Wayne's World: A natural oasis

GCSAA President’s Award winner Wayne Mills carved out a career at La Cumbre Country Club.


Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Wayne Mills, winner of the President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship, pictured here with his pooch, Rusty, has been at La Cumbre Country Club in Santa Barbara, Calif., since 2001. Photo by Aiden Bradley

As hard as it might be to believe, if Wayne Mills had been born blond or brunette, he might never had become the force of nature in the golf course management industry that he is.

As the story goes, Mills, then 14, had just wrapped up another season in the fields in his native Santa Clarita (Calif.) Valley, where even at that young age he spent his summers tending to sweet corn and pumpkins, plowing and discing the fertile land, and he found himself drawn to the nearby Valencia Golf Course. The facility intrigued him, and as autumn fell and the growing season ended, Mills wandered over to see if he could find work.

Sure enough, the course needed help, and after a brief discussion — in retrospect, it was a too-brief conversation — about what to do and when, Mills immediately got to work on the cart staff.

“The next day I was working, and another short redheaded kid showed up,” Mills says. “I think they thought I was him.”

That fortuitous case of mistaken ginger identity couldn’t have worked out better — for Mills or the industry.

“Once I got there, I really enjoyed the work,” says Mills, the soon-to-be-semi-retiring GCSAA Class A superintendent at La Cumbre Country Club in Santa Barbara, Calif. “I liked interacting with people and stuff like that. From there, it just kind of snowballed.”

Kind of. After a year on the cart staff, Mills — a 39-year association member — moved to the green department. Four years later, he became a superintendent, the start of a long, distinguished run as a golf course management professional that was punctuated with the 2024 GCSAA President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship. Mills learned he had won that award late last year and collected it during the 2024 GCSAA Conference and Trade Show in Phoenix.

“I was humbled when I got the call,” Mills says. “I didn’t know what to say. I always think we’re doing a lot, but there are others doing a lot more than what we’re doing. I was shocked, humbled. I thought, ‘Wow, what we’re doing must be as cool as I feel it is.’ People look at what we’re doing and appreciate it.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
A work session putting in native plants in one of La Cumbre CC’s naturalized areas. Pictured, from left, are: Jeff Nighman and John Warner, from Santa Barbara Natives, and ecologists Johanna and David Kisner. Photos courtesy of Wayne Mills

‘I can do something here’

A native of the northwest Los Angeles suburb of Santa Clarita, Mills took his first superintendent job in 1980 at neighboring Vista Valencia, then took over in 1984 for Bob O’Connell — a now-retired 43-year GCSAA member — at Valencia Golf Course, where it all began for Mills with that case of mistaken identity. The following year, the course sold to the Japanese Uniden Corp., and Mills and crew in 1987 worked to turn the facility from public to private.

That conversion entailed all new buildings on the property and a new irrigation pumping system, plus rebuilt bunkers, cart paths and fencing — and a name change to Valencia Country Club in 1989.

In 1994, Mills worked on another Uniden project, the NCR Golf and Marina just outside Bangkok, and not long after work on NCR completed in 1996, Mills and the Valencia CC crew started prepping that course for the 1998 PGA Tour Nissan Open (which Tiger Woods uncharacteristically lost in a playoff, to Billy Mayfair).

Valencia CC also hosted PGA Tour Champions events in 2000 and 2001, but in June 2001 — just a few months after VCC hosted the SBC Senior Classic — Mills accepted the open job at La Cumbre CC in Santa Barbara.

“I just wanted to bring change on myself, instead of letting change come on me,” Mills says. “And this was a nice piece of property. Moving to Santa Barbara meant getting away from the heat. I drove around the property. There’s a big lake on it, a lot of wildlife. This is a unique property. I thought, ‘I can do something here.’”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Mills with some of the LCCC crew, from left: Antonio Lagunas, Luis Gaeana, Mills, Felix Zaragoza, Mariano Zaragoza and Pedro Samano.

It was at La Cumbre CC that Mills — always the outdoorsy type, an avid hunter, angler and even boat builder — really started upping his environmental cred.

It started slowly, when in 2002 he enlisted environmental consultant Zack Moran to help in the removal of underground storage tanks for gasoline and diesel. Together they tackled remediation of contamination they found as a result of that project. Later, Moran — a lifelong golfer — started his own company, Water Quality Consulting Group, and LCCC was quick to hire him.

