Passing it on: Mentoring matters to Steve Ehrbar

Florida superintendent has made a name for himself in the turf industry, and others have followed his lead.


Jim Ehrbar
Steve Ehrbar, CGCS, is the director of agronomy at Panther National, an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature Course scheduled to open this month in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Photo by Montana Pritchard

Steve Ehrbar, CGCS, defines that "where-would-I-be-without-him" figure.

The Ohio native spent his Ohio State University summer internship under superintendent Al Muhle at The Country Club in the town of Pepper Pike roughly 30 minutes southeast of Cleveland. “I worked until 3:30 in the afternoon and came back later in the evening as night waterman,” Ehrbar says. “He (Muhle) saw I was interested, committed to the business. He said to me, ‘You’re going to work every day.’ I soaked up everything. To this day, I thank him so much. We still send Christmas cards to each other. I always thought if I can help someone, like he helped me, I would definitely do it.”

Ehrbar — director of agronomy at a highly anticipated golf course nearing its opening in Florida — has lived up to that “helping out” thing in a big way. Ehrbar estimates more than three dozen individuals have gone on to be superintendents or employed in other capacities in the industry after being guided on his watch, a sign of just how extensive his tree is and how much those people have branched out, most noticeably in Florida, where he has been located since 1985.

Among those who left and went on to flourish after their time with Ehrbar is GCSAA Class A superintendent Nick Sabatino. He worked at two different places for him. The courses may have changed, but the consistency remained. “It was the way he balanced out the pressure of expectations from membership and the team he leads. I never saw him lose his cool. He gave us enough rope to learn on our own and, ultimately, understood what happens falls on him,” says Sabatino, now at Hole-In-The-Wall Golf Club in Naples, Fla. “He was a boss, mentor, friend, and he could keep that balance. He’s as good as it gets.”

Ehrbar has touched lives. Clarence Covington will tell you. “I probably still would be an assistant if it wasn’t for him,” says Covington, once a spray tech for Ehrbar and now a GCSAA Class A superintendent and 14-year association member at Turtle Creek Club in Tequesta, Fla. “When I sought a superintendent job, he went to bat for me, 100%, no hesitation. To be in his circle means everything.”

To Ehrbar, seeing those who have blossomed under him advance themselves is what matters. “I’ve told anybody who worked for me, there’s no guarantees. I’ll put in a good word, but it’s not a free ticket. You’ve got to earn it,” says Ehrbar, 63, a 41-year GCSAA member at the 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature Course, Panther National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., which is scheduled to open this month. “I tell them to push themselves professionally. I was always pushing myself to be the best superintendent I could be. I had it in my mind when I got into the business that I wanted to be a good leader, somebody you can trust, and build a good reputation. For those who worked for me, seeing their success is what it’s all about.”

Aerial view of Panther National
A birds-eye view of Panther National Photos by Jim Mandeville

A one-man hall of fame

GCSAA Class A superintendent Jim Colo views Ehrbar as a best friend, confidant and mentor. “Be around him, and you pick up greatness and go on to do great things,” Colo says.

What went down 25 years ago enhanced Ehrbar’s reputation not just locally but nationally, too. During the late 1990s at Old Marsh Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Ehrbar pulled off what bordered on the unthinkable.

At the time, Colo was serving as Ehrbar’s assistant when the club made the decision to replace the annually overseeded Tifdwarf bermudagrass with 100% G-2 bentgrass. It seemed to be a monumental risk in that part of the world, but after years of overseeding “bookend” months, bentgrass greens year-round would remove that entire process.

“He said, ‘What do you think of going bentgrass all year?’ We took multiple trips to places like Vero Beach (Fla.), Jacksonville (Fla.) and South Carolina that grew bentgrass all year,” says Colo, “and we got Dr. (Milt) Engelke from Texas A&M to do some practice greens with a variety of bentgrass, including G-2, Crenshaw and L-93.”

