What drew us to become golf course superintendents? For me, it was those quiet magical mornings caddying on “the ponderosa” which drew me into course maintenance. Then off to UMass/Stockbridge, and my first “greenkeeper” position, a 9-hole muni course. This was in the 1960’s.
We were blessed, being at the right place, at the right time. Golf was exploding and for anyone graduating from a turf school, that was your ticket.
The work was fulfilling. Working with nature, growing things. Problem solving. Working with people. Great colleagues in my local chapter, the MetGCSA. Trade shows. Every Spring hiring seasonal workers, and opportunities for mentoring and ministry.
The 80’s were when things began to go south, at least for the relaxed, carefree times of the superintendent career. The solid and steady "founding fathers” on the club boards were replaced with the new generation of “instant gratification” types for whom a little knowledge was dangerous. They wanted it and they wanted it then. As another veteran superintendent put it, "The sons are not the fathers."
Investments in infrastructure or equipment were supposed to alleviate all future ills. “We gave you the new irrigation system you wanted, so why do we have some brown spots on number 6?”
Member-Guest tournaments and multi-club membership invited comparisons with nearby clubs and courses.
The Augusta Syndrome.
Then along came the Stimpmeter.
With a few exceptions (like Arnold Palmer, whose dad was a superintendent), professional golfers didn’t help much. I remember hearing a disgruntled pro leaving a press tent quip: “There is no excuse for poor greens!”
There were voices of reason trying to educate golfers that we are dealing with nature, and as such there are limits to what humans can do. We had the fine agronomists in USGA Green Section, always trying to get some rational thinking into the minds of the green committees and club boards.
My good friend, the late Stanley Zontek, wrote an article for the Green Section Record using the baseball analogy; that superintendents cannot be expected to bat in the 300s all the time. Another USGA agronomist coined the phrase: “Slow greens are better than fast dirt.” A wise superintendent wrote an article decrying the stampede to perfect turf, entitled “Perfection is only marginally acceptable.”
Here is where we are today:
Golf play is down. We've all heard it: cost, time and difficulty. That is not going to change.
White collar recessions are hitting club memberships hard. Golf courses are being sold for housing.
The "country club lifestyle" doesn't jibe with Saturday morning soccer and other obligations of harried parents.
As club revenues decline, superintendents are expected to more with less.
Longer hours translate to burnout and less family time. Our families often become another casualty.
The few superintendent positions that do open up get a ton of applicants.
Poor club leadership due to the revolving doors in the boardrooms.
Club GMs only ready and willing to sacrifice a superintendent to appease the grill/locker room crowds looking for blood.
Little, if any, job security.
So where do we go from here? Let’s start with three facts and principles in our new Paradigm:
We need to adapt to the rapid pace of change.
Superintendents are some of the most talented, innovative, skilled, creative, motivated and dedicated individuals in any industry. With few exceptions, we do not receive the acknowledgement we rightly deserve at the courses and clubs we serve.
We need to continually brainstorm new possibilities and Plan Bs for our individual futures. Not just thinking “outside the box”, forgetting about the box!
Years ago, while chatting on the course one day with a CEO member, the subject of change came up. I recited the cliché: “You have to keep up with change,” to which he calmly replied: “No Pat, you have to already be there waiting for it when it comes.” To me, that statement sums up the new lens we must look through to see accurately where we are today, to remain financially solvent and to improve the quality of life for ourselves and our families.
Below are some thoughts and ideas from someone who had been through the mill, using the old principle of “finding a need and filling it.”
TRANSITION TO A SIMILAR BUSINESS REQUIRING OUR SKILL SETS
Parks & Recreation, sports turf, schools, corporate campuses, airports, theme parks, estates, athletic stadiums, condominiums developments, just to name a few. Often better benefits outweigh a reduced salary. I know of a superintendent who took a college groundskeeper position and got tuition breaks for his kids.
START YOUR OWN BUSINESS
Take inventory of yourself. We have skills like arboriculture, horticulture, excavation, carpentry, plumbing, site development, running greenhouses, masonry, drainage, IT, equipment maintenance, second languages, coaching, public speaking, writing... Begin investing some time and energy into your own R&D account, laying the groundwork for your own venture, while still gainfully employed and not burned out.
I once had a green chairman who wanted my head on his den wall and was actively lobbying to make that happen. With a wife and five boys, living in club-provided housing, and with no savings, I was sick to my stomach. It was the same old story of giving 150% to the job and putting 0% into my own R&D account. Through the grace of God, I was able to get financing to buy some equipment and begin a contract deep aerification business on the side. My sons ran the business, which gave them invaluable skills and helped put them through school. The “Outlier Phenomenon” (see Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success) was in place again, with deep aerification services just beginning to take off.
GET MORE SPECIALIZED EDUCATION
Have an Associates degree? Get a Bachelor’s. Have a Bachelors? Get an MBA. Take public speaking and human relations courses like Dale Carnegie, Toastmasters, etc. Advanced computer courses. Specialized training in any area you are interested it.
MOVE UP THE CLUB LADDER
In my opinion, out of the three club professionals, superintendents are the most capable of running a club. We understand how things work. Most of the skills of the club pro end with hitting a golf ball. Most of the GMs I’ve met are mostly show, with a gift of gab and able to sell a bill of goods. This is not virgin territory; other superintendents have done it, so can you if you really want to.
Obviously, these thoughts don't offer any conclusion, just a tipping off point for further thought and discussion. Everyone has stories and experiences to share, and TurfNet has always led the way in that regard. Encourage and challenge each other to continually improve not only our craft as superintendents but our lives and futures off the golf course.
Pat Lucas is a 50-year career superintendent and a charter TurfNet member. He lives in Danbury, Connecticut.