by Bob Sherwin
Dr. Bill Johnston’s career as a professor of soil sciences has had an impact on nearly every golf course on earth, and on nearly everyone who works in the golf industry, and on nearly everyone who tees it up on any golf course. His retirement will only increase his legacy.
Johnston grew up in Pittsburgh during the 1940s, a time when steel ruled and pollution was merely an annoying by-product of progress. As long as those blast furnaces kept churning out girders for the country’s burgeoning cityscapes, armor for the war effort and sheet metal for the post-war mobile society, those smoke stakes could belch unimpeded.
Yet even as a young boy, Johnston knew that it wasn’t right. He understood that if that dense pollution was left unregulated it would have to have an impact on the earth, water, soil, food, air.
“It was pretty polluted,” Johnston said. “The steel mills and the cooper mills were going strong. Environmental stewardship is something I focused on early in my childhood.”
It would become his life’s work, bifurcating between soil research and teaching during the past 36 years as a Washington State University professor of crop and soil sciences.
Dr. J., as a multitude of students have called him, is stepping down later this summer, leaving a legacy of ground-breaking agronomic research, especially for golf courses, and hundreds of well-trained golf course superintendents and turf specialists.
“I think that’s what I’m most proud of, teaching students and watching their accomplishments,” said Johnston, 73. “It’s one of the reasons I came to Washington State. I wanted to be a teacher and help them have nice careers. We’ve turned out a pretty good product.”
Graduates of WSU’s School of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences have filled countless golf course superintendent and general manager jobs throughout the Northwest and the country.
“Anyone who has touched that many people, influentially, he’s got to be (proud),” said Todd Lupkes, general manager of Palouse Ridge Golf Club on the WSU campus. Lupkes received a B.S. in agronomy from Wazzu in 1992. His mentor and adviser was Dr. Bill Johnston.
“He has done research that is known throughout the world,” Lupkes added.
Among Dr. Johnston’s most compelling research projects was soil leaching studies at the Floating Green par-3 14th hole on the Coeur d’Alene Resort course, which opened in 1991. The 15,000-square foot green sits on a barge on the lake about 170 yards off shore.
Golf courses have long been criticized for perceived indiscriminate use of fertilizers that leach through the soil and pollute lakes and streams. The floating green is a self-contained structure with measurable elements, as Dr. Johnston and his team was able to compare and analyze.
His three-year research project of the island green verified that very little nitrogen leached through the soil and into the lake. It was well below acceptable standards. Most of it was absorbed by the plant life and contained.
“That research allowed all kinds of organizations to look at it – Salmon Safe, the Audubon Society,” Lupkes said. “It’s one of the key pieces of information to show environmentalists.”
The research provided safe guidelines for the U.S. Golf Association and for hundreds of courses around the world on how much and when to apply various chemicals. It struck a balance between lush lawns and clean streams. With smart and reasonable applications of chemicals, golf courses could become worthy stewards of the environment.
“We really enjoyed that project,” Dr. Johnston said. “We’d go up there every 21 days to collect samples, winter and summer, for three years. Golf has flourished in my lifetime. I’ve always been concerned about the environment and instilled stewardship of the land.”
Dr. Johnston has worn several hats during his tenure. He does research for chemical companies on developing safe, effective products for golf courses and lawns. He has worked with agricultural companies in the production of hardy Kentucky bluegrass seeds. And, when he’s not in his laboratory smock, he’s in the classroom.
“I’d say 50 percent teaching and 50 percent research,” he said.
Working with Lupkes, he helped create a turf program for his students at Palouse Ridge. And his students can get real-world training on all the aspects of running a golf course – fertilizer applications, irrigation, battling diseases, pollination, mowing and growing.
Dr. J. plans to continue his teaching and research through the summer, with an Aug. 31 target for retirement. He concedes, however, that he may be talked into teaching a class in the fall.
After all, it’s hard to leave his turf.
Bob Sherwin was a sportswriter for The Seattle Times for 20 years. He is the vice president of the Northwest Golf Media Association.