Golf course maintenance wasn’t exactly a career option at first. Dobie intended to study mechanical engineering at what is now Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. He also worked at a gas station for a man named Mo Shave, who informed Dobie he wanted to build a golf course. “He said, ‘If you go to that turfgrass college, you can run my golf course,’” Dobie says.
Dobie’s work at The Sharon GC has included everything from maintenance to personnel management to design. He designed this covered bridge on the club’s 12th hole in 1972. Photo courtesy of Frank Dobie
Shave never did build that course, but Dobie built a storied career. It didn’t start at Muskingum, however. He opted out there. Instead, high school classmate Bill Burdick mentioned the turfgrass program at Penn State University. Dobie enrolled. The rest is definitely history. Dobie fondly recalls late-night bull sessions with other turfgrass students in an old U.S. Army barrack dorm. “We ranged in age from 18 to 49. My roommate was from Michigan. We had guys from all over,” Dobie says. “We’d talk all night. And we all had a common interest — a love for working on the golf course. I knew the first week this is what I wanted to do.”
They participated in a two-year turfgrass program overseen by turfgrass pioneers Burt Musser and Joseph Valentine. In his second year, Dobie was taught by another legend, Joe Duich, Ph.D. After he left Penn State, Dobie joined Duich and Tom Burrows to establish the Penn State Turfgrass Alumni Association. Since 1988, Dobie has been president of the Musser International Turfgrass Foundation, which financially rewards the top turfgrass doctoral students nationwide.
A GCSAA Scholarship recipient (Dobie spent the $100 he received for it on a 35 mm camera to begin documenting activities, which he has continued throughout his career), Dobie graduated atop his class, summa cum laude. He became an apprentice at Bob O’Link Golf Club in Highland Park, Ill., where he absorbed vital lessons courtesy of its superintendent and GCSAA’s president in 1958, Bob Williams (father of Bruce Williams, who, at the start of his career, interned for Dobie in 1975). “He was a retired military captain — very disciplined and prepared about everything. He did his homework first, and he said to treat the job like a business,” Dobie says.
Dobie landed his first superintendent job at Sleepy Hollow Golf Course in Brecksville, Ohio, before moving on to Fairlawn (Ohio) Country Club, where his stay would be brief. His next stop? That stay was closer to forever.
The start of something special
Sept. 15, 1964. A new private golf course was in the works in Sharon Center, a small community approximately 35 miles south of Cleveland. General Tire President M.G. O’Neil was behind the project. When O’Neil interviewed Dobie to be the superintendent, it came with a warning. “I had a good job at Fairlawn. He (O’Neil) made his offer attractive. He said, ‘I’m going to give you all the tools; you need to do the job. And if you don’t, I’m going to replace you,’” Dobie says.
Dobie accepted the challenge. He was 24 and immersed in construction and automated irrigation system design. O’Neil supplied a perk. “He gave me the choice of a Ford, Chevy or Plymouth. I chose a silver Ford pickup,” he says. It resulted in quite the joy ride.
The Sharon GC opened for play July 8, 1966, to 88 members. With no micromanaging by O’Neil, Dobie explored and experimented with ways to make the club cutting-edge. He developed the first double-row, fully automatic irrigation system in his region. Dobie’s goal was to have a central control so that he could start course irrigation with a touch of his fingers in the maintenance shop. He also incorporated a “syringe cycle.” He wrote an article on the process; irrigation companies picked up on his phrase.
He wasn’t done tinkering. Dobie, who has made changes to every hole, conceived and developed a bunker liner in 1967. To prevent bunkers from becoming dirty after rain, he devised a bunker liner to separate sand from soil, which eliminated contamination. He got the idea from the apartment complex where he lived during the 1960s. Dobie noticed a landscaped bed of silica gravel that had plastic below it. “After we started using the liner and got 1 or 2 inches of rainfall, there was no water in the bunker after 20 minutes, and it was clean,” he says.
