Turf Bowl 2020: A first-ever first place for Cal Poly Pomona

The competition’s first female winners and first championship team from a university west of Iowa made the 2020 GCSAA Collegiate Turf Bowl one for the history books.


Turf Bowl winners 2020
From left: Rafael Barajas, CGCS, 2019 president of GCSAA; the four members of the winning Turf Bowl team: Hailey Taniguchi, Phuc Nguyen, Julissa Gomez and Stephen Espinosa; Priti Saxena, Ph.D., the team’s adviser; and Lauren Thompson, Golf Channel and NBC host who emceed the Golf Industry Show’s Closing Celebration, during which the top Turf Bowl team was announced. Photo by Montana Pritchard

The future of the golf industry was on display during the 26th annual GCSAA Collegiate Turf Bowl at the 2020 Golf Industry Show in Orlando, Fla.

For the first time in the history of the Turf Bowl — which is presented in partnership with John Deere Golf — the winning team included women (three!) and represented a university located west of Iowa: California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (aka Cal Poly Pomona). (Let it be noted that the West Coast was home to Eric Johnson of Oregon State University, the winner of GCSAA’s first student competition, which had only individual participants.) Four more women were also in the 2020 Turf Bowl top 10 — on a second team from Cal Poly Pomona and on teams representing Purdue, Penn State and Iowa State.

Although this is the first time the school has taken the top prize, Cal Poly Pomona is no stranger to the Turf Bowl, having placed in the top 10 in all but one year since 2010. The students on this year’s winning team — Stephen Espinosa, Julissa Gomez, Phuc Nguyen and Hailey Taniguchi — placed seventh in last year’s event, and they were coached by current graduate students Oscar de Real, Mark Nakatsui, Sean McLaughlin and Brian Fuertes, who recently placed in the competition or coached those who did.

GCSAA TV goes inside the 2020 Turf Bowl and captures the announcement of Cal Poly Pomona’s historic victory:

Current faculty advisers at Cal Poly Pomona are plant science lecturer Alan Moss and assistant professor Priti Saxena, who earned her Ph.D. in turfgrass breeding from Rutgers University under Bill Meyer, Ph.D., who received the USGA Green Section Award at this year’s Golf Industry Show.

“The university considers the Turf Bowl an educational activity,” says Saxena, who is Cal Poly Pomona’s turfgrass program coordinator and has been a faculty adviser since 2016. “All the students who participated prepared by taking a class, ‘PLT 2990 – Special Topics for Lower Division Students,’ and had been studying since, at least, the fall 2019 semester.” Gomez, Nguyen and Taniguchi are also officers in the school’s turf club.

As graduating seniors, all four members of the winning Turf Bowl team plan to pursue turfgrass-related careers, according to Saxena. Nguyen has already completed an internship at The Creek in Locust Valley, N.Y., and is interested in a career in golf course management. Espinosa and Gomez are looking forward to work in landscaping golf courses, while Taniguchi will be pursuing a graduate degree after taking a brief break from her studies to work in a real-world environment.

2020 GCSAA Collegiate Turf Bowl results

1. Cal Poly Pomona, Team 44
Stephen Espinosa, Julissa Gomez, Phuc Nguyen, Hailey Taniguchi
Adviser: Priti Saxena, Ph.D.
$4,000 award

2. Purdue University, Team 52
Kendall Endres, Joshua Frazier, Nicholas Oyler, Luke Simon
Adviser: Cale Bigelow, Ph.D.
$2,000 award

3. Auburn University, Team 23
Adam Hughes, Thomas Merritt, Maddux Richardson, Eli Russell
Adviser: David Han, Ph.D.
$1,000 award

4. Penn State University, Team 37
Paige Alcorn, Micah Osenbach, Ian Patterson, John Shupp
Adviser: Ben McGraw, Ph.D.
$800 award

5. University of Maryland, Team 5
Brandon Carbary, Ryan Geils, Jacob Hess
Adviser: Geoffrey Rinehart
$700 award

6. Michigan State University, Team 54
Kyle Lake, Jerold Pell, Alex Scott, Cameron Wyatt
Adviser: Trey Rogers, Ph.D.
$300 award

7. Cal Poly Pomona, Team 43
Daniel Carrillo, Matthew Ho, Jongmin Lee, Emma Riley
Adviser: Priti Saxena, Ph.D.
$300 award

8. SUNY Delhi, Team 46
Mike Battaglia, Mario Malagisi, John Sweeney, Sean Tillman
Adviser: Julia Ward
$300 award

9. Iowa State University, Team 41
Tomas Foley, Thomas Gould, Brody Schlepp, Hattie Spies
Adviser: Nick Christians, Ph.D.
$300 award

10. Virginia Tech, Team 33
Caleb Handley, Alexander Kaval, Wil Lannon, Jared Mason
Adviser: Michael Goatley, Ph.D.
$300 award

Cal Poly Pomona Turf Bowl
Champs in the making: Turf Bowl winners (from left) Phuc Nguyen, Julissa Gomez, Hailey Taniguchi (in the background) and Stephen Espinosa at work during the Turf Bowl exam Jan. 30 at the Golf Industry Show in Orlando, Fla. Photo by Roger Billings

This year, 31 schools sent a total of 56 teams made up of 214 students to the Turf Bowl. The University of Guelph brought six teams, the most from a single school. The winning teams shared $10,000 in cash awards, courtesy of John Deere Golf, and the first-place team will also have the opportunity to attend a golf event as part of the tournament-prep staff.

Editor’s note: Read about last year’s Turf Bowl winners’ experience joining the volunteer corps for the 2019 AT&T Byron Nelson at Trinity Forest Golf Club in Dallas.

The Turf Bowl couldn’t take place without the assistance of numerous scientists from universities and the turf industry. Leah Brilman, Ph.D., from DLF Pickseed in Halsey, Ore., and Gwen Stahnke, Ph.D., from Walla Walla (Wash.) Community College have organized the exam since the Turf Bowl’s inception as a team competition, and they update and modify the exam each year. Other scientists assist by developing questions and providing plants, insects and photos for identification. Golf course superintendent volunteers grade the case study essays.

Teresa Carson is GCM’s science editor.