LPN Superintendent Opens Course for 39th Year

Dan Wollner has been the Lake Panorama National grounds superintendent since 1981.

By Susan Thompson 

This month’s Q&A is with Dan Wollner, who on March 22 opened the Lake Panorama National golf course for his 39thtime. Wollner was hired in 1981 as the LPN grounds superintendent. His wife Barb started as the course horticulturist the same year. The pair met while attending Iowa Lakes Community College in Emmetsburg, where they graduated with horticulture degrees. Their three children were raised in the log cabin they built in 1983 near the #13 green. 

Q. Tell us about some of the biggest changes and improvements you’ve been a part of at Lake Panorama National for these 39 years. 

A. I think the irrigation system that was installed in 2008 is the biggest change for the course. Twenty-eight years of manual irrigation involved a huge amount of time and labor cost. The irrigation heads were moved by hand one by one after running an hour at each setting. The 14 heads watering six hours a day took about 25 hours to do the front nine, and another 25 hours to water the back. 

One of the crew or myself would start watering about 3 a.m. after the greens and tees were done with their water cycle. We would put out 14 heads on the first four holes of either the front or back, sit for about 10 minutes, then go move 14 heads, then wait for 10 minutes, then go move 14 heads etc. We ended on the last holes of each 9 about 9 a.m., hoping to be ahead of all golfers, yet on the last cycle of 14. By the time you were done, you usually were soaking wet.

Another huge improvement is the asphalt cart paths. We had days we had to close the course or at least not allow carts after big rains because of standing water. A decision was made to put in a continuous cart path. We started cutting sod and laying rock first on the worst areas, and kept at it for years until all 18 holes had paths, 4.8 miles in total. 

The rock paths were an improvement, but were high maintenance. Cart traffic and water runoff meant the paths needed constant upkeep. Replacing the rock paths with asphalt was a needed upgrade. Having 18 continuous holes of cart paths allows us to open the course earlier in the spring and keep the course open even during wet spells.

The course was built with 18 tee boxes. Juniors, women, seniors, men, pros all used the same 18 tees with markers set not very far apart on some of the smaller tees. We started new boxes because the course was too difficult for women to play from the original tees, particularly the par 5s. Forward tees were built on the six longest holes — 4, 6, 8, 10, 12 and 18. Eventually those tees became the senior tees and new forward tees were added. Over the years we have added 19 tees, so currently there are 37 tee boxes. 

Q. When construction on the LPN golf course began in 1970, the layout was mostly pastureland. Tell us about the process that turned a pasture into a tree-lined golf course. 

A. When I started in 1981, there were only around 50 trees on the course. There had been more planted when the course was built, but many were lost during the early bankruptcy years because they weren’t cared for properly. 

We started our first tree nursery around 1983 on the right side of the 14thhole. You can still see a couple of those trees that got too big to move on the edge of Brandon Waddle's yard. We moved about 500 out of that nursery. A lot of those were ash trees because they were common and easily available then. We also dug trees by hand out of surrounding timber and planted those on the course. Ed Clark from Rosehill Nursery helped us on weekends by moving trees with his tree spade. 

Our second nursery along the west side of the 11thhole was planted about 10 years ago with the amazing help of Charles and Judy Schnack. We moved about 300 trees out of that nursery, with more variety of species this time. Overall there have been more than 1,000 trees planted since 1981.

The ash trees will eventually be hit with Emerald Ash Borer infestation, which is a death sentence to untreated trees. We have 350 ash trees and have treated 80 trees to save them. We will remove about 25 of the most unhealthy ash trees that are out of play each year before the disease hits hard. 

The tornado of 2014 took out about 100 trees. There are still a few we are pruning to clean up and reshape. The branches we are picking up right now and will continue to remove all season probably are from the tops of trees that were damaged in the storm, but are out of reach with our equipment.

Q. We had so much snow this past winter – was that good or bad for the golf course? What are the steps you take each spring to open the course?

A. The snow cover actually has been a good thing this year. The turf froze and went dormant before the snow, so the snow cover provided both protection from the arctic cold and needed moisture. If the snow comes and stays before the turf is dormant there can be winter disease, which obviously is a bad thing. If the turf goes dormant and there is no snow cover the arctic cold and desiccation from no moisture is also very bad for the greens. So even though the winter seemed very long, the greens should come out healthy this spring.

All equipment has been tuned and sharpened and is waiting for green grass. Meanwhile we go from hole to hole picking up sticks and winter debris. Then all the tee markers, fresh cups, and flags are put out.

Soon the irrigation system will be activated. That is the most worrisome spring item. No matter how carefully the system has been shut down before winter, there is always something that could go wrong. 

Q. How many employees do you have during the golf season, and what’s the work they do on a regular basis?  

A. The LPN grounds crew is pretty varied. I’m the only full-time employee. We generally have eight retired people, who each work 25 hours or less each week. I hire six to eight high school and college students, who each work less than 40 hours per week. I can't do this without the time and dedication these employees put towards the course.

Once the grass is growing nicely, we have a regular maintenance schedule. The greens are mowed seven days a week, which takes about 30 hours each week. Tees are mowed Monday, Wednesday and Friday by two mowers, 30 hours per week. Two mowers also mow fairways the same days, for another 30 hours per week. 

Traps are groomed five times a week, which takes about 18 hours. Cups are moved anywhere from four to seven days a week, and ball marks are fixed daily for a minimum of 35 hours per week. The greens roller is out Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and for special events, up to 18 hours a week. The rough is mowed twice a week for a total of 75 hours per week. Equipment repair takes about 20 hours each week.

Then there are all the other jobs to be done—spraying, fertilizing, ongoing equipment maintenance, tree pruning, weed eating, edging and redistributing sand in the 30 bunkers, irrigation maintenance, seeding, topdressing, working on tee boxes and trying not to fall behind on my paperwork.

Q. Some tee boxes on the course have been renovated recently. Tell us what’s being done, and what more is planned. 

A. After 35 years the original forward tees have slowly been falling into disrepair. We reworked two of them last year. The #10 senior tee had the railroad ties removed, and was made bigger and seeded. The senior tee on #8 was made one-third bigger, leveled with railroad ties, and has a walk-up side along both the back and the cart path. So far it looks great, and will be sodded this spring so it can open quicker.

There is no specific time line for the next few that will be repaired, although we plan to work on at least a couple more this season as time allows. We will keep working on tees each year until all are updated. All future repairs probably will be similar to what we did on the #8 senior tee—bigger, leveled with railroad ties, walk-up without steps, and sodded for quicker recovery.

Q. Anything else golfers will see this spring at Lake Panorama National? 

A. Fountains will go into the ponds in early May. The fountain on #13 cannot go back in until the pond is dredged. The pond has a lot of runoff from the east and is a small silt trap for runoff before it gets to Lake Panorama. Unfortunately, the silt has made the pond so shallow that two pump motors have burned out because these were literally pumping mud. 

New trash receptacles are in the works. In the past we had 39 trash bins, one on every tee. That was a lot of labor and not very efficient. The new plan is to have only five trash receptacles on the course, on holes 4, 7, 12, 16, and at Spikes. These will be a combo of three bins, one each for trash, plastic, and cans. The idea is to be proactive and environmentally friendly, plus more efficient and save on labor costs.