Toro Student Greenkeeper of the Year Awards

David Cole has been involved in the Student Greenkeeper of the Year Awards since 1993. He’s been a regional judge, national finals judge and worked at the awards’ founder and sponsor Reesink UK, most recently in the role as managing director, until his retirement in 2022. Here he offers his insight into why the awards mean so much to those lucky enough to be involved.

David Cole (left) with Tom Bromfield, Toro Young Student Greenkeeper of the Year Award 2019 winner

How long have you been involved with SGOTY?

My first involvement in the awards was from 1993 to 1998, as Toro national sales manager for the then distributors Lely UK. During that time I was a regional judge and also a judge at some national finals. More recently, I have been actively involved in the scheme since returning to the company (now Reesink Turfcare) in 2014.

What was your reasoning for supporting the competition?

Right from the beginning, the aim was to come up with a concept that benefitted the industry from a legacy point of view. We asked ourselves: what could we do to make a meaningful contribution to the industry? For our part, as a premium brand we felt Toro would benefit from the informed ‘global golf’ awareness that such a scheme would bring about. We believed it played to the strengths of our brand to support better educated and more knowledgeable greenkeepers when it came to them making purchasing decisions. Creating a scholarship was great from a legacy point of view and provided a once-in-a-lifetime career-enhancing opportunity for every winner.

For the winner, it’s the Toro Scholarship and the huge personal and professional benefits that go with it, it really can be a career-changing experience.

David Cole

What are some of your favourite early memories?

Outside of being associated with a brand new, fresh and such a worthwhile scheme, I remember there was quite a buzz about it at BIGGA, which was also in its early years as an association. It was exciting to be involved in what was a whole new initiative, and we had great support from within BIGGA at the time, including from Jack McMillan, Paddy McCarron, David Golding and Neil Thomas. One of my favourite memories was of Bridie Redican becoming the first female winner in 1993. It sent out a big message at the time about women in greenkeeping. I also have great memories of past winners who have gone on to enjoy significant careers, some at the very top of the profession.

How do you continue the SGOTY philosophy all year round?

The general philosophy right back to the ‘80s is still all about education. Part of that was also driven by the strong educational programmes we saw coming from the GCSAA. The aim is for step-by-step continual improvement that leads to gains in knowledge and application. For us, it means a more informed customer base, and we apply the same philosophy to our business.

How has the competition changed over the years?

First, I think, was the success of the first female winners after what was a male-dominated competition until Bridie Redican won in ’93 and Sally Doherty in ’98. Disappointingly, though, this did not lead to any significant increase in the numbers of women entering the competition. Over time, changes in college structures and funding have affected the competition in cycles. It’s led to peaks and troughs in entrant numbers from some colleges, with some previously strong colleges falling off the radar all together. Happily, others have turf management as a constant theme. But in response a big change was made to invite employers for the first time to nominate their staff as candidates. This had the added benefit of providing insight into those employers enlightened enough to support their staff though education and training. The other big change, of course, was the introduction of the ‘Young’ category in 2016. Lastly, there has been a noticeable change in the general standard of students winning through to the finals. In the past, we often had a single, standout candidate in front of us who would win. Whereas now the increased strength of the field means the judges’ task seems to become ever more challenging. We’re definitely seeing a progression in the knowledge of students coming through.

What makes SGOTY such a special award?

For the winner, it’s the Toro Scholarship and the huge personal and professional benefits that go with it. It really can be a career-changing experience. The chance to study turf management in America, visit the Golf Industry Show and Toro worldwide headquarters is unquestionably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Past winners tell how it changed their career perspectives and broadened their horizons. It gives them a global perspective. They can travel the world in their profession. It gives them the big picture.

Why was the decision taken to introduce a ‘Young’ category?

After the Awards’ 25th anniversary milestone in 2014, we took time out to reflect. We looked at all aspects of the scheme. The aim was to build on the legacy of the 25 years. We felt that good, young students could be disadvantaged when they came up against, say, a 30-year-old mature student with greater life experience. So we wanted to filter out the ‘life experience’ factor. The answer was to have a ‘Young’ category. We thought long and hard about a suitable winner’s prize. In the end, a chance meeting with an old contact, Stephen Byrne, previously at Wisley, provided the perfect solution via his introduction to the general manager, Richard Sorrell, of his current club Vidauban in the south of France. With its unusual climate producing a challenging maintenance regime that has to deal with both cool and warm season grasses, this unique site with exceptional ‘natural’ credentials provided the career-changing experience we sought as a two-week work placement for our ‘Young’ winner with a supportive location also keen on development of work skills and staff education.

What do you think the legacy of SGOTY is?

The awards have created a strong legacy of contributing to the ongoing development of the greenkeeping profession and greenkeeping as a global career. We are comforted by the students’ comments when they return from taking up their prizes. They see where their careers can go. The competition opens their eyes. It’s a strong legacy balanced with wide-eyed impact of what the programme delivers to winners. Many awards have come and gone over the years. But the Toro Student Greenkeeper of the Year Awards have stood the test of time and are still as relevant today, after 30 years, in a world now filled with sponsored awards.