Oh, brothers: A family tradition of turf in Kentucky

Two sets of brothers total over 250 years of golf course superintendent experience. 


Littrell and Willard brothers
The Littrell and Willard brothers have been staples of the industry in Kentucky for decades upon decades. From left: Tim Willard, Pete Willard, Tony Littrell, Bobby Littrell, Ted Willard and David Littrell. Photo by Kim Jones

Their names are synonymous with turf in the Bluegrass State.

Two sets of three brothers named Littrell and Willard have covered enormous ground in Kentucky: Bobby, David and Tony Littrell, along with Pete, Ted and Tim Willard, have totaled over 250 years and counting in the industry.

That includes 58 for Tony Littrell, a 48-year GCSAA member.

Today, one of them remains as a superintendent. Pete Willard, a 20-year association member, oversees GlenOaks Country Club in Prospect, Ky. Others remain active at golf courses, which says something about their passion, skill and longevity. Certainly, it adds to their legendary status.

“I’ve seen two brothers in this industry, but not two families of three in one area. They’re unique. And they’ve all been successful,” says Chuck Breitenbach, district manager at The Hill Co./Turf Ventures.

The Willards didn’t venture far for their introduction to this life. “We lived next door to Juniper Hills Golf Course (in Frankfort, Ky.). It was about 100 yards away,” says Pete Willard, who worked with designer and golf icon Arnold Palmer on the build and grow-in at Lake Forest Country Club in Louisville.

Tim Willard, CGCS, and a 40-year association member, retired in 2021 following a career that featured 41 years at Frankfort Country Club, where he spearheaded its drive to become certified by Audubon International. “When we converted from ryegrass to bluegrass fairways, the members just loved it,” he says. “I finally decided last year it was time, time to get a younger person in there and take it up a notch.”

Thirty-seven-year GCSAA member Ted Willard, CGCS, left the industry in 2018 after being the superintendent at Hunting Creek Country Club in Prospect. Now a manager for Louisville Metro Parks, he wanted nothing more than to mimic his brothers. “I was kind of like the Beaver (from TV’s “Leave it to Beaver”), following around my older brother. Working at the golf course was the best part of my childhood,” he says.

As for the Littrells, they seemed destined for this. Their father, George Littrell, served in World War II and tried farming upon his return. Briefly. “He was what we called a failed farmer — two bad crops of strawberries in a row,” David Littrell says. “He went to work at the old Bowling Green Country Club (in Bowling Green, Ky.). He decided if he couldn’t grow strawberries, he was going to grow grass.” Wise choice. George Littrell had a standout career, including 25 years at Wildwood Country Club in Louisville. George Littrell, 1972 Kentuckiana GCSA president, died in 2010.

“What I learned from him, which I shared when talking to young assistants, that was true, true, true is to treat your people well, and they’ll do anything for you. He was right on about that. People still talk about him. People know who we are, but sometimes we don’t have a clue who they are. It’s all because of dad and his reputation in Kentucky and Indiana. He had a fifth or sixth grade education, but he’s the smartest man I know,” says David Littrell, whose career includes nearly 18 years as golf operations supervisor for the city of Louisville, 14 of those years at Iroquois Golf Club. A 22-year GCSAA member, David Littrell also served on the Kentucky Turfgrass Council.

Bobby Littrell likely would have logged more than 53 years in the industry had he not served four years in the U.S. Air Force as a B-52 weapons mechanic. Although he did not attend college, he was schooled. “I worked five years at Bunton Seed and learned a tremendous amount from superintendents,” says Littrell, who oversaw Bowling Green CC for 15 years in one of his career stops and identified the early triplex greens mower and old Ryan aerator as game changers. “I’d go to GCSAA national (conference and trade show), local meetings, listen to superintendents tell their stories. I got after-hour lessons about the business from a lot of those guys.”

Tony Littrell was deeply involved in association matters. He served as Kentuckiana GCSA president twice — 1982 and 1992 — and is a past president of the Kentucky Turfgrass Council, plus was a Certified Golf Course Superintendent for 25 years. He spent more than 40 years at Midland Trail Golf Club in Louisville. Asked what makes superintendents special in Kentucky, he says, “You’ve got people who are really good at it. (They) get down on their knees and smell the grass. The earth will tell you if there’s something wrong. We didn’t just make up a program and follow it.”

The Willards and Littrells never worked together, but their admiration for each other is palpable. “They were three great guys on great golf courses. They really went after it,” Bobby Littrell says. Tim Willard, CGCS, said: “To me, they (Littrells) are the legends.”

Kentuckiana GCSA President David Beanblossom arranged a gathering of the brothers a while back and enjoyed listening to their stories. “Our association has been around for nearly 75 years, and the Littrells and Willards have been there for a large part of it. It’s mind-blowing that they have been part of this for that length of time,” says Beanblossom, a GCSAA Class A superintendent, 15-year association member and general manager at Chariot Run Golf Club in Laconia, Ind. “They’re still relevant.”

Indeed. “I’m in my third season since retiring, helping out at Valhalla (Golf Club in Louisville),” says David Littrell, who has his eye on sticking around at least until the PGA Championship there in 2024 when he’s 67. He also volunteered at Valhalla for the 2008 Ryder Cup, an event that prompts fond memories. “I mowed fairways in the morning and got back out there in the evening,” he says. “It was one of the best weeks in golf I ever had.” Meanwhile, Tim Willard, CGCS, returns on occasion to help at the course where he started in his youth, Juniper Hills.

The massive imprint left by the Littrells and Willards is indelible to industry veteran Sam Montgomery. To him, they influenced and transformed an industry — in actions and words.

“Three brothers from two families … that’s unheard of around here,” Montgomery says. “You could line up all six of them, and every one of them is excellent. In all my years, I don’t remember anybody saying anything bad about them.”

Howard Richman is GCM's associate editor