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John Reitman

By John Reitman

Hard work speaks louder than words for hearing-impaired superintendent

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Ryan Gordon has worked at the site of the Champions Tour's Boeing Classic since 2005, including the past eight seasons as head superintendent.

Communication is critical to keeping any golf course operation running, but being able to read between the lines might be equally important.

That's the case anyway at The Club at Snoqualmie Ridge in Snoqualmie, Washington, where superintendent Ryan Gordon and his team face some unique communications challenges every day.

"I was born with a 90-percent profound hearing loss, which was a surprise because I have zero family history of deafness, so, I grew up with all hearing family members," Gordon said - by email.

081519ryan3.jpgGordon, 36, has been at Snoqualmie Ridge since 2005, the same year the club became the host site of the Champions Tour's Boeing Classic. He has been superintendent since 2012.

Gordon's hearing impairment is something that he, his team and everyone else he works alongside at Snoqualmie Ridge have learned to overcome through utilizing non-verbal communications technology like Google Docs, the use of assistive-listening devices, some sign language and Gordon's own mad lip-reading skills. In fact, effective communication is such a non-issue that when pro golf's senior circuit tees off next week at Snoqualmie Ridge, no one who knows Gordon or is in anyway affiliated with the Boeing Classic will give his hearing - or lack of it - a second thought.

In fact, while overcoming obstacles the rest of us take for granted, Gordon's story is one of inspiration.

"I would say I've never met anyone who cared for a golf course more than Ryan does, and that bleeds out to other people," said Ryan Ingalls, operations manager for the Boeing Classic. 

"He leads by example. He has to from a communications standpoint. He is the first one out to work on a bunker or do whatever else needs to be done, and that goes a long way."

His tournament prep leaves tournament officials and Snoqualmie Ridge general manager James Hochrine in amazement.

"I know he is one of the most-loved superintendents on the Champions Tour, because he so proficient," Hochrine said. "The Tour guys write down a list of things they need done, and it's all done two weeks in advance of the tournament when they show up. He is the most-prepared superintendent for a tournament I've ever seen. He's really detail oriented. He documents everything; the really good ones document a lot so they don't have to reinvent the wheel every year."

Gordon can speak, but admits he can be hard to understand and that email exchanges might be the most efficient way to conduct an interview with the media. 

Danny Vandecoevering, a former assistant at Snoqualmie Ridge and now an agronomist and sales rep with Wilbur-Ellis, recalls when he arrived at the course to volunteer for the 2009 Boeing Classic. It was the first time he and Gordon, then an assistant, had met.

"He was in the shop waiting for me," Vandecoevering said. "I couldn't understand 75 percent of what he was saying. I remember feeling so bad for him. It was really uncomfortable."

For Gordon, however, finding ways to communicate effectively are all he knows, including the use of a video relay service that allows him to talk over the telephone.

"It works fairly well, but sometimes the tone of what I want to say to the other person can get lost through translation," he said. "It's not as good as a 1:1 conversation, but a fantastic tool in my toolbox."

His most effective one-on-one communication tool is lip reading, which his colleagues say he is crazy good at.

"Lip reading is something that I have always done out of necessity and I will also add that it's not just a full-on focus of following how the lips move," he said. "You combine the movement of the lips with facial expression, body language and movement, which will tell you a lot about what the other person is conveying, and when combined you can follow along in a conversation. However, there is also a little bit of common sense involved here, as well. I may only catch 60-70 percent of what is spoken and have to use my logic to fill in the blanks for things to make sense. It isn't a perfect system, but usually gets me in the ballpark."

A 2005 graduate of Oregon State, Gordon first arrived in Corvallis on scholarship to the business school. After about a year he started second-guessing his career choice. While trying to find his way at Oregon State, Gordon, who grew up working on a nine-hole course and caddying for his father, eventually met Tom Cook and his longtime research assistant Brian McDonald. The rest, as they say, is history.

I would say I've never met anyone who cared for a golf course more than Ryan does, and that bleeds out to other people.

"I switched majors my sophomore year and got a job working for a research assistant to the dean of the horticulture department," Gordon wrote. "We worked on cherry tree research on the university research farm, which was a lot of data gathering and pruning and a lot of fun. My first summer working on the farm, I got to know Tom Cook and Brian McDonald, who also had their research area on the same farm and that's when it clicked for me."

Although he has used virtually every kind of assistive-listening device ever made, Gordon has become an excellent lip reader through the years. That is a handy skill in face-to-face interactions, but is of little use when the crew is scattered throughout the golf course. 

While climbing his way up through the industry, Gordon was fortunate to work for and with people who saw him for his agronomic skills and were willing to meet halfway to establish effective communication, including using assistive-listening devices.

"When I first arrived here at Snoqualmie Ridge as an assistant superintendent, my boss at the time, Rick Hathaway (now at Rock Creek Cattle Company) bought six T-Mobile Sidekicks to distribute among the staff, mechanic, spray tech, second assistant, himself and our foreman and paid for the monthly cell phone bill," Gordon said. "It was a fantastic gesture to make sure that I had the tools I needed to do my job to manage the crew and communicate effectively. I will always be appreciative to him not only for giving me the opportunity but also for thinking outside the box and stepping up to the plate so I could be successful.  

"Everyone I have worked for has always been willing to go the extra mile to make sure that I was always in the know."

Hochrine has worked at Snoqualmie Ridge for five years; the first two as director of golf and the past three as general manager. He didn't have much experience working with the deaf until working with Gordon. That didn't much matter, Hochrine said, because Gordon's abilities as a superintendent, agronomist and manager do the talking for him.

"He is a brilliant superintendent, not a deaf superintendent, although he realizes he has to communicate differently than everyone else does. But he doesn't know any different because he has done it his entire life," Hochrine said. "He is the best at running a crew I've seen.

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"At first I thought I might need to learn sign language. That's not the case, although he has taught me some. He is an inspiration. At first, I thought 'how does he get through a day. When you start working with him, you realize he is just like everyone else. He just goes about things differently than everyone else has to."

Since he relies on reading lips in one-on-one situations or in committee meetings, Gordon knows he has to command the room, so he can maintain a line of sight with anyone who speaks. If he has a meeting with an outside group, like city officials about water-related issues, he might ask Hochrine to attend so he doesn't miss anything, but he stands on his own as much as possible.

"There is a lot of trust between us," Hochrine said. 

"When he meets with vendors, he could easily pass that off to accounting, but he doesn't. I can't imagine how he does that."

Nothing has stopped him from doing anything any other superintendent does.

The challenges and work-arounds at Snoqualmie Ridge could define Gordon's career, but he doesn't allow that.

"Nothing has stopped him from doing anything any other superintendent does," said Vandecoevering. "He steps up in front of the crew and is a great leader. He doesn't give himself any excuses, and he doesn't think of being any different than anyone else."

While he was attending Oregon State, Vandecoevering had volunteered for the 2009 Boeing Classic when Hathaway was superintendent. Three years later, when Gordon was taking over as a new superintendent and was in need of an assistant, he reached out to Vandecoevering and offered him the position - contingent on completing work toward his degree.

"What sticks out about my time with Ryan, when I started he was 29 and I was 22. It was my first assistant job and his first job as superintendent. There was some bonding there," Vandecoevering said. "Other things besides his hearing were much more important. He is such a great superintendent, the fact that he is hearing impaired was pretty secondary."

Edited by John Reitman

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