CORVALLIS, Ore. – Rob Golembiewski wears a size 13 shoe, but that's nothing compared with the shoes he has to fill.
The former head of the golf and turf management program at the Crookston campus of the University of Minnesota has replaced Tom Cook as the director of Oregon State University’s turf management program.
Thirty-one years ago, the hardworking and revered Cook, who retired this fall, single-handedly created the program, which has produced superintendents at prominent golf courses, including California's Pebble Beach and Oregon's Bandon Dunes. He also led the development of new grass mixes that require less water and fewer chemicals, and devised new approaches to making golf courses environmentally "green."
In recognition of his work, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America bestowed upon Cook its highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award.
"It’s phenomenal what Tom did as a one-man show," said Golembiewski, who launched Montana State University's turf program and co-owned a landscaping company for six years in Arizona. “I have an appreciation for what he built. I’ll be very protective of it, and I look forward to taking it to the next level.”
He has wasted no time getting down to work. He clocks at least 12 hours a day teaching, picking the brains of industry professionals over lunch and speaking at conferences. On weekends, he’s at his office, which he painted himself – a luminous Beaver orange. ("It was a little brighter than I expected," he confessed.)
Right now, he's deciding what research projects to take on.
"I’ve been visiting with turf breeders, golf course superintendents and landscapers trying to get feedback about what the Pacific Northwest industry sees as key issues," said Golembiewski, the holder of the newly created N.B. and Jacqueline Giustina Professorship in Turf Management. “I want to do research that will impact the Northwest and the nation.”
He plans to continue the program’s research on perennial ryegrass as part of the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program; on the fertility of annual bluegrass; and on the performance of certain grass mixtures in shaded conditions. All of this research is conducted on five acres of experimental plots and putting greens at OSU's Lewis-Brown Farm. Golembiewski is planning to expand the putting green area there by up to 10,000 square feet.
He is also looking to enhance what takes place inside the classroom. He plans to meet this month with a committee of industry representatives to hear its thoughts on how graduates of the program have performed at the representatives' companies.
"They’ll assess the skills that our students have and don’t have, what courses we should offer based off that, and how our current curriculum stacks up," he said.
OSU offers a 13-credit, four-course turf curriculum as an option for students majoring in horticulture. Golembiewski is thinking of adding a course in turf ecology and another in turf pest management, but he wants to hear the committee’s thoughts first. The committee will include golf course superintendents, landscapers and a representative from the sports turf business.
He’d also like to see OSU hire an additional full-time turf faculty member. Like Cook, Golembiewski runs the program by himself with help from a research assistant.
Unlike Cook, though, Golembiewski doesn't have to scramble to gather grants and donations to fund his employment during the summer. Earlier this year, the family of the late OSU alumnus Nat Giustina announced that it had donated $1 million to endow a professorship for Cook's replacement.
Golembiewski’s endowment is a far cry from his first paid job in the business. That was back when he was a teenager taking care of a neighbor’s immaculate yard.
"They loved me because I was meticulous," said Golembiewski, 39, the second youngest of 11 children.
The day after graduating from high school, he landed a summer job researching turfgrass at Michigan State University.
"My first day, they gave me a project," he said. "I took 40 flats, filled them with soil, put Kentucky bluegrass sod into them, plugged them with creeping bentgrass and annual bluegrass, and sprayed bacteria over the flats to evaluate biological control agents. I was covered in soil and sweat. I got home and thought what the heck am I doing?"
But he discovered that he liked conducting research that benefited others. So he went on to earn a master's in botany and plant pathology from Michigan State University and a doctorate in agronomy, specializing in turfgrass science, from The Ohio State University.
When it comes to his own yard, the Michigan native describes himself as a perfectionist. "I mow straight lines and pick up every leaf," he said. "I love to work in the yard."