For an entire year, Ehrbar and his team tested the bentgrass through watering, fertility and fungicide phases. Ultimately, the club chose to make the conversion, and the results paid off. What Ehrbar and his team achieved was part of his DNA.

“We weren’t looking for easy. We were looking for a challenge,” says Colo, a 30-year GCSAA member who oversees Naples National Golf Club. “Making decisions with Steve was instrumental and monumental. Steve was always looking to do better, not to be complacent.”

What cannot be overlooked, Colo says, is how much Ehrbar always had his staff in mind, and those he would send on to other places was a priority. “He never thought how great he was but always thought how great he could make others. That’s the definition of a leader,” says Colo, who worked for Ehrbar on two different occasions in his career. “Steve has garnered a following, if you will, of many superintendents and some who probably even haven’t worked for him. Our buddy, Mark Reid (director of golf and grounds at The Breakers in Palm Beach), said, ‘Steve is not a hall of famer. Steve is the hall of fame.’”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Ehrbar (back right in blue shirt and khakis) observes as Panther National designers Jack Nicklaus (in cart) and Justin Thomas (in blue shirt in front of Ehrbar) discuss the project during the early stages of formulating the course. Photo by Jim Mandeville

Last but not least

Alan Brown’s last day working for Ehrbar is exactly why he went to work for Ehrbar in the first place.&

Brown, a GCSAA Class A superintendent and 24-year association member, was on Ehrbar’s staff at Lost Tree Club in North Palm Beach, Fla., and spent one Friday in 2005 — his final day there — in a hole on hole No. 1. “Major irrigation blowout. No one else was around, and then there he (Ehrbar) is,” Brown says. “He jumped in the hole right beside me for a couple of hours. Something like that is one of the reasons I wanted to work for him. I always wanted to work for Steve, but it never had worked out. That last day there with him was a pretty cool way to end it.”

Now director of golf courses and grounds at Timuquana Country Club in Jacksonville, Fla., which hosted last month’s Constellation Furyk & Friends presented by Circle K event on the PGA Tour Champions schedule, Brown compared Ehrbar to Alabama football coach Nick Saban, who knows a thing or two about producing winners. “Everybody wants to play for him. He’s going to get the best out of athletes. He has an old-school professionalism, and it doesn’t waver,” Brown says. “Steve’s like that. He’s one I want to mimic.”

Guiding light

The reach of Ehrbar’s network sometimes was enhanced by his disciples. Bob Hanna is among those who found his way into Ehrbar’s world courtesy of those who were taught by him.

Past employees under Ehrbar, John Colo (Jim Colo’s fraternal twin brother) and Mike Cauley, were at Hartefeld National in Avondale, Pa., at the same time as Hanna, who would go on to work for over four years with Ehrbar at Jupiter Hills Club in Tequesta, Fla. “When I went to Florida, I was very young in my career, a point in my career when I was not sure where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do,” says Hanna, a four-year GCSAA member. Ehrbar thought Hanna could benefit from college. He ended up completing the Penn State University online course. The connections that Ehrbar has amassed helped lead Hanna to Atlanta Athletic Club for six months. He has since spent two years as an assistant at Seattle Golf Club. He’ll never forget the backing he received from Ehrbar.

“Steve is professional, a straight shooter, supportive. I think he enjoys teaching the next generation and moving them on in their careers,” Hanna says.

John Colo, director of golf course maintenance at Frenchman’s Reserve in Palm Beach Gardens, says that is a spot-on description of Ehrbar. “Steve was there to open doors. Guys thrived and moved on. He shows empathy,” says John Colo, a GCSAA Class A superintendent and 31-year association member. “Sometimes people are in a gap job, either lost a job or in transition. Steve’s thinking is to come on and help us, whether six months or nine months, until they secure a job in the industry or get another job in sales or even out of the business. Steve’s a professional who knows what he’s doing, and people know what he’s doing.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
This image was taken as Panther National was coming together. Photo by Jim Mandeville

Simply jarring

The jar story remains amusing after all these years.