Another bright idea: In search of ample oxygen for a troubled green, Dobie used a commercial air pump with check valves on the exit tiles for the suction he needed to eradicate gases under the green, which allowed for moving air from the top to the bottom of the soil. “I was so excited that I called Dr. Duich. He laughed and said, ‘I just talked to Marsh Benson at Augusta National. He’s doing the same thing,’” Dobie says. Benson, senior director of golf course and grounds in those days who became friends with Dobie, invented and patented the SubAir system that took greens moisture-removal to new levels in the mid-1990s at Augusta National and globally.
This solid plastic bunker liner was one of Dobie’s numerous innovations.
Solar panels were installed at three water cooler stations at The Sharon GC, replacing underground electrical sources. Photos courtesy of Frank Dobie
What sets The Sharon GC apart, Dobie says, is its format. There’s no need for tee times; just come play. There’s no out-of-bounds either (the club used to have out-of-bounds areas until it purchased adjacent property). “Can’t lose a ball here. That helps pace of play,” says Dobie, who has hosted U.S. Open sectional qualifiers. Dobie is developing a pace-of-play video and has had his 27 tips on pace of play published in industry periodicals. “We not only allow fivesomes, we encourage them. We even have sixsomes that can play in three hours.”
Rick Michelson, son and grandson of two of the club’s founding members, has hung around Dobie since he was a teen. What Dobie created has aged well and set examples for others in his line of work. “A lot of things he has done are common practice now,” Michelson says.
None of Dobie’s creations shock his equipment manager, Gary Bogdanski, who has been at the club for 32 years and, with Dobie’s collaboration and blessing, built a pesticide storage building to California EPA and OSHA standards 25 years ago. They also devised the Sandpacker, an attachment for the Toro Sand Pro that helps pack the sand and leaves a raked finish. “He’s always been a supporter. A listener. The thing about Frank is that I like to get involved, fabricate and try stuff, and he’s always been behind it. He never ever says no,” Bogdanski says.
That sounds familiar. Dobie received the same type of treatment from O’Neil. Dobie had chances to leave The Sharon GC when other facilities came knocking, including one that has hosted major championships. None of them, however, could match the way O’Neil and the club championed Dobie’s presence. And that has everything to do with the longevity factor.
“He (O’Neil) said, ‘One of my jobs is watching your back.’ He gave me freedom to be creative and full access to everything,” says Dobie, noting that the club has no committees and has showed a profit ever since the course opened under Dobie’s care. “He and I developed a straightforward relationship with mutual respect. I adopted his philosophy of how a golf club should operate, and he placed confidence in my ability to execute his tenets. The thing that was constant through my entire tenure here was the respect I received from my boss and our members. Staying here made perfect sense.”
The Golf Industry Show was the setting when Dobie received GCSAA’s 2011 Col. John Morley Distinguished Service Award. He and wife Penny are with major golf champion Nick Price, who was the Old Tom Morris Award recipient that year. Photo courtesy of Frank Dobie
It has for others there, too. Assistant superintendent Norm Renner (54 years), laborer Dan Fox (48 years), office manager/comptroller Valerie Bittner (41 years) and superintendent David Willmott (25 years) exemplify longevity. Irrigation technician Ray Bailey sure does. Like Dobie, he’s in his 56th year at the club. Dobie has a lot to do with it. “If something went wrong, he’d say, ‘We’ll get it fixed.’ That’s all there was to it,” Bailey says. “It is a fun place to work. A nice place. The atmosphere is great.”
Dobie orchestrated a culture. Willmott imagines that what Dobie forged will cement his legacy even more. “He assembled a great team of people here. I expect things to continue on here seamlessly. That’s a tribute to him,” Willmott says.
Mentor, friend, best man
When Brian Farris got married, Dobie was right by his side. That’s what the best man does.
Farris went to Penn State University and served in Vietnam before Dobie hired him to join his crew as his first intern in 1967. When Farris married Linda, Dobie was right beside them. “Frank was so instrumental in my life. He’s just a man I felt very close to,” Farris says. Dobie surprised Farris once with an opportunity to meet a rather familiar golf standout. Tour pro Chi Chi Rodriguez stopped by for a round after having played in a tournament in Akron, Ohio. Game on, thanks to Dobie. “Frank comes to me and says, ‘You want to play golf with Chi Chi Rodriguez?’ He said, ‘Punch out and go play.’ That’s just Frank. He’s one of a kind,” says Farris, who blossomed into a superintendent and construction superintendent. “He was ahead of his time, always trying to improve something. A trait I learned from him is that when you get good people, take good care of them because they’re the best asset you’ve got.”
