I think there’s something like a 17-year rule that governs the career life cycle of superintendents. Maybe I’m off by a year or two; or perhaps I am exaggerating trends and tendencies that affect everyone in the trade. The point here is that it pays to watch out for the telltale signs of personal wear and tear so you can anticipate problems and enhance your work life in the process.
A paradigmatic career path has you landing a decent full-time job by your late 20s or early 30s. You settle down, let’s say get married, set up a home, have kids, look forward to your work and devote yourself to a solid career. My bet is that 17 years later, you’ll run into a few obstacles.
For one thing, the snot-nosed little twerp you ran off the course is now a member in good standing, paying his dues, playing golf with his regular buddies and still harboring resentments from the time you tossed him off the course. Your salary pits you at a point where you are making more money than half the members of your green committee bring home — or what the corporate folks from the management company earn.
By this point, you have paid down more on your mortgage and you can see the light in the tunnel of having retired that debt. Your kids are now in high school, which means the need to get them through college. And you also know, as you approach if not pass 50, that the likelihood of another full-time job is, well, very unlikely.
You are now well-established in your work routine. All those fancy plans for a major renovation and master planning have gone the way of budget constraints and limited imagination by a board convinced that the place is fine as is, even if they always want you to do more with less and can’t understand the limits of the infrastructure you’ve been dealt with. The prospects of a busy tee sheet in the pandemic era does not paper over the deeper fact of limited capital, especially because each year the money that was supposed to go to cap-X has been furtively used to bolster operations.
Welcome to the 17-year itch. It’s an industrywide phenomenon. And if you don’t look out and take proactive measures, it could catch you.
I’m a big believer in constructive restlessness. The key to keep from getting bored or frustrated in your work is to stay inquisitive and give yourself opportunities to learn. It might help you do your job better. Your employer and golfers might notice. Certainly your family and colleagues will. No matter what, you’ll feel like you are not falling into the kind of numbing routine that’s called a mid-life crisis or simply boredom.
Out on the golf course it helps to stay project-oriented. Successful superintendents stay ahead of expectations and don’t respond to do this or that request. If all you do is what you’re told to do, then you will start feeling like a tool and your employer will treat you as if you’re replaceable. The key is to become indispensable.
Being project-oriented helps. It means you are always working on something, no matter how small or incremental, and taking the initiative in making things better. I know of superintendents who keep 10- to 15-page lists of changes they’d like to implement and feel they can at least initiate as evidence of ongoing improvement. Some of it might be more efficiency in operations. Others might be aesthetics or simplicity of mowing patterns. But always having something you are working on gives you, the crew and the facility as a whole a sense of your own creativity.
Read. Widely. Intensely. It might be in areas of turfgrass or golf course architecture. It might be fiction or history. Do not let your brain turn to flubber.
Spend more time with young people whose ideas and interests push you. It’s easy in middle age — or worse yet, in one’s elder years — to be surrounded by people of the same age. A good place to start might be by learning from your assistants about the latest technology or social media outlet. It might be something as useful as drone photography or video editing. Spending time with younger people is a great way to keep you on your toes and in touch with new and up-and-coming developments so that you don’t get stale.
Finally, show your golfers and your immediate decision-makers that you are keen to share with them your knowledge and enthusiasm. The best way to do that is to take road trips with them. Visit other area courses that have undertaken major renovations. Arrange for out-of-town trips together so you get to play great courses. You’ll return from those trips with a newfound understanding of the game and your place in it.