Justin Sims, left, is one of two former co-workers who have mentored superintendent Brent Downs.
© justin sims

It’s 2018 in San Antonio and I am walking through the hallway into the GCSAA Conference. I see Matt Weitz and Justin Sims talking with each other. Officially, they are the director of agronomy at the Vaquero Club in Dallas and the director of grounds and facilities at the Alotian Club in Roland, Arkansas. But for me, their title is more simple and much more important.

My Mentors.

I cut a hard left and beeline my way to say hello.

“All the supers in this joint and the best two I could find to learn from are you two geniuses?” I ask in jest.

“I’m sorry,” Justin deadpans. “Do I know you?”

“Hey, Downs,” Matt says. “Good to see you finally finished that greens route I assigned you at Victoria. Only took you a shade under five years ...”

Shade. Some things never change.

In my opinion, they are the best in the business. That is incredibly biased, but to me, you’ll never find two better talents. Each one serves a little bit of a different role for me as a mentor and I wanted to use this article to not only explain what they taught me but explain how a person like me can get value out of having mentors and also the responsibility they carry as the one being mentored.

Humble(d) Beginnings

Use the word mentor and you may picture somebody who is much older, wiser and more experienced. Though you might be fooled by the George Clooney gray he has on top, Justin is a year younger than I am.

I worked under Justin at a golf club in 2008-09. Justin is one of the best crew managers and motivators I have ever worked for. He is calm, cool and collected. The more stressful it gets, the more he becomes the steady hand at the ship’s helm. I have always tried to emulate that style as the summer stress picks up because I think crews tend to feed off that calm, steadying force.

The second thing I take away from my time with Justin is that to be a great people manager and leader you must recognize that people are individuals. You may all adhere to the same rules and they apply to everybody, but the management techniques you use are suited to the individual personality. Justin takes the time to get to know the people he works with and will apply different techniques based on the individual. He is willing to adapt his style to each person to get the most out of that person. That takes a very progressive thinking manager.

I worked for Matt in 2011-12 at a southern Indiana golf club. Matt prepares you to face the daily rigors of being a superintendent. Matt is an incredibly detail-oriented, results-driven and demanding superintendent who pushes you to be your best every day. My time with Matt toughened me up significantly to the rigors of the golf course business and I am unbelievably thankful to him for that. It is a tough business dealing with general managers and boards and other demanding folks, and Matt prepared me for that by breaking me down and being tough on me. There were times I didn’t enjoy it in the process, but I would not be where I am now without that guidance and understanding about how to find medium ground and places of mutual respect.

Matt is one of those leaders who makes you earn it every single day. You cannot rest on your laurels. You always must strive to be better than you were before. Golfers in this business are the same way. Previous good seasons do not matter. All that matters is what you are for that golfer that day and working for Matt prepares you for that. He is also one of the best Transition Zone agronomists in the country, and he prepared me for the challenges the tough growing environment presents.

Matt Weitz, right, demonstrates managerial qualities that have left an indelible impression on Brent Downs.
© Kenneth May Photography courtesy of Matt Weitz

The Turn

So now I have used a lot of column space to tell you the story of how I learned from two people. What does that have to do with mentoring? I learned three valuable rules in how to choose a mentor and they may be useful for you if you do not currently have one.

1. Don’t force it. Let the mentor relationship come together organically. You will work for several people in your career. Do not automatically go in with the idea that you may or may not learn more from a certain individual based on their reputation or lack thereof. You may be surprised who ends up being the biggest influence in your career. Try to eliminate any predisposed notions of who you want to learn from because you may be surprised who you end up really fitting well with.

2. Diversify! I have two mentors, and if somebody ever came along who provided another influence, I would have no problem adding a third. It does not have to be a closed group. There might be some people you draw from more than others, but I would highly recommend you have multiple influences in your career. That way, you get multiple sources of info and multiple ways of looking at things. Matt and Justin are different people with different ways of thinking, and I think that is outstanding. It promotes critical thinking and perspective. That matters in this business. Just because one solution works in one situation does not mean it will work in another. Much like your investments, diversify your sources of information. You may be amazed how many different things you can take away from that.

3. Develop your own style. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but you still must be your own person. I like to think that I have taken various parts of both their styles in leadership and agronomics and incorporated them into my program, but I am still true to what I believe. I take the input that I get from them and decide where it is best suited. Some things fit and some do not. You are looking to your mentors for information and guidance. How you choose to use that is up to you. That style or information might have worked for them at the place they were, but you must learn what works for you. Be you. Be genuine and be authentic and let the chips fall where they may.

You have a responsibility too ...

As the person being mentored, you may think that you get all the benefits and none of the responsibilities. I am here to tell you that is not true — and while there are some who may disagree with my viewpoint on this, it is a powerful motivator for me.

As this relationship develops, your mentors will inevitably begin to take an interest in where your career goes and what you accomplish after you have moved on. In my case, both Matt and Justin have been instrumental in what I have gone on to accomplish long after I no longer worked for either one of them. They have provided insight and advice from their experiences, and they have been my lead references for every job I have applied for since. They have put their own names and reputations on the lines in representing me. And for me, that comes with a responsibility that I welcome. If I do not do my job to the best of my ability, I feel that I not only let myself down, but I also let Matt and Justin down. You should take a lot of pride in representing those who helped get you on the career track you are currently on.

The Story Comes Full Circle

During this past COVID-19 summer, I made a road trip out West (while using every safety precaution, of course) to visit Matt and Justin. I spent a lot of it thinking about the stories from days gone by with both of them and how things had evolved. I think the best mentor relationships evolve into more of a mutual respect, then peers and, in my case, friends. I am reminded of a quote from the late, great Steve Wright, CGCS, when he told a prior assistant who asked him for a reference, “I hope, these days, you think of me less as a mentor and more as a friend.”

As I met with both of them and we talked about various things we deal with, it dawned on me that things really had come full circle. They are still the people I go to for advice, but the conversations have changed into an exchange of ideas, old stories, jokes and a very mutual respect. That trip was fulfilling to see how those relationships have evolved.

So finally, to Matt and Justin, I would like to say, “Thank you.” Thank you for what you have taught me and will continue to teach me, and thank you for being a huge influence in my career. I could not have made it to where I’ve gotten — and where I will end up — without either one of you and I am thankful for that. In my opinion, there are not two better people I could have asked to help me with my journey.

Nobody does it better.

Brent Downs is the director of agronomy at Otter Creek Golf Course, a 27-hole facility in Columbus, Indiana. This is his second Golf Course Industry contribution. Follow him @OtterCreekGCM on Twitter.