My 49-year journey through the golf course industry has been varied and interesting, to say the least. It all started at Utah State University, where in 1964 I earned a degree in agriculture in entomology. I later earned a master’s in agronomy at Michigan State. Along my journey, I earned a CGCS from GCSAA and have maintained that certification active for 40 years. I recently renewed it to the year 2022. I also earned a MG from BIGGA, a certification I have held for 22 years.
I have been involved in golf course maintenance, new course construction, old course reconstruction, renovation, hosting major tournaments, working in management companies, consulting, industry association work, and serving as a co-founder and principal of my own golf industry company.
I have spoken at a lot of turf conferences worldwide as well as taught agronomic seminars for GCSAA and private distributors across the United States. I taught agronomy for Idaho State University for a year and authored many articles for various magazines, including this one.
Along the way, the exposure to various opportunities and experiences during the last half-century has granted me a vast reservoir of both practical, professional and personal insights that stem from both my successes and failures.
Here are a few lessons that, looking back, I wish someone would have imparted on a very young and up-and-coming version of myself.
Lesson No. 1 Education is not everything
I was exposed to a good education. However, I was naïve to believe it was all I needed. The School of Hard Knocks taught me a lot, and that may have been a better education for this profession than what turfgrass school lectured me on.
Some things cannot be learned in a classroom. I wrote an article a few years ago, titled “10 Most Wanted,” which outlined the traits, skills and talents every superintendent should possess to reach the top. In it, I listed an agronomic education as my No. 1 attribute. And while it may still rank at the top of my list, it is not the only thing that is important.
Along my way, I have befriended many in the profession who had no formal education but were top-notch superintendents. In today’s modern world, there are many other ways to receive a quality education besides a formal turfgrass school. We now have vast deposits of information available via the internet to draw from to fill the knowledge voids. Many schools offering degrees in turfgrass also provide online classes that allow you to learn at home while you maintain a family and a job. Professional organizations, such as GCSAA and BIGGA, offer valuable seminars. Local associations and even some distributors also provide solid educational seminars. When I attend the many local, state and regional conferences and seminars across the countries I visit, I still observe education is the No. 1 reason most superintendents attend. What is the use of a good base education if you do not keep up with the new knowledge produced by rapidly growing and changing industry technology?
In addition to a solid educational background, the best way for a young superintendent to break into the business at a top club is finding a mentor. Looking back, I could have benefited from an internship and hands-on learning somewhere for a while. It may have saved me a lot of learning the hard way.
Lesson No. 2 It is not whether you can develop a budget, but if you can sell a budget to those who approve it.
Receiving budget approval may be the most important element for success in this profession. Unfortunately, this feat is not taught in a classroom.
Like most of us, my budgets were a one-page landscape arrangement with months across the top, one to two dozen items down the left margin and monthly totals down the right margin with a grand total at the bottom of that column. The problem is those who approve the budget normally have a preconceived cost in mind and zero in on that total, giving you a usually lower number to work from.
Unfortunately, today’s superintendents contend with a philosophy that generally states: “If you cannot give us what we want at the price we want, then we will find someone else who can.” The key is knowing what the club wants and getting it to buy into a budget. Most clubs want more than they are willing to pay for. They do not understand what it costs to achieve a level of agronomic perfection.
The key to developing a budget you can sell is a “Standards Policy,” or as it’s known in some parts of the world, “The Course Policy Documents.” Because most clubs are in a constant state of flux with members, employees and committees, it becomes your most important document. It is a forward-looking report that projects what the golfers and/or members want. It takes time to develop and should include input from committees as well as other professionals on the staff. Lastly, it needs to be approved by ownership.
“Receiving budget approval may be the most important element for success in this profession. Unfortunately, this feat is not taught in a classroom.” Gary Grigg
Once you have an approved standards document, then it is about developing a maintenance plan that outlines every program or step needed to achieve the level described in the standards document. Then, putting a price on what those programs are going to cost becomes your budget. It is all about information, and the more information you can put into the process, the better your chances for approval. It needs to be in a readable format and handed out to those who approve the budget well in advance to the approval process or meeting. Consider inviting those influential individuals to discuss the proposed budget prior to the meeting.
If the budget is deemed too high, then they need to show you potential changes to the standard and approve those changes. It is much harder for them to lower the standard they ask for than to cut programs.
It then becomes a three-stage process.
Stage 1: Where do you want to go? (course standards)
Stage 2: I can develop the programs to achieve that standard. (maintenance plan)
Stage 3: I will estimate the costs of those programs (budget)
I sure wish I knew that member/club budget buy-in was such a key issue before I did. Remember, it’s not “your budget,” it is “their budget.”
Lesson No. 3 Sharing your knowledge creates a win-win situation
Early in my career, I was a bit afraid to ask my peers questions. I feared I would look stupid. But as I grew into my career, I discovered I did not know nearly as much as I thought I did. I learned to share my knowledge of agronomy with those who had more knowledge and were willing to share that with me.
I soon learned it is not all about science. Some of those I befriended along the way had limited education in agronomy, but I desired to be as good as they were about other aspects of the position. There are no such things as dumb questions, so seek out those that you admire and ask away.
Lesson No. 4 Leadership is not being the boss
In my early days, I liked to give orders but soon discovered leadership is not giving orders. Leadership is about leading and it is about making your staff better at what they do no matter what their role is. It is about training and providing them with the confidence that they know what they are to do and want to provide better conditions. It is about teaching them to take pride in their role on the crew and communicating to them what it is you desire of them. To let them know I cared about how they felt, “What do you think?” became my standard reply to questions. Sometimes they knew more about it than I did.
Lesson No. 5 Work smarter, not longer
I was proud of hard work and working long hours early in my career. And while at times it is needed to get the job done, it is not a smart way to go about your job. I had a wife and four children at home. I truly admire those who learned along the way to balance their lives and those who realized their family is more important than their profession.
No success in this profession will compensate for failure at home. I learned that time away from the job with family, and, yes, even to do the things I enjoyed as a hobby, were also very important. The early days often feel like a never-ending learning curve. I put myself under relentless pressure to get my foot onto the next rung of the ladder. I beat myself up over every setback. You simply do not have to do that to be successful.
For those just starting out in your careers, I wish to save you some of the bruises I got along the way by sharing some of the blunders of my early career, and the invaluable lessons I learned from them. Knowing what I know now, I often reflect on the early days and wish I could rewind the clock.