“The part I helped Wayne with was those parts that no one sees,” Moran says. “No golfer sees the way we updated the way they wash equipment so it doesn’t impact the waterways. We took care of that stuff first before moving onto the golf course and doing the stuff he received his awards for.”

Mills calls the first steps the “low-hanging fruit,” but it was the beginning of a long, fruitful journey toward sustainability at La Cumbre.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Part of what the La Cumbre CC membership refers to as “Wayne’s superbloom.”

Making his (water)mark

Perhaps not surprisingly for an often water-challenged environment like the Golden State, water played a huge role in Mills’ trek.

In the early days of his career, Mills admits he managed “like everybody did.” In other words, sustainability wasn’t always top of mind. He recalls that the rapid adoption of PVC pipe allowed area superintendents suddenly to water “wall to wall,” a practice that soon seemed wasteful when historic drought started to settle into the region in 2007. Though it abated a bit the next couple of years, another drought settled in 2012 and stretched to 2017.

But La Cumbre was prepared. A new well was dug to supplement irrigation water, and by 2009 Mills and crew had completed a study into the feasibility of using reclaimed water. By 2014, the team began removing irrigated turf and started replacing with native plantings. A rebuilt irrigation pond and new storage and pumping system followed in 2015, and a year later the team embarked on even more large-scale turf reductions, resulting in wildlife corridors planted with true natives.

In 2021, LCCC finally turned the spigot on one of Mills’ longest-running water projects — a yearslong quest to bring recycled water across three distinct governance zones (each with its own maze of red tape) to LCCC. That project helped earn Mills and LCCC the Environmental Leaders in Golf Award for Natural Resource Conservation in 2022.

“To be honest, Zack really got this thing going,” Mills says. “I use Zack as an assistant almost, even though he’s an outside contractor. We get together, and we’re like, ‘You want to take it on? Let’s do it.’ Every year we’re doing something new, but we didn’t get into this to get recognition. The drought pushed me, and everything snowballed from there.”

Mills calls the first steps the “low-hanging fruit,” but it was the beginning of a long, fruitful journey toward sustainability at La Cumbre.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
The availability of reclaimed water at LCCC was the result of a yearslong effort by Mills and respected golf/water advocate Mike Huck.

The great outdoorsman

An athlete in school — having played baseball and football, but not golf (“The family I grew up in didn’t have the money to play golf,” Mills says) — Mills gravitated to an outdoor lifestyle early. In fact, as good as Mills is as a superintendent, Moran says, he might be an even better outdoorsman.

“He’s a really good hunter and fisherman,” Moran says. “He lives in Santa Barbara. The Channel Islands are 20 miles off the coast, and he’s one of the most known fishermen in that channel. He’s caught striped marlin, bluefin tuna … you go into a local fishing shop and mention his name. They’ll know who he is. And I think his eye for nature from fishing and hunting added to his eye for a lot of the wildlife corridors.”

Sure enough, Mills concedes some of the ideas he’s implemented on the course stemmed from walking the mountains around Santa Barbara, often on the lookout for quail.

“When we were mandated to stop using water, I was looking for something to do with these (out-of-play) areas,” he says. “We weren’t watering, and they were just brown, fallow areas on properties. They didn’t look good. I was looking at native grass restoration stuff they were doing in Nebraska. I’m a quail hunter. I thought, ‘Maybe that’s what we want to do.’ Walking around the mountains, I thought, ‘What if we brought this down there.’ It felt good. It’s local. That spurred it. I met some biologists in town and bounced the ideas off them. They showed interest, and it took off from there.”

Reducing managed turf wasn’t a new idea to alleviate the effects of drought, of course. Many regional courses were able to take advantage of rebates for removing acres of managed turfgrass. Not LCCC.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Though he strives for pristine playing conditions at La Cumbre, Mills says he’s especially pleased when golfers approach and say they enjoyed natural encounters on the course.

“We didn’t have that luxury,” Mills says.

Plus, he didn’t like the way many of them did it.

“A lot of people grabbed that money,” Moran says. “They’d replace turf with … whatever. A lot of people would go with DG, decomposed granite, or mulches. People would call it native, but they weren’t native plants like you’d see hiking in the hills. They just weren’t turfgrass. They’d put in plants from somewhere else in the country, and those areas started to be problematic. They took more staff, more maintenance. Wayne saw that. Then we’d get rain, and those areas washed out. Wayne watched what was going on. He started small and said he learned something every time.”

He learned plenty from the missteps of others.