Whether they are former employees, people he mentored or just friends, Dobie affected lives in magical ways. Dick Psolla is among them. He’ll tell you that Dobie was instrumental in growing Psolla’s business — and he didn’t even work for him. “I was in soil consulting, trying to get started. Frank became a client from day one,” says Psolla, who teamed up with Dobie when he was still at Fairlawn CC. “We got a lot of his friends (as clients) who’d gone to Penn State. We had 37 of the top 100 courses. Nobody was as stable, had more common sense, than Frank. He never wavered. He called the shots. That’s what produced The Sharon Golf Club.”
The Penn State University turfgrass family benefited from leadership and contributions from (from left) Joseph Duich, Ph.D.; Dobie; and Tom Burrows. Photo courtesy of Frank Dobie
The Dobie Effect has contributed to a dynamic industry career for Darren Davis, CGCS. Davis, GCSAA president in 2018 and director of golf course operations at Olde Florida Golf Club in Naples, Fla., was in his final year at Penn State when he was introduced to Dobie by Duich at a turfgrass conference.
“It took me years to figure out he (Duich) thought Frank would be a good mentor for me,” says Davis, a 31-year association member. “I still remember him (Dobie) saying, ‘Son, you’re the author of your own destiny.’ I partially owe my getting the job at Olde Florida to Frank because of that initial meeting (Dobie recommended Davis to Olde Florida President Tom Kukk, who had known Dobie for many years). The slide that I use in presentations, and I put it in quotes, is being the author of your own destiny. What stands out about Frank is his benevolence and willingness to give. He gave to me.”
And then there’s this: Bill Prest had just joined the Northern Ohio GCSA when Dobie called him from out of the blue. “That’s how I met Frank. He called when he heard I joined the association,” says Prest, who with Dobie, John Spodnik and Al Muhle established the Northern Ohio GCSA Hall of Fame and historical library in 2007, hoping it would serve as a prototype for other GCSAA chapters. “In my opinion, that’s a rarity. It takes a special person to go out of his way to welcome you to the group. He’s a very unusual person — in a good way.”
When he wasn’t growing grass, Dobie was growing people. GCSAA Class A superintendent Jason Mahl is one of many molded by Dobie. Currently at Moraine Country Club in Dayton, Ohio, Mahl learned early that the Dobie way means do things right and don’t take shortcuts. “He always challenged me whenever I did calculations for fertilizer applications or other products. He didn’t let us use a calculator. He didn’t even let us use a scratch pad. We had to figure it out on the spot,” says Mahl, a 22-year association member. “I went there in the first place because Frank is kind of a pillar in the industry. He’s had a really good run there — one of the best runs ever.”
On the menu — and on the horizon
Frank Steak was on the dinner menu in the Dobie household.
Their family comes with their own version of the Brady Bunch, except the Dobies have two boys and four girls. Frank and Penny each had three children from their first marriages when they married in 1982. He was the chef, Penny the sous-chef. “I chopped up the veggies and cleaned up around him,” Penny says. “He made something called Hamburger Surprise toward the end of the week that included ground meat, onions, celery, green beans, tomato sauce, rice and numerous leftover veggies. He also made flank steak so often the kids called it Frank Steak.”
From the outset, Frank served as an ideal stepfather to Penny’s children. “My kids view Frank with much love, respect and admiration,” she says. “He helped with their math homework. In their lives, we wanted them to make stupid teenage mistakes, learn from them, and be there to support them.”
Soon, the Dobies will have additional chances to be there for them — and to enjoy their nine grandchildren. Frank and Penny plan to spend part of winter in Florida and take summer vacations, which they have never done. “I think Frank is going to be busy. He’s not going to sit in a lounge chair and fade away,” she says. “We’ve been processing this for months. We have a real healthy attitude about it. Now, it’s their (Sharon GC’s) time. It’s their turn. We get it.”
