Michael Kenna’s career in turfgrass began with golf, a sport he has enjoyed since childhood. Through his efforts and achievements as a researcher and ombudsman for the industry, he has helped change golf’s operations for generations to come.
Kenna’s Cowboy roots go deep, having served as an OSU Extension turfgrass specialist from 1985-1990 and earning both his master’s and doctoral degrees in crop sciences at OSU. The California native began his academic journey as an undergraduate at the University of California at San Diego. He was studying biochemistry with plans to go to medical school when he reconsidered the likelihood of fitting into that program. His course correction would be fateful.
He set his sights instead on a career as golf course superintendent and enrolled at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona where he would earn his ornamental horticulture degree. California was experiencing a series of droughts at the time, and there wasn’t much research being done in grass management. However, Oklahoma State University had a thriving program led by Glen Kurtz and Wayne Huffine.
Moving from southern California to Stillwater, Oklahoma, as a graduate assistant was more comfortable than he expected.
“I grew up in a smaller town outside of San Diego where it was semi-rural,” he said. “You didn’t have to drive too far to find some smaller farms. Stillwater felt comfortable because I was used to that kind of area. It was nice not to be in a big city.”
In his graduate work, he focused on improving groundcover for transition zones: The industry had grasses that performed well in warm seasons and grasses that had been developed for cold seasons, but there weren’t many varieties that could handle the period between slower seasonal shifts.
OSU football fans are familiar with those intense weather shifts. For example, the first game in August is typically hot, and people need to stay hydrated as they sit in the stands; by the end of the season, they’re sitting in the stadiums under multiple layers of clothes. Grasses struggle as well.
Kenna’s degrees at OSU led to a project for the U.S. Golf Association to improve zoysia grass. He presented his research in 1987, joined the USGA staff and helped launch that program in 1990. The sports organization was particularly interested in investing in land-grant universities such as OSU, so the position gave Kenna the chance to give back to his alma mater as well as reinforce his research ties.
“The fun part of my job was being able to go and visit the research every year,” Kenna said. “I’d leave on a Monday or Tuesday, go to the University of Georgia, listen to the research being conducted and come back to Stillwater. I did that probably 28 to 30 weeks of the year.”
In total, Kenna administered $40 million for 600 projects over his 30-year career with the USGA, much of which went through OSU. The resulting research has produced grass with improved disease and drought tolerances, as well as varieties suited for playing surfaces such as football fields.
“Mike Kenna is a pioneer and a tremendous believer and supporter in Oklahoma State University,” said Justin Quetone Moss, professor and head of the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture. “Through his work, the OSU turfgrass breeding program has developed and released several very successful and highly utilized bermudagrass cultivars. Backed by his efforts, the OSU turfgrass science team has also worked with the USGA to develop best management practices and applied scientific advancements that have impacted the golf industry.”
At the University of Florida, Assistant Turf Science Professor Kevin Kenworthy first met Kenna when he was pursuing his doctorate at Oklahoma State in the early 2000s. Kenworthy most frequently worked with Kenna in the pursuit of USGA grants. He said his colleague was always helpful in the process and would guide applicants on how to prepare proposals. If a submission failed, he provided feedback.
“There’s probably no one else in the country who knew more about what everyone was doing in the turfgrass industry,” Kenworthy said. “He was a really important person to visit with, and particularly for a young professor, he helped me make our program unique.”
Yanqi Wu said Kenna was a champion of the work being done out of Stillwater. Before Kenna joined the golf association, OSU’s grant applications to the USGA often didn’t get approved.
“Without his support, I don’t know where we’d be now,” Wu said. “Our program is more well-known because of the funding he oversaw.”
When Kenna would visit their research projects, Wu said he gave clear, direct instructions on what needed to be done next. Kenna also put information in the hands of USGA agronomists, who would take the time to visit golf courses and pass along the latest research.
Kenna knew golf was not the only sport that needed turfgrass research. He reached out to the National Turfgrass Federation and worked with the organization to get Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to appropriate more funding for turfgrass research by including it on the list of specialty crops.
