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Surface and Turf

Three ag alums with national reputations garner support for their programs.

One prepared golf courses for major golf tournaments over his 38 years as a golf course superintendent. Another followed in the footsteps of the first, who served as his inspiration and mentor. A third is a highly accomplished Penn State faculty member who advises the National Football League on ways to make its fields safer for players.

All three are alumni of the College of Agricultural Sciences, and all three have made names for themselves because of turfgrass and sports surfaces.

Paul Latshaw '64 Turf Mgmt, Matthew Shaffer '74 Turf Mgmt, and Andrew McNitt, who holds a bachelor's degree in horticulture, a master's degree in agronomy, and a doctorate in soils science--all from Penn State--are nationally recognized figures described as "icons of the industry" by Pete Ramsey, president of the Pennsylvania Turfgrass Council, an organization established to help sustain Penn State's turfgrass programs.

"Their careers have been at the very highest level, and yet they have never forgotten their Penn State roots," said Ramsey. "Their legacies include thousands of students whom they have mentored through the years--people who have gone on to become leaders in their own right."

Paul Latshaw grew up on a poultry farm and took a job at a golf course because "they were looking for someone who could drive a tractor." That first exposure to golf courses led Latshaw to Penn State and to a long, successful, and exemplary career serving as golf course superintendent for some of the nation's most high-profile tournaments: the Masters, the U.S. Open, and the PGA Championship. For his accomplishments, he joined the ranks of household names like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Ben Crenshaw as the recipient of the prestigious Old Tom Morris Award from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.

Matthew Shaffer knew he needed a job that allowed him to work outside, and turfgrass was the perfect fit. He said the program taught so many skills, not just about grass and weeds and insects, but also genetics, etiquette, accounting, and business writing. He reached out to Paul Latshaw, who agreed to take Shaffer on as his assistant. The rest, as they say, is history. Shaffer eventually became a golf course superintendent himself, managing courses for many of the same major tournaments as his mentor.

Andrew McNitt is a professor of soil science, the director of the Center for Sports Surface Research, and the program coordinator for the turfgrass science major. He has become the go-to adviser for sports surfaces around the country and is particularly proud of the students who have emerged from his programs. In fact, nine of the 32 franchises in the NFL have Penn State turfgrass alumni as employees.

To honor the contributions of the three alumni to the turfgrass and sports surface industries, the Pennsylvania Turfgrass Council established three graduate fellowships in the college's Department of Plant Science. The council took advantage of the recently concluded Graduate Scholarship Matching Program, an initiative of "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," the University's current $1.6 billion fundraising campaign. The council's three gifts of $200,000 were doubled through the match, resulting in a $1.2 million influx of funds into the Turfgrass Science program.

"We chose to support graduate education because there is always a need for new research to adapt to evolving environmental concerns, new invasive insects, nutrient management practices, and new turfgrass cultivars," Ramsey explained. "Penn State has always blazed the trail and was one of the first to do so. People all around the country know that Penn State turfgrass programs are on the cutting edge, and they depend on Penn State for the latest research as well as for golf course and other sports-surface experts."

Latshaw, Shaffer, and McNitt all said they were humbled and honored by the PA Turfgrass Council's decision, and all three said inspiring and educating the next generation of leaders is what they have valued most.

--Susan Burlingame