When he steps away from The Sharon GC next month, Dobie won’t depart forever. He has been presented the title of superintendent/general manager emeritus. He has also been granted club golf privileges; perhaps Dobie, who is in the Northern Ohio Golf Association Hall of Fame, can break his low round there of 69 that featured birdies on the final three holes.
While Dobie sets the pace with his 56-year tenure at The Sharon Club, many of his co-workers also measure their stints there in decades. Pictured are, front row (from left): Valerie Bittner, comptroller/office manager; Dobie; Dan Fox, golf course utility employee; and Justin Brown, clubhouse manager; back row (from left): Norm Renner, assistant superintendent; Gary Bogdanski, equipment manager; Ray Bailey, irrigation technician; David Willmott, superintendent; and Dwight Axtell, head golf professional. Photo courtesy of Frank Dobie
Dobie also agreed to be a resource of information for the club’s staff for the next five years. Seriously, could there be a better resource? “I’ve always looked up to Frank,” says Dobie friend Jeff Markow, CGCS, a 38-year association member whose 28 years at Cypress Point Club in Pebble Beach, Calif., is half the time of Dobie’s career at The Sharon GC. “Somewhere along the line, he’s done a lot of things right. That’s a testament to his professionalism and personality. What an epic run.”
Asked what he views as his legacy, Dobie thinks of a movie that starred Helen Hunt. “It is called ‘Pay it Forward.’ That, to me, is probably the greatest legacy anybody could have, if you’re willing and able to pay it forward,” says Dobie, who in 1986 received his local school system’s Highland Pride Award for his contributions, including building a soccer field. “One of the things I’m most proud of is, I’ve been able to do it.”
For more than 20 years, Dobie has made his case for an industry hall of fame to recognize his peers, and he plans to continue making his voice heard on the matter. There is no doubt that Dobie is an institution at The Sharon GC, where a portrait of him is stationed in the club’s trophy room. He breathed life into that entire club. What he has attained, quite simply, is breathtaking. “To be in one place for 56 years, of course this is a major part of my life,” Dobie says. “We still have a house out front. We could stay for life. So it’s all good.”
The Frank Dobie file
Born: June 15, 1940, Lakewood, Ohio
Career: General manager/senior agronomist, The Sharon Golf Club, Sharon Center, Ohio (2015 to present); superintendent/general manager (1964-2015); second superintendent job: Fairlawn (Ohio) Country Club; first superintendent job: Sleepy Hollow Country Club, Brecksville, Ohio
Family: Wife, Penny; children, Mark Robert Dobie, Michelle Lynn (Dobie) Roberts, Kelly Ann (Dobie) Sorensen, Jennifer Leigh (Cook) Joseph, Erin M.(Cook) Fearer, Brian M. Cook; grandchildren, Spencer Dylan Dobie, Anna Michele Rose Dobie, Kate Alexandra Dobie, Kyle Sorensen, Nate Sorensen, Emma Grace Roberts, Alexander Dietrich Roberts, Taylor Logan Joseph, Donald Charles Joseph III
College/honors: Penn State University, turfgrass management; graduated summa cum laude; GCSAA Scholarship winner, 1960
Military service: U.S. Army Reserves, Combat Engineers Unit (sergeant highest rank)
Organizations/associations: GCSAA; Northern Ohio GCSA; president, The Musser International Turfgrass Foundation; co-founder Joseph M. Duich Scholarship Fund; co-founder, Penn State Turfgrass Alumni Association; co-founder, Northern Ohio GCSA Historical Library and Hall of Fame; founder, Share A Smile, organized visits to nursing homes, prisons and mental hospitals
Sustainability at The Sharon GC: Beehives help sustain the bee population and produce ample honey for use in the club kitchen; solar panels at the three water cooler stations, which replaced an underground electric source; stocked lakes with white amur fish for the past 50 years to control aquatic vegetation (no chemicals have been applied to those waters since 1970)
Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.