“Turf management is a $60 billion-a-year industry. And while it’s not food, fiber or animal feed, to people working in the industry, it’s just as important,” he said.
Kenna’s guidance opened the door to millions of dollars now available annually to land-grant universities that research turfgrass. Because the schools are spread across the country in different climates – OSU, Texas A&M University, the University of Florida, the University of Georgia and North Carolina State University – the research often takes the form of joint projects.
Texas A&M Turfgrass Breeding Professor Ambika Chandra said she first heard about Kenna as a graduate student. He had a reputation for being knowledgeable and willing to help researchers. She praised him for his part in opening USDA grants to her field.
“It wasn’t just a vision in his mind,” she said. “He went and executed it.”
The funding that the turfgrass researchers received was more significant than a simple dollar figure suggests. At Texas A&M, the program was able to expand its staff and add more post-doctorate students.
“We were able to get more students interested in the program and essentially train the next generation of turfgrass scientists,” she said. “The USDA money really played a big role in getting our research where it is today.”
Wu also credits Kenna with expanding turfgrass awareness and bringing together researchers at different universities.
“This type of knowledge didn’t exist before his time,” Wu said.
Research money benefits the end user and ultimately helps the environment. When that work leads to practical uses and the industry is able to make positive changes, that’s encouragement to keep going, Chandra said.
“The impact becomes apparent when the end users actually adopt the technology and tell us how they’ve saved so much on resources and labor,” Chandra said.
It was largely that financial and research impact that inspired Janet Cole and Jeff Edwards to nominate Kenna for the Ferguson College of Agriculture Distinguished Alumni Award. The college is part of OSU’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, along with OSU Extension and OSU Ag Research. Other award recipients are profiled online.
Their nomination letter said: “Without Mike’s support and involvement, it is unlikely that turfgrass would be included in the [USDA’s] Specialty Crop Research Initiative, and it unlikely that the [OSU] Department of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources] would have been so successful in this program. He has been instrumental in bringing collaborators together to compete for this funding.”
Thomas G. Coon, vice president for OSU agricultural programs, praised Kenna for his many contributions to OSU turfgrass development.
“His outreach to industry, government agencies and other universities over the decades has been significant, expanding the field as he did so. The connections he made possible will resonate for years to come, benefitting people well beyond Stillwater.”
OSU’s work in turfgrass management can be seen across the U.S. at world-class facilities. The university even gained bragging rights when its home rival, the University of Oklahoma, planted OSU-developed Latitude 26 turf at its Gaylord Family Oklahoma Stadium in Norman. It can be found at NFL and MLB stadiums, as well as the USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, home of the NCAA Women’s College World Series.
Kenna is proud of the impact he’s had on the lives of turfgrass researchers and the industry itself. He now gets to write about that work and other related history in his column for Golfdom magazine where he’s served as science editor since he retired from the USGA in 2019.
His interests have taken Kenna in a new direction lately: work with Audubon International and monarch butterflies. Kenna has voiced support for the program’s grant application to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which awarded the program $150,000 to create monarch habitats on golf ruffs. With Kenna’s help, there are now more than 700 courses with 1,000 acres of monarch habit. He’s working with OSU’s Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture on the project as well.
Audubon International Director of Conservation Initiatives Marcus Gray spoke highly of Kenna.
“With his support, we’ve been able to bring a whole new sector to conservation,” Gray said.
Kenna still keeps his hand in the turfgrass industry, although he most often sees it on the golf course now. He’s testing different turf patches in his yard as well as experimenting with different plots to see what varieties monarchs like best. Working with plants for fun was something he was looking forward to in his retirement, he said.
He’s missed in the research field, though. Kenworthy praised him as an industry champion.
“He was a key person to expand turf research across the country and around the world,” said Kenworthy. “He’s a statesman and a real gentleman for the industry.”
MEDIA CONTACT: Brian Brus | Agricultural Communications Services | 405-744-6792 | BBrus@okstate.edu