How to make the course superintendent’s job easier

Golf Course Superintendent
The demands on golf course superintendents have been stressed by the on-going pandemic.

As the demands of the course superintendent's job increase, so do the pressures. The First Call’s Bradley Klein offers practical solutions to help ease the growing stress points

Sept. 14 is designated as Thank a Golf Course Superintendent Day in 2021. Unlike other "celebration" days that are quickly glazed over — including National Creamed Fill Donut Day — this is a day well worth taking the time to acknowledge.

In a year that has seen the job made harder than ever thanks to drought, fires, the ongoing pandemic, a labor shortage and supply chain back-ups, key personnel made the greenkeeper’s work more tolerable.

Here are seven ways the job can be made a little less difficult:

Sounds trite, but it’s not. Everyone, even a superintendent, needs something to get away to, if not a vacation during the mid-season’s 100 Days of Hell. For some, the diversion is fishing or hunting. For Bob Decker at Berkshire Hills Country Club in Pittsfield, Mass., it was a serious return to music and indulging in the purchase of a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar. “I needed an artistic outlet,” he said.

It always helps when the people a superintendent reports to have his / her back. That could include everything from member-run boards and club general managers to the management company or municipal enterprise fund that oversees day-to-day operations. Too often, superintendents find themselves in an organizational structure that they did not create and to which they have to adjust. But it’s possible to cultivate, or at least encourage, a good working relationship by taking key decision makers on a tour of the facility and showing them the issues rather than reporting them in a civilian setting in a sterile office.

Not every day is an occasion for tournament conditions. Schedule slack into the system for days or weeks when the green speeds are slower or the ground is not as tight and firm as it could be. That reduces stress on the turf and on the staff. Save the most intense conditions for the most competitive events. Rest, too, goes a long way. Even the Old Course at St. Andrews takes every Sunday off.

On a leading magazine’s list of top-100 courses, the maintenance budgets of the leading courses differ by a factor of 8 to 1. How can superintendents possibly maintain the same conditions or satisfy the demands (or fantasies) of their regular players when they are worlds apart in resources? Members, committees and course operators need to learn what things really cost. A rhetorical trick works well here for superintendents. Never say “no.” Just remind folks what it would cost to do X or Y and ask them if such funds could be made available

Superintendents can simplify their own jobs by using equipment and labor practices appropriate to their specific golf course — in terms of budgets, design character and soil type. At Wild Horse Golf Club in Gothenburg, Neb., a Sand Hills-style public-access layout that’s a darling of the architecture geeks, superintendent Josh Mahar, CGCS, maximizes efficiency with his small staff by using state-of-the art triplex greens mowers and seven-hang fairway units. It helps having sandy, non-compacted soil, 75 acres of short grass and bunkers surrounded by large, broad areas rather than being pinched in by the greens. That’s what’s known as site-specific maintenance.

The key to making the job easier resides in the quality of a staff: how much you trust them, how much they trust you, and how much you are able to cultivate a supportive work culture. At The Minikahda Club in Minneapolis, Jeff Johnson has a seasonal support staff whose longevity ranges from five to 20 years. Pay is part of keeping staff, as his board well knows thanks to Johnson’s persistence on behalf of his crew. But so is treating the staff with respect: making time for their personal and family needs, recognizing holidays, and adjusting work schedules to accommodate potential conflicts with other work they may have.

Superintendents should not be tied to set hours as long as the job is done. As one greenkeeper said, “If I stay until 5 p.m. instead of leaving at 3 p.m., the course won’t look any different.” A superintendent will look and feel different knowing there is a little more schedule flexibility for personal or family time. And the ability to leave includes the occasional weekend away, entrusting staff to take over. The more a staff is trained and empowered, the more likely they are to gain trust and deepen their own skill set.

The only people who believe being a golf superintendent is an easy job are the ones who have never done it. Industry veterans know better. Stress is part of the job. Finding modest ways to make the job a little less demanding will not only extend a career, but increase work satisfaction.