“I saw some things in the metro area, big areas with dried mulch,” he says. “That didn’t feel good, but I didn’t know what to do. I started looking at native restoration, and that turned a light on.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
A bird box (and bird banding) project at La Cumbre CC has been handled by local ecologist David Kisner.

Goin’ native

If that turned the light on, Johanna Kisner helped focus it.

Johanna Kisner and David Kisner are the principal ecologists at Kisner Restoration and Ecological Consulting Inc. When Mills talks about meeting some “biologists in town,” he’s referring to the Kisners, and Johanna in particular when it comes to consulting on native restoration of previous turfgrass areas. David has been instrumental in establishing and monitoring the property’s successful bird box projects.

“When I first got a call from him, he was talking about wanting to have more bees and butterflies and birds on the golf course,” Johanna Kisner says. “He gave me some ideas of what he wants out there — flowers, patches of color. It was a little bit different than some of my other work.

“What I appreciate about what Wayne has done is that a lot of people claim to use native plants, but they’re not local native plants. They might be native to California or parts of the U.S., but what Wayne has done, what makes that project unique, is that he’s using actual native plants, plants native to our local ecosystem.”

La Cumbre Country Club sources its plants from Santa Barbara Natives, a local nursery that grows only locally native plants.

“I think what’s really important is, we’re losing so much native habitat, especially in coastal California,” Johanna Kisner says. “Whenever we have the opportunity to bring that back, just from a habitat standpoint, it adds a lot of value. Everybody comments that they like what we’re doing. It adds beauty to the landscape. It helps wildlife. It conserves water. It’s a win-win all around.”

Mills is intentional with his plantings.

“In spring, things lighten up with California poppies, lupines, red flax — native annual flowers,” he says. “When they’re done with their seasonal life around June, all the salvias come out. There’s the scent of sage in the air. Then we go to the white phase in the winter. In the fall we go yellow, with Mexican marigold. You get seasons, and we don’t really have seasons in California. It’s rewarding, and it keeps you entertained.”

Apparently, the LCCC members are enthralled as well.

“If they didn’t fund it, it wouldn’t happen,” Mills says. “I’m extremely lucky they viewed it as I viewed it and kept funding the projects. It was all done in-house, funded by membership, and we have close to 14 acres of it now. It’s kind of neat now. It’s a walk on a well-maintained turf area, but it’s a walk in nature at the same time. I have ladies who come up to me and say they were coming up on 11 in the rough and they saw butterflies and caterpillars, they saw bluebirds going into a bird box, foxes raising cubs. That’s a rewarding thing. There are all these little rewards. When it’s all grass, you don’t have that.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Water, Mills says, was the impetus for him to start down the path toward environmental sustainability.

Leaving La Cumbre

Before he became a general manager, Adam Zubek was a GCSAA Class A golf course superintendent — a superintendent for 10 years, he was a 14-year member of GCSAA — so he knows what he has, and what he’s about to lose, in Mills.

“My experience with removing turf and adding naturalized areas is, they tend to look like eyesores,” says Zubek, LCCC’s GM and chief operating officer. “What Wayne has done here is not like a beautiful garden. What he puts in the landscape seems to complement it. It looks like it belongs. Everything seems like it belongs. That’s a testament to Wayne’s commitment to making these sustainable, environmentally sensitive areas.”

In May, Mills will retire from the day-to-day business of being La Cumbre Country Club’s superintendent, but he’ll still be around, overseeing a planned 2025 renovation by Todd Eckenrode of Origins Golf Design.

He’ll serve as a senior adviser on the project, which includes — naturally — more acres of turf replaced by native plants.

“They want me to help complete that, to make sure they have the same theme out there,” Mills says. “That’s the plan, to step down from the day-to-day operations to focus on the redo. Once we get rolling taking care of the new natives, when that restoration with Origins Golf is done, and it all feels right, then I can retire.”

Lauren Losocha, senior agronomist at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, has been named his replacement. She is to start at LCCC early this month.

Will Mills miss it?

“Nothing really bothers me, to be honest,” he says. “But I’m apprehensive. I’ve worked full time since I was 15 years old. This is uncharted territory for me. I’ve got this to keep me involved. The club didn’t like it, but they accepted it.”

He certainly will be missed.

“Wayne is such an all-around good guy,” Zubek says. “It’s such an honor to see him recognized. I’ve never been anywhere or worked with anyone who’s so universally well respected.”

Andrew Hartsock (ahartsock@gcsaa.org) is GCM’s senor managing editor.