Desert dynamo: Saving water on a Nevada course

James Symons, director of agronomy at Anthem Country Club in Henderson, Nev., spearheaded a water-conscious renovation that's expected to reduce water use by 30 million gallons per year.


Filed to: Nevada, Water

James Symons
Anthem Country Club Director of Agronomy James Symons has helped take the Nevada facility to another level. Photo by Brian Hurlburt

Kelly Moss needed a word with Anthem Country Club Director of Agronomy James Symons.

Moss was in the middle of a golf outing in early December when she eyed Symons wheeling around the Henderson, Nev., course. Moss had a message for him. “I told him we love the new greens and the addition of the water-saving fairway grass,” Moss says. “Then jokingly I said it was harder, and my handicap was going up. He just laughed. He is so approachable and smart. Glad he’s here.”

Symons’ impact has been game-changing. What he and Anthem CC accomplished in 2022 will have implications this year and beyond. The club’s decision to implement new grasses on its fairways and greens is expected to reduce water use by 30 million gallons per year in a drought-stricken region that includes Las Vegas, about 15 miles northwest of Anthem CC. 

Anthem CC closed for five months to complete its task. There was no time to wait. “The water crisis is all over the news. Nevada, Arizona and California are in trouble. There are major consequences for a lot more than golf,” says Symons, 43, and a 21-year GCSAA member. 

The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) has lauded Anthem CC and other facilities that have taken steps in recent years to decrease their water use and be exemplary stewards of the community. For Symons, this opportunity to put his fingerprints on a massive project is a second chance of sorts. More than a decade ago, his shot at attaching his name to something extra special was denied through no fault of his own.

This time, Symons was allowed to finish what he started — and it was a happy ending. Steve Cohoon, CGCS, a mentor of Symons’ who was there when Symons encountered a career crossroads over a decade ago, never expected anything less. “He’s putting a good product on the ground. I always felt he had bigger things in his future,” Cohoon says.

Symons, a Canada native, was passed over for the assistant job he wanted after finishing at Penn State University. But he was encouraged by the school’s standout turfgrass instructor George Hamilton Jr. to stick with the industry he fell for as a grounds crew member during his college years at Mississauga Golf & Country Club in Mississauga, Ontario.

His want-to prevailed, and 20 years ago this year, Symons was on his way. It began as assistant-in-training at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Va., followed by a job at Heritage Hunt Golf & Country Club in Gainesville from 2004-07 as assistant for Cohoon, who was superintendent. Symons left there when he accepted his first superintendent job at Plantation Lakes Golf Club in Millsboro, Del. The chance of a lifetime was short-lived, however. 

Construction of the course had begun in 2007, and the first five holes were completed in 2008. “I got there, and it was just getting going. Irrigation, construction, grow-in of greens,” Symons says. “I was excited.”  

A year later, jubilation was replaced by heartbreak. The historic economic collapse that struck in 2007 and escalated in 2008 was devastating, including for housing developments that featured golf courses. The club paused completion of the course due to the recession. “The economy tanked. I was cut loose,” he says.

Not for long. Western Golf Properties, which oversaw Plantation Lakes GC and ran Heritage Shores Club in Bridgeville, Del., retained Symons as a superintendent later in 2008, working under Dave Clem. “They could have said ‘good luck’ to him,” Cohoon says of Western Golf Properties LLC, where he was national director of agronomy. Cohoon now works in the same position at Links Asset Trust, a subsidiary of Resort Development Partners. 

“That says a lot about him. It didn’t work out with him in that spot, but they said, ‘We want to be with you going forward,’” Cohoon says. Symons spent the next four years at Heritage Shores and then The Osprey’s at Belmont Bay in Woodridge, Va., before heading west in 2014 to The Revere Golf Club in Henderson. That proposition was somewhat different than his previous stops. Bobby Heath, CEO of Western Golf Properties, was instrumental in bringing Symons to Las Vegas. “He believed in me all along, and despite (my) not having any desert experience, he trusted me with his new property,” Symons says.

Still, it was unlike anything he had encountered. “I spent 12 years on the East Coast. Water wasn’t an issue,” Symons says.

In 2018, he accepted a new job. There was no need for Symons, his wife, April, and their four children to move: He took a position across the street at Anthem CC. Ever since, the water crisis has been front and center. A new irrigation system project was launched in 2019 and completed before the end of 2020.

Anthem CC wasn’t even close to being done. Originally, it intended to replace its greens last year. The accelerating water crisis led to the club’s decision to, opportunistically, replace fairways while rebuilding the greens. In May 2022, Anthem CC General Manager Shelly Caiazzo got word from the SNWA that water restrictions could be coming as quickly as 2023. That hastened the decision to begin converting Poa annua-riddled bentgrass greens to Dominator 007/777 bentgrass and Fairway Supreme perennial ryegrass fairways to Bandera bermudagrass.

15th hole at Anthem CC
Anthem CC's 15th hole. The course was designed by Keith Foster and golf great Hale Irwin. Photo by James Symons

Landscapes Unlimited led golf construction, and architect Kevin H. Hargrave handled the greens design. As for Symons, Caiazzo already knew he was the perfect leader for his team’s duties. She says his honesty and integrity are solid. That’s not all.

“He values the golf course. He treats it like he owns it,” Caiazzo says. 

Symons’ team — which includes his assistants, five-year GCSAA member Matt Simonson and three-year member Abel Dejtisakdi — was vital. “There was a stretch we did not take time off. They were essential. I would not have made it,” Symons says.

On June 1, Anthem CC initiated a partial closure. On July 5, it was totally closed. Fairway sod was laid July 25. The construction phase ended Sept. 16, and the last greens were seeded the following day. On Dec. 2, Anthem CC reopened.

The SNWA significantly trimmed Southern Nevada golf clubs’ water allotment from 6.3 acre-feet per acre per year to 4.0 AF/A/YR. The end game for Anthem CC is a 25% reduction by Jan. 1, 2024, and this recent project took care of half of it. Further work will continue in 2023 as the club moves below the new allotment of 4.0 AF/A/YR. Another benefit of the new bermudagrass is there’s no need any more for fall overseeding, which will also save significant water.

Symons welcomed support from numerous club members. One of them is a familiar name. Butch Harmon, the golf instructor who coached Tiger Woods for more than a decade, is a Symons fan. When Symons stood over his ball to hit one of the celebratory tee shots to christen the reopening, Harmon had some fun with him. “Butch said, ‘Better not hit it too good. It’ll look like you’re not working enough.’ He really was very encouraging to our team,” Symons says.

Next for Symons is turf reduction, which already is underway. A bunker renovation is also on the horizon. Symons will attack all of it the only way he knows how. “I’m a competitive guy,” Symons says. “The only thing I know is to work harder and do whatever it takes.”

Moss — who made a point to chat with Symons right after the grass revival — has no doubt Symons will triumph. Again. “I think superintendents are kind of taken for granted. They have to navigate all these personalities at the club. You have to be pretty smart to navigate it all,” Moss says. “James and his staff do a great job navigating all these personalities and get the job done.”

Howard Richman is GCM's associate editor

Filed to: Nevada, Water

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