Take it outside by studying Sports Turf Management

Learn what makes Sports Turf Management a unique study area and a rewarding career. 

Groundskeeping Take it outside 1200X610

When people think about sports turf management, “what often comes to mind is someone sitting on a mower, Forrest Gumpish in their work,” says John Prunnell, head of the Sports Turf Management course at Otago Polytechnic’s Cromwell campus. “They think it’s pretty one dimensional, but it actually requires a very broad range of skills and knowledge.”

It’s a bit like making wine, he says, because you’re dealing with a natural, unpredictable substance and trying to create something beautiful out of it. And because the weather is different everywhere you go, no preparation is ever the same.

“It’s half art, half science,” he says. “It’s a very unique area of study. We roughly come under the horticulture umbrella, in that we are growing something, but we’re very different to agriculture or horticulture because we’re not actually looking for a yield.”

If you’re a business that’s charging handsomely for a round of golf, or hosting the world’s best cricket players at your venue, however, there is an expectation that the conditions will be perfect and the 18-month course aims to teach students how to achieve that.

The theory is important, he says, but students also learn by doing and get a day each week of work experience at Central Otago golf courses, event centres or sports grounds. “They get to choose the area they want to work towards and see if it’s for them.”

Over summer, students go on a long-term work placement at their chosen venue.

“I like to really base that on the individual’s need, whether it’s working at an elite golf club like Millbrook that has over 30 staff, or at a smaller club environment with a much smaller staff count. It’s a totally different dynamic.”

While there is some sitting on mowers, “there is a full shed of really good equipment and, unlike ripping up a field on the farm with a tractor, there is a lot of precision required,” he says.

Prunnell says the face-to-face course is unique in New Zealand and the only other way to get the qualification is through an apprenticeship, which takes three and a half years. But he says they’re quite hard to come by these days due to compliance, health and safety and management requirements.

While most of the students have a love of sports, most of the events that major stadia host are not sports events. One event could be a Crusty Demons motorbike show that requires tonnes of dirt to be trucked in, and the next could be a rugby game that needs to be played on perfect grass.

“Stadia want participation and usage and that often requires a lot of ingenuity, planning and event management skills to ensure everything goes in and out very efficiently. There’s also a lot of science with matting. That’s an extraordinary area of expertise which we as an industry have developed.”

Prunnell says there is also an increasing focus on limiting the environmental impacts of the industry. On their placement, students submit a report on how their venues reduce water use, nitrate runoff and chemical use.

“The UK and Europe have banned a huge number of chemicals that have traditionally been used in our industry, so the best practice is using no chemicals, or only the safest ones,” he says. “Rather than throwing a blunt instrument at it, we favour trying to use products that encourage better soil health, so it’s more of a regenerative model. The key to everything we do is our soil. The more knowledge and experience we have around getting those micro-organisms working in our favour to work against those bad pathogens, the better.”

Prunnell says one thing students tend to say about the course is that they put so much of the learning into practice when they’re on their placements.

“Things really make sense. They move quite quickly through the industry because they’re work-ready and 70 per cent of them get taken on full-time when they’re on that summer placement, so it’s a really good pathway.”

John Prunnell

Head of the Sports Turf Management course at Otago Polytechnic


And those who graduate also have plenty of overseas employment opportunities.

“Our turf people and groundstaff are regarded very highly and seen as problem solvers,” says Prunnell, who has worked on golf courses, first class cricket grounds and at various stadia around the country.

He says the lifestyle is a big factor and students love the fact that they get to work outdoors. “There is a real satisfaction in creating an environment using live organisms. That’s really cool.”

Published on 13 Jan 2023