Brock Pittman (left) and Austin Brown rode their roles as members of the Auburn University team that won the 2018 GCSAA Collegiate Turf Bowl to spots on the maintenance team that prepped TPC Sawgrass for last week’s The Players. Photo by Scott Hollister
“Underdog” and “Auburn University” aren’t phrases you’d normally associate with each other.
In the world of college athletics, Auburn is one of the big boys, winners of two national championships in college football (the most recent coming in 2010) and members of the rugged Southeastern Conference in all sports. Auburn might be a lot of things in college athletics — just ask an Alabama fan — but “underdogs” is definitely not among them.
When it comes to university turfgrass programs, though, using “underdog” and “Auburn” in the same sentence isn’t so far-fetched. While its research reputation has always been stellar, Auburn’s turf program has traditionally been relatively small and under the radar, and the teams it has sent to GCSAA’s annual Collegiate Turf Bowl have not made much of a dent.
Until this past year in San Antonio, that is.
That’s when the foursome of Austin Brown, Wayne Allen Carroll III, Kyle Kinney and Brock Pittman broke through to give the Tigers their first-ever Turf Bowl title, besting a field of 52 other teams from 28 schools.
Among the spoils of that groundbreaking victory in the event (which is presented in partnership with John Deere Golf) — spoils that included a $4,000 prize — were four spots on the volunteer team at last week’s Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Two members of the winning team — Brown and Pittman — were able to take advantage of that opportunity, and they couldn’t speak more highly of the experience.
“The scope and the size of the operations here are just amazing,” says Brown, who graduated the Sunday prior to The Players and will be returning to Auburn in the fall for post-graduate work in agronomy. “I don’t think that’s a huge surprise to me. I think I understood what it takes to put on a championship of this caliber. But to actually be here and see it firsthand ... man, it really drives it home.”
Pittman, who will be entering his senior year at Auburn this fall, has so far focused most of his education on sports turf management, but wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to expand his horizons into the golf side of the business.
“There are obvious aspects of it that are different between a golf course and a sports field,” Pittman says. “But at the end of the day, you’re dealing with the grass — how to maintain it and grow it and create the best possible surface for the athletes to play on. It’s great to be here and see that at this level.”
Brown, who has his sights set on a career on the research side of the industry — he’s currently working on a plant growth regulator study — spent the early part of the week at TPC Sawgrass working on the divot crews, while Pittman got up close and personal with a hover mower, tackling many of the steep banks and hillsides that Sawgrass is known for.
This year’s Turf Bowl breakthrough for Auburn wasn’t completely unexpected. The Tigers had announced their presence the previous two years, finishing fourth in 2016 and third in 2017. But perhaps just as important as the win was to both Brown and Pittman was the commitment their fellow classmates showed. The turf program boasts only 20 students, but Auburn sent three teams to this year’s competition in San Antonio.
“That was encouraging, and I hope the win shows some of the other people who aren’t quite as involved in the Turf Bowl that we’re as strong as anyone else out there, and with the way Dr. Han (David Han, the faculty adviser for the Auburn Turf Bowl teams) is preparing us, we can accomplish just as much as some of the bigger programs,” Brown says.
Pittman adds, “I hope that us winning the Turf Bowl will be a source of pride for the school, for the alumni of the turf program. You see that pride from some of the other schools that have won a lot in recent years, so we’re happy that we could do this for some of the people that have come before us at Auburn.”
Scott Hollister is GCM’s editor-in-chief.