Branch uses knowledge gained at Fort Benning to forge career in golf
By JIM HOUSTON
Don Branch's path to the top of Georgia's crop of golf course superintendents may have had its beginnings on a Georgia farm, but it was the U.S. Army that was the ultimate decider of his career.
Growing up outside of Tifton, Ga., Branch said his family had plenty to eat, thriving on food crops with tobacco as a money crop on the sharecropping farm. But there was very little spending money.
"We didn't know we were poor," said the retired superintendent whose tenure at Columbus' Green Island Country Club made him a legend among his peers.
His first paying job, however, wasn't on the farm. It was on a golf course a bicycle ride from his home. There, he knew a man who played 54 holes every Sunday, so he would make his way to the course and caddy for him. That was his first course experience.
His next would come while he was in the Army at Fort Benning, after his graduation from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, where he studied agronomy and briefly worked at the nearby Coastal Plains Experiment Station under one of the pioneers of turfgrass science.
"I got drafted into the Army and was sent to Fort Jackson's clerical school,
then to Fort Benning as a clerk," Branch said.
But Col. Sam T. McDowell, who seemed to really be in charge of who worked where at the post, learned that this recruit had studied and worked with turfgrass. Although classified as a clerk, the colonel told him he was now a golf course worker.
"I enjoyed 18 months on Fort Benning Golf Course under one of the best golf course superintendents there has ever been -- Les Lawrence," said Branch. "He taught me everything I know."
His first task -- fix a lawn mower. With no aid or advice, Branch said he was left to that task on his own, with no real experience at it, but when he got it fixed, his lesson was learned: Don't count on others when you can do it yourself.
"I learned to work on anything," Branch said.
But the biggest break of his life was when Columbus businessman Gunby Jordan, developer and builder of Green Island Hills and Green Island Country Club, hired him as the club's first superintendent. Jordan's only admonition: "Do what's right."
"I thoroughly enjoyed the 40 years I worked there," said Branch. With Jordan's support, the golf course thrived and hosted the PGA Tour's Buick Challenge (Southern Open) for almost 25 years.
"I never knew we were going to host the Southern Open until one morning Gunby Jordan stopped me and asked, 'Can we have a PGA tournament here?' I said if anybody else can host one, we can, too," Branch recalled. "He said, 'Get ready, 'cause we're gonna have one.' "
In 1969, the course hosted its first PGA Tour event.
Branch built a reputation as a man who could get things done, and became Jordan's properties manager, during which time he hired a young University of Georgia graduate named William Smith. He taught Smith, a fast learner, and became fast friends and more.
"He was like a son to me," Branch said. "I don't know anyone I love any more than William, his wife and children."
Smith went on to a career of his own, becoming superintendent of Columbus Country Club more than 26 years ago, and earning Superintendent of the Year honors in 2006 and named to the state GCSAA's Hall of Fame last November.
Branch returned as superintendent of Green Island, where he remained until the day he retired.
Late in his tenure, Branch needed a new assistant superintendent. He knew of a young Harris County woman who went to ABAC and was working in turfgrass after her graduation from the Tifton college. He called Julie Taylor up, asked if she would be interested in a job. When she immediately said yes, she became his able assistant.
Taylor, now drawing accolades as the superintendent of Lakewood Golf Course in Phenix City, said Branch was a mentor to her, and was like a member of her family.
Hiring good workers wasn't the only challenge Branch took on. He also stared down the nonbelievers and naysayers who proclaimed it would be a mistake to try to put bent grass greens on a course so far south.
"Everybody said you couldn't grow bent grass in Columbus, Ga.," Branch recalled. "I grew bent grass here for five years. Yes, it's labor intensive and there are new strains that are better suited today. It's different now."
Working at Green Island was always a pleasure, and not a job, he said. "The last 15 to 20 years especially, the greatest joy of my life was to get up and go to work in the morning," he said.
Another thing that Branch has passed on to other superintendents is to not rely too much on just the printed word.
"He ought to look for help from his peers, instead of relying on books and such," Branch said. He even authored a nationally published article preaching the theme, "Superintendent help yourself."
He still practices that, traveling to other golf courses since his 2000 retirement to examine their operations and offer helpful advice and experience-based suggestions.
His practices and his accomplishments earned Branch the state GCSAA's Superintendent of the Year award in 1998, and the legend he built resulted in his selection as an entrant into the association's Superintendent Hall of Fame in 2012.
Branch said he's proud of his career and his profession. He's also proud to be a member of the GCSAA, where his seniority is reflected in his low membership number.
"I'm No. 7 on the membership roster," Branch said.