It’s early morning, just before the sun casts its full glory across the North Sound, and a soft light creeps across a still-dewy fairway of Grand Cayman’s only 18-hole championship golf course. A tanned hand reaches down to feel the green near Hole 11, its master reflecting proudly on the health and beauty of the surrounding 120 acres.
The hand belongs to Starling Kelly, the remarkably green-thumbed superintendent of the North Sound Golf Club, a man who over the past five years has made the property’s not-so-green days a thing of the past.
In 2013, the par-71 course had been ailing since sustaining damage from Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and its dwindling membership was feeling uncertain about its future. New management, led by general manager Jeff Sauvage, arrived and accepted the challenge to turn things around.
Improving the greens, fairways and roughs was on Sauvage’s long list of challenges and he knew an experienced superintendent was needed to tackle the job. Having worked on golf courses for nearly two decades at the time, he knew that the job of a superintendent was precise, complex and highly skilled.
“It’s not just grass,” says Sauvage. “The turf on golf courses can have multiple purposes and must be cared for in a variety of ways.” The road from arid and patchy to healthy and verdant was going to be a long one and Kelly was going to play a key role.
THE SHRUB CUTTER
In some ways, Kelly was an unlikely candidate for the position of superintendent of the North Sound Golf Club.
“We jokingly nicknamed Starling ‘the shrub cutter,’” says Sauvage. “It’s a term of endearment and a nod to his past.”
Sauvage says it was no secret he was nervous about Kelly taking on the role of superintendent, having joined the team with no experience working on golf courses.
“He was brought in from the West Indian Club Nursery around the time of my arrival,” says Sauvage. “I knew he had a great deal of experience working with all types of plants and trees, as well as general landscaping, but he had never worked on golf courses and this worried me.”
Kelly was also nervous. He had spent nearly a lifetime working in the world of landscaping. Shortly after his relocation from Nicaragua in 1989, a 10-year old Kelly began helping out at his father’s local lawn company. “During school breaks I worked for my dad who was a qualified agronomist,” says Kelly, who went on to run his dad’s business for more than four years after high school. After school, he also trained to become a master gardener and in 2003 was hired by Dart to work at its nursery.
“I learned a great deal working on Dart projects,” says Kelly. “The technical side fascinated me and over time I gained a great deal of experience in so many aspects of the job. I was especially proud to have been part of the Camana Bay project from the beginning.”
When the opportunity to change gears presented itself, Kelly knew he’d be taking a chance, but he also knew that North Sound Golf Club’s new management was taking a chance on him. Kelly’s vast knowledge of landscape design and maintenance of trees and shrubs was an asset, but it was a world apart from the complexity of golf course greenkeeping. There was no question that an expert would need to be consulted.
RISING TO THE CHALLENGE
Tom Alex was that expert. A seasoned superintendent and former director of golf course maintenance at the Grand Cypress Resort in Orlando, Alex offered Sauvage and Kelly the precise oversight and support needed to tackle the many challenges that lay ahead.
“Tom began consulting with us quarterly,” says Sauvage. “After a few short months, it was evident to me that Starling had the capacity to download what was needed from Tom and the capacity to execute it on a daily basis. Before long, my fear went away and I knew we had a solid program in place.”
Kelly recalls those initial challenges, which included many pests, a large amount of wasted water and various types of turf grass that had seen better days. He says that removing certain types of turf was
an important part of the improvement process. “We began to change out damaged turf with one called paspalum, which is hardy enough to survive our salty air and a climate that can be harsh at times.”
Kelly also implemented changes in the irrigation systems that optimised use of fresh water in grassy areas that required significant amounts of water, while minimising wastage in other areas such as the rough and the bunkers.
Today, watering takes place from dusk until dawn. Kelly explains that this “allows the turf sufficient time to absorb the water without conflicting with the sunny hours when moisture is more rapidly lost.”
A STELLAR SUPERINTENDENT
Those who have played the North Sound Golf Club course over the years can easily see the improvement in the turf.
“Our longstanding members are happier today than they were five years ago,” says Sauvage. “The entire North Sound Golf Club team has put in a great deal of hard work to make that happen. And Starling’s contributions as our superintendent have exceeded expectations.”
Having created many valuable efficiencies that have saved the club money, Kelly is no longer a “shrub cutter”; rather he is an accomplished expert in the sophisticated art of golf turf maintenance and management.
“I don’t mind my nickname,” laughs Kelly. “I’m proud of my past. I’m also very thankful for the career I’ve enjoyed and the opportunities that I’ve been given. My goal is to continue to grow and to one day
pass on the baton so that I can take on a more challenging role overseeing a variety of projects and properties.”