Ehrbar was up for a good laugh even if it was at his own expense. In 2003 at Lost Tree Club, Eric Swenson was on Ehrbar’s staff when the club was in the middle of a renovation. The timing could not have been worse for Ehrbar, who was suffering from kidney stones. “He had it really bad, and I believe he had to be hospitalized at one point,” Swenson says. “Still, he was back and forth to work, always involved. When you work in Jack’s backyard (Nicklaus has had a home at the club property for over 50 years), he’ll see if you’re there or not.”

There’s no telling if Nicklaus caught a glimpse of this, but upon Ehrbar’s return one day to the office, he found a jar with something made to look like kidney stones that was swirling in yellow liquid. “We got some pea gravel and food coloring from the club kitchen that turned the water yellow,” says Swenson, a GCSAA Class A superintendent and 23-year association member at Floridian National Golf Club in Palm City. “The jar was waiting for him (Ehrbar) when he came back. He got a big laugh over it. Steve was always upbeat. Treated us great.”

Nevertheless, Ehrbar had a job to do. “I didn’t want to miss work. It was a critical time,” he says.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Ehrbar surrounded by friends and those whose lives he helped shape. From left, Mark Reid, The Breakers; Tyler Warner, Aqua Aid Solutions; Alan Brown, Timaquana Country Club; Jim Colo, Naples National Golf Club; Ehrbar; and Steve Bernard, Adios Golf Club. Photo courtesy of Steve Ehrbar

Something big brewing in the Sunshine State

What is taking place in Ehrbar’s region is, well, not the status quo. “There’s nothing quite like this in south Florida,” Ehrbar says.

The word is out about Panther National. From what Ehrbar protégé Swenson says, it could be something special. “I’ve heard rave reviews about it. It started as a flat piece of property and has been transformed into something you don’t usually see in Florida,” he says. “It’s awesome somebody wants to do something like that rather than a cookie-cutter place. It’s good for us as an industry. We all love building something new, fresh and exciting. With things like that, Steve would say, ‘OK, we can do that and figure it out.’ And he figures it out. He’s always prepared for every situation that comes up. You learn things like that from him. He’s just a great leader. He trusted us, showed us the right way and stood behind his work.”

This is the second time in his career that Ehrbar has collaborated with a legend in a project from the ground up. Nearly 40 years ago, he was there with Pete Dye for Old Marsh Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens. Now he’s paired with Nicklaus, who, along with collaborator and major champion Justin Thomas, has delivered the vision of club founder Dominik Senn, a retired Swiss alpine ski racer and founder/president of 4Sports & Entertainment.

Panther National is a 400-acre property (200 acres of golf course bordered by a luxury community that will have 218 homes outside of the golf course) that Nicklaus devised from a relatively blank piece of canvas that had no trees and a small amount of cattle but now has mounds and elevation changes that are more than 40 feet in some spots amid wide playing corridors. It took 2 million cubic yards of dirt that was moved to aid in providing a links-style course with 35 lakes, TifEagle bermudagrass greens, Bimini bermudagrass tees, fairways and approaches, and 28 acres of Bahiagrass that will mostly not be maintained and generally is out of play. Overall, it’s quite a wonderland to Ehrbar.

“I love it. It’s just got a big wow factor,” says Ehrbar, who departed Jupiter Hills Club after 15 years for a new challenge at Panther National.

All those years ago, it was Ehrbar who wowed Muhle. The young man he groomed has done the same for so many others. “I liked him. He did his work ahead of time, and it was always done right,” says Muhle, 88, a 59-year GCSAA member. “I felt great about it when anyone who worked for me went on to become superintendents. And I always told them, ‘If you find another job, make sure you’re making more money than I am.’”

Watching his protégés ascend is priceless to Ehrbar. “Like I tell them all, ‘I tried to be a good leader, send you in the right direction,’” he says. “I feel that’s how I’ve given back to the industry.”<

Howard Richman ( is GCM’